Many within the grassroots movement were encouraged to learn that the Attorneys General in at least 14 states have joined in a lawsuit against the federal government challenging the constitutionality of the health insurance reform legislation Congress recently passed and President Obama signed into law. I will publish an article explaining the arguments the states plan to make in that lawsuit as soon as I can obtain and review a copy of the complaint they filed with the court. Until then, it occurred to me that people may have questions about the process involved. I’ve tried to anticipate those questions and answer them in this article. After reading it, if any further questions occur to you, forward them to me, and I will do my best to answer them.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have a law degree and worked as an attorney for a number of years before family responsibilities necessitated that I withdraw from my law firm and devote time to raising my two boys. The law firm I was affiliated with specialized in representing clients in civil cases, as opposed to criminal matters. I represented clients in both state and federal courts and at trial and appellate levels. In addition, after graduating from law school, I was a staff attorney at the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. As a result of my education and experience, I have an understanding of the legal system and trial and appellate procedure which enables me to offer some insight concerning the questions I’ve addressed below.
Q1: Why file suit in a federal court as opposed to a state court?
A: The short answer is that, under Article III of the Constitution and federal statutes creating the judiciary, federal courts have jurisdiction over the case because it involves a federal question. Jurisdiction is the power and authority given to a court to decide particular types of cases. A federal question is any issue that is necessary for a court to resolve in process of deciding a case that ” involves the United States government, the United States Constitution or federal laws, or controversies between states or between the United States and foreign governments.” For more information about the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary click here.
Q2: How is the federal court system organized?
A: Article III, Section 1, of the Constitution created the U.S. Supreme Court and “such other inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The inferior courts in the federal system are, consequently, creatures of statute. There are two levels of these “inferior” courts, the federal district courts, and the federal circuit courts of appeal.
The federal district courts are the trial courts in the federal system. There are currently 94 federal district courts. Generally, each state has been divided up into one or more federal court districts. Nebraska, not being a very populous state, has only one federal district court for the entire state. Florida, being more populous, has three: the Northern District, the Middle District, and the Southern District.
The next highest level, the federal circuit courts of appeal, hear appeals in cases decided by the federal district courts contained within the geographic boundaries of their respective circuits. There are currently 12 circuit courts of appeal. The three federal district courts for the State of Florida are included within the boundaries of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
For more information about the organization of the federal court system, go here.
Q3: Why did the states’ Attorneys General file the health reform challenge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida instead of in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, for instance?
A: Clearly, the case could have been filed in any one of the federal district courts located in any of the states joining in the suit. Only those states’ Attorneys General can say for sure why the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida was chosen, but I assume what is known in the legal profession as “forum shopping” occurred to some degree. Forum shopping is an attempt by the persons filing a lawsuit (i.e., the plaintiffs) to choose the court that will treat their claims most favorably. Regardless of attempts to standardize the rules of evidence and procedure applied in the federal courts, there are differences that can prove significant in certain cases. In addition, the Florida court may have been selected based on considerations of cost allocations between the plaintiffs. Perhaps the Florida Attorney General will take the laboring oar in preparing the case and actually arguing it before the court. If so, it makes practical sense to file in the court closest to him with which he is most familiar.
Q4: What’s the trial likely to be like in the Florida federal district court?
A: This is a civil case, as opposed to a criminal one. For a good summary of the steps that occur in preparing a civil case for trial and actually trying it before a federal judge click here.
Q5: How long is it going to take to have a trial?
A: That’s a very difficult question to answer. The time between when a case is filed and when it is heard varies from court to court. Much depends upon how busy the court is — how many other cases are currently on its docket, which is another word for the court’s schedule or agenda. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for the time between filing and trial of a civil case to be a year or more. This is true, in part, because criminal defendants are Constitutionally insured of the right to a speedy trial. Consequently, criminal trials receive scheduling priority even ahead of civil cases filed previously. In addition, parties to a lawsuit occasionally engage in delaying tactics as a strategic matter. For example, the United States’ attorney in this case may consider it to the federal government’s advantage to stall the proceedings for political reasons. If so, that could extend the time necessary to prepare the case and get it to trial.
Q6: What happens if the trial court rules against the states’ Attorneys General?
A: Regardless of who wins at the trial court level, the other party will surely appeal the decision. There is a right of appeal from the decision of the trial court to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. This federal appellate court hears cases that originate in the federal courts of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
Q7: What happens at the federal appellate court level?
A: A good summary of what will happen when the case reaches the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals can be found here.
Q8: How long is that going to take?
A: Again, that’s hard to tell. It doesn’t bode well for a speedy resolution on appeal, however, that the homepage at the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals contains the following statement: “In terms of cases filed and terminated by three-judge panels, the court is the busiest federal appellate court in the United States with its twelve authorized judgeships.” Figure months, if not years, until the appeal is heard and decided by the circuit court.
Q9: How will the case eventually get to the U.S. Supreme Court for a definitive verdict?
A: After the Eleventh Circuit’s decision is announced, any party dissatisfied by the result may request review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Here’s a summary of the process found at the uscourts.gov website:
“A litigant who loses in a federal court of appeals, or in the highest court of a state, may file a petition for a “writ of certiorari,” which is a document asking the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court, however, does not have to grant review. The Court typically will agree to hear a case only when it involves an unusually important legal principle, or when two or more federal appellate courts have interpreted a law differently. There are also a small number of special circumstances in which the Supreme Court is required by law to hear an appeal. When the Supreme Court hears a case, the parties are required to file written briefs and the Court may hear oral argument.”
This is a case which “involves an unusually important legal principle,” so U.S. Supreme Court review is likely, but not a complete certainty. The Court receives over 8,000 requests for certiorari per year and agrees to hear an average of only 80 of those cases. The Court will make its determination whether or not to hear the case based on the issues that are developed during trial and appeal in the lower courts, so much depends upon how the case is tried and argued in the lower courts.
Q10: Once the Court decides to hear an appeal, how long does it take for the appeal to be heard and a decision to be announced?
A: Again, that’s difficult to say. Many factors influence the amount of time necessary to get a final determination by the Court. To get an estimate of the time that might elapse during this entire process, from trial to the U.S. Supreme Court, I took a look at a case that was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in October of 2009. That case originated in a federal district court in Alabama in October of 2005. The decision of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals is dated July, 2007. So, it took 21 months from trial to circuit court appeal and 27 months from circuit court to the U.S. Supreme Court, for a total of 48 months — 4 years from start to finish — and it was a criminal case (see above re: trial court scheduling in Question 8).