The public is poorly informed about the national health care law, which passed more than a year ago. And citizens know even less about the judiciary process that will eventually settle the law’s constitutionality. Why? One reason is that suits brought against the law in federal trial courts have produced contradictory results. One judge upheld the disputed provision in the law that requires everyone to buy health insurance. Two other judges ruled it unconstitutional. Another reason the public knows little about health care and its path through the courts is comatose news coverage. It better improve, especially on television, because the fight over the health care law has many rounds to go.
The existing trial court rulings, and perhaps others to come, will be appealed to higher courts by supporters or opponents of the law, depending on who loses a given trial. A group of 20 or so Republican state attorneys general are leading the attack while the Obama administration is putting on the defense.
Sometime in the next few years, the Supreme Court will receive the case and make the final decision. By then, many of the key components of the law should be in effect, barring an unexpected stay by an appellate judge. They include rules to prevent insurance companies from denying medical coverage because of pre-existing conditions and upgrades to Medicare that would save that program by cutting costs. If the Supreme Court rules all or parts of the law unconstitutional, these largely popular health care improvements may have to be scrapped.
The latest news about the judicial battle is thus important, though not earth shaking. The conservative attorney general of Virginia asked the Supreme Court to immediately consider the constitutionality of the law instead of allowing it to pass through levels of appellate review. Monday the court turned him down. The attorney general’s motivations were ostensibly to get the health care issue to the high court as quickly as possible to save the confusion and cost of further appeals. But, clearly, an unstated goal was to get a decision before the law is fully established, thus avoiding circumstances that might inspire cautionary thoughts among the justices.
A secondary piece of news that came out of this latest action was the participation in the decision by the newest justice, Elena Kagan. Justice Kagan might have recused herself because she was Solicitor General in the Obama administration when the health care law was under consideration. But she did not. Now it’s clear that Justice Kagan will take part in a final ruling, leaving the possibility of a favorable majority composed of four liberal justices and one moderate conservative.
As for the media: If you watched only the major network evening news programs on Monday, you would have learned nothing of the above. Millions of people still view these programs every night and many of them have vital personal interest in the fate of the health care initiative. Nevertheless, the top-rated show, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, said nothing about the latest development. But let’s be fair. A network news show has only 22 minutes for editorial content and Nightly News had so much to cover Monday night. There was, of course, the royal wedding, which required at least 3 minutes of coverage. Then there was the 2-minute story about the cuddly and adorable puppies whose live video has received 25 million hits on YouTube.