Federal Courts and Nominations

A Small Ruling That Says A Lot

Sometimes decisions that seem small say a lot. Today, in U.S. House of Representatives v. Burwell (the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act that is currently working its way through the courts), D.C. District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that she would not even consider the argument offered by House Democratic leadership in a “friend of the court” brief filed last week that the House of Representatives has no standing to sue here. Judge Collyer’s ruling is plainly wrong, as is her prior ruling that the House has standing. With that decision, she wrongly allowed House Republicans to bring yet another political attack on the ACA in the courts.


Back in September, Judge Collyer made news when she ruled that the House of Representatives had standing to sue the Administration for making payments that are both mandated by the Affordable Care Act and critical to its effective operation. This decision was stunning because, as Walter Dellinger noted before the court ruled, allowing disputes like this one into court “would constitute the single most radical expansion of the authority of federal judges in more than 200 years.”  A month later, Judge Collyer again surprised those watching the case when she refused to allow the D.C. Circuit to consider the issue immediately, even though (as she noted) there is “substantial ground for disagreement” with her decision.


Now Judge Collyer has ruled that she won’t even consider the views of members of Congress who believe that standing is inappropriate in this case. According to the Judge, that issue “was resolved more than three months ago,” and so the members of Congress “are too late to offer their views.”  This is plainly wrong as a matter of both law and logic. Standing is an issue that can be raised at any stage of court proceedings, and when the Administration filed a motion for summary judgment earlier this month, it renewed its standing argument and moved for summary judgment on that ground. Thus, it was entirely proper for the members of Congress to address that argument in their brief.


Judge Collyer’s decision to exclude those arguments from the record is unfortunate because those arguments make clear how unprecedented her decision to allow this suit to proceed was, and how unnecessary standing in this case is to protect the interests of members of Congress. As the members explained in their brief, legislators’ allegations like the ones at issue here (namely, that a member of the executive branch has not complied with a statutory requirement) have never been held sufficient to confer standing to sue. Were it otherwise, the courts could become embroiled in countless disputes that are better resolved through political processes. Indeed, as the congressional amici know well from their long service in the House of Representatives, Congress has numerous other tools at its disposal to resolve routine disputes such as the one at issue in this case.


Even though Judge Collyer is clearly committed to her standing decision, the Administration should still win on the merits. As the members’ brief also explains, the Administration’s actions are entirely lawful and consistent with the way everyone understood the law to operate at the time it was enacted. But if Judge Collyer doesn’t rule correctly on the merits, it’s good to know that all of the members’ arguments – both on standing and on the merits – will surely be heard and given full consideration by the judges on the court of appeals.

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