Could 'Standing to Sue' Allow Us All to Calm Down About Health Care?

Don't expect gloating from either side over the latest ruling in the health care saga, announced over the weekend. In Bryant v. Holder, District Judge Keith Starrett of the Southern District of Mississippi ruled that the plaintiffs in Bryant v. Holder lack "standing to sue."


The opinion suggests that they may be able to cure the problem by rewriting their complaint. But it's worth taking look at the question of "standing." The Supreme Court could certainly use it to avoid making a decision on any of the pending lawsuits. Such a decision would not mean that the act would never face a constitutional test; it would merely delay it until there has been time for the heat its passage generated—the arrant nonsense about death panelists leering at Granny's bedside and Federal Broccoli Investigators raiding picnics—to recede.

Standing is the kind of angels-on-a-pin abstraction that not even constitutional lawyers can love. The idea arises from the fact that federal courts are courts of "limited jurisdiction." Article III of the Constitution extends their power to "cases and controversies," and provides a list of applicable cases, most either involving federal law or pitting plaintiffs in one state against defendants in another, or in another country.

In my hometown, it was said that a prominent lawyer in town was disturbed at his desk one day by a phone call from a neighbor. "Your house is on fire," the neighbor said. "Well, is it bothering you?" said the lawyer, and hung up. Just so, to have a "case or controversy," a plaintiff has to be bothered in some real way. Every citizen has beefs against the neighbors or the government; in order to have a case or controversy, a plaintiff must show the court a real injury. That injury must be imminent and not hypothetical; the defendant must be the cause of the injury; and the court must have practical means of redressing it. Otherwise, no "case or controversy."

Virginia's alleged injury is that its legislature outlawed individual insurance mandates. I find this statute indistinguishable from a law saying, "federal law shall not apply to residents of this state." Article VI, § 2 of the Constitution—the Supremacy Clause—invalidates the state law; claiming that injures the state is like claiming that the Brevard County Manatees are injured because Bud Selig won't let them play in the World Series. (Of course, there are some people out there who believe that the states can "nullify" federal law, but in fact this doctrine died on Cemetery Ridge.)

Judge Henry Hudson's opinion found standing because "the Commonwealth is exercising a core sovereign power because the effect of the federal enactment is to require Virginia to yield under the Supremacy Clause." I've read his opinion multiple times, and his reasoning still mystifies me. In the Florida case, Judge Vinson found that the state has standing because it is a "large employer."

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.

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