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Obama administration asks judge to dismiss Virginia suit against health-care law

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; A03

RICHMOND -- The Obama administration asked a federal judge Monday to dismiss Virginia's challenge of the health-care overhaul law, arguing that the state has no standing to sue over the law and that Congress's power to regulate interstate trade makes the measure constitutional.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) filed suit against the act moments after President Obama signed it into law in March. His suit is separate from a broader effort filed in Florida that includes 20 states.

Cuccinelli argued that Virginia was uniquely positioned to challenge the measure because of a law, adopted by the General Assembly this year, stating that individuals could not be forced to buy health insurance in Virginia.

But in a 39-page brief filed late Monday in U.S. District Court, attorneys acting on behalf of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius wrote that Virginia's law was an attempt to nullify the federal statute and did not create the legal conflict necessary to enable the state to sue.

"If states could manufacture standing in the way Virginia attempts to do here, every policy dispute lost in the legislative arena could be transformed into an issue for decision by the courts," they wrote.

Federal attorneys argued that individuals, not the state, are affected by the requirement to buy health insurance, meaning that the state has no standing to sue over the issue. Further, they wrote that the mandate causes no injury to the state and will not take effect until 2014, making the legal challenge not yet timely.

In a statement, Cuccinelli conceded that federal laws generally trump state laws, but he said the conflict between the federal law and Virginia's statute gave him a "duty" to file suit.

The contours of the federal argument in defense of the health-care law have long been clear. But Monday's motion represented the first opportunity for the Obama administration to submit those arguments to a judge. It came before similar motions in the Florida lawsuit because Cuccinelli filed his suit in the Eastern District of Virginia, known as the "rocket docket" -- where attorneys face short timelines from judges to file legal motions.

Virginia has until June 7 to file a response.

In their filing for Virginia v. Sebelius, federal attorneys argue that various constitutional provisions give Congress power to regulate the health-care industry. People who choose not to buy health insurance, they say, affect interstate commerce when they become ill or injured and the costs of their care are passed on to others and cause insurance premiums to rise.

"Congress understood that virtually everyone at some point will need medical services, which cost money," they wrote. "The [law] merely regulates economic decisions on how to pay for those services -- whether to pay in advance through insurance or attempt to do so later out of pocket -- decisions that substantially affect the vast, interstate health care market."

Cuccinelli maintained in his statement that a person who chooses not to buy health insurance is not engaged in commerce.

"If Congress has the power to force Americans to buy health insurance, then there's nothing to stop Congress from forcing us to buy any product," he said.

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