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Federal Court Rejects Two Challenges To Health Law

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In a win for the administration, a federal appeals court in Virginia tossed two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the sweeping law overhauling the health care system.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed cases brought by Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli and Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

So, it's a victory, yes, but the judges didn't get down to the nub of the matter: Is the law's requirement that people get health coverage or pay a penalty constitutional? Ultimately, the Supreme Court is going to have sort that out.

Nevertheless, the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, is the second of three federal appeals courts to turn back challenges to the law. The 6th Circuit in Cincinnati ruled in favor of the law in June. A panel of the 11th Circuit in Atlanta heard the appeal of a lower court ruling against the constitutionality of the mandate and largely agreed with it, dealing a blow to the administration.

Virginia Attorney General Cuccinelli had argued that the insurance mandate violated a state law prohibiting such a requirement on Virginians. The 4th Circuit panel didn't buy it, writing, in part, "the mere existence of a state law like [Virginia's] does not license a state to mount a judicial challenge to any federal statute with which the state law assertedly conflicts." (Read the full decision here.) The three judges unanimously ruled against Virginia.

In the case brought by Liberty University, the two of three judges on the panel agree that the penalty for those who don't have health insurance constitutes a tax. That means lawsuits filed in advance of its collection are barred by a separate federal law. They're the first judges at any level to accept that argument, which the Obama administration has been making from the start.

"We have three different courts of appeals issuing three different ruling on three different bases," says Randy Barnett, a law professor at Georgetown and attorney for the National Federation of Independent Business, which opposes the law. "One of which held the statute was unconstitutional, one of which held that it was constitutional, and one of which held that the federal court lacks jurisdiction to figure out whether it's constitutional or not. If that doesn't cry out for Supreme Court resolution, I don't know what does," he tells NPR's Julie Rovner.

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