Yesterday a federal judge in Virginia released an opinion permitting the lawsuit by the State of Virginia, challenging the mandate provisions of Obamacare, to move forward. In legal parlance, the judge denied a motion to dismiss.
Pro-administration commentators have bent over backwards to portray this opinion as a minor procedural loss for the Obama administration in what will be a lengthy trial court process. These commentators are understating the importance of this opinion in favor of political spin.
On a motion to dismiss, a judge does not try the facts, and indeed is required to accept the plaintiff’s factual allegations as true. At that stage, the judge considers only whether the facts together with the legal allegations, state a legally-cognizable cause of action. The judge here found that Virginia had stated causes of action which, if granted, would invalidate the mandate provisions.
The significance of the opinion comes from the fact that a lawsuit challenging a statute is not like a lawsuit arising out of a car accident or some other contested set of facts. In most cases, you need depositions and extensive document exchanges in order to understand what happened, and live trial testimony so that jurors or the court could judge the credibility of witnesses.
Here, there really are few if any contested facts. The legislation says what it says. To the extent congressional intent is relevant, the legislation purports to express that intent and the congressional and public records are what they are.
This is a case which should very easily move to the judgment phase under a procedure called “summary judgment.” Under a summary judgment procedure, the court can rule on the merits of the case based upon the uncontested facts and the law.
A case like this would seem ripe for a summary judgment procedure. The material facts — the text of the legislation and the congressional record — are not contested, although the parties may see the same evidence in different ways. The law is what it is; the judge is going to have to reach conclusions on legal issues as to which he already has opined.
There is no reason that this case could not be set on a relatively short schedule at which point the judge could rule on the merits and enter a final judgment accordingly.
If the Obama administration is a confident as its press release reflects, it should welcome a prompt resolution on the merits.
Update: A hearing on the merits has been set for October 18.