Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Overreaching by the Pennsylvania AG

The Attorney General of Pennsylvania, Thomas Corbett, is now running for governor, and it will be interesting to see what will happen to Pennsylvania's role in the lawsuit Corbett joined in seeking to have the new health care reform law ("The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act," H.R. 3590, P.L. 111-148) declared unconstitutional. Corbett was able to join in the lawsuit even though the governor of Pennsylvania, Edward Rendell, is a Democrat who actively supported passage of the health care bill, because the AG of Pennsylvania is an elected office that is largely independent of the governor. So, somewhat ironically, Corbett will be unable to continue to support the lawsuit if he is elected governor, because the next AG will be able to decide whether to proceed.

And Corbett never should have joined in the lawsuit, because it was outside of his powers as AG. If the lawsuit were just challenging the parts of the act that affect state government operations and revenues (mainly the provisions expanding Medicaid, which is a program created by federal law but only partially funded by the federal government), it would have been within his powers to represent the interests of the state, but the lawsuit also challenges the provisions requiring individuals to purchase health insurance (the "individual mandate"), and that is not within the powers of the AG.

The complaint that was filed says that the Attorneys General who are the plaintiffs seek "to protect the individual freedom, public health, and welfare of their citizens and residents" and specifically asks the court to order the federal government not to enforce the act against both the states represented by the AGs and the citizens and residents of those states.

But who gave the Attorney General of Pennsylvania the right to "protect" the individual interests of citizens and the right to represent their individual interests in court? And what if I (or other citizens) don't want the AG representing me in this lawsuit?

There is an allegation in the complaint that the Florida AG has "broad statutory and common law authority to protect the rights of the State of Florida and its people." There is no similar allegation regarding the powers of the Pennsylvania AG, and I don't believe that AG Corbett has the legal power to represent the people of Pennsylvania (i.e., the individual citizens of Pennsylvania separate from the government of Pennsylvania) in this lawsuit.

Section 4.1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution creates the office of Attorney General and declares that the AG " the chief law officer of the Commonwealth and shall exercise such powers and perform such duties as may be imposed by law." The law that seems most relevant is section 204 of the Commonwealth Attorneys Act, Act of October 15, 1980, P.L. 950, 71 P.S. §732-204, which states in subsection (c) that the AG shall represent "the Commonwealth and all Commonwealth agencies" in civil litigation. There is also the power to represent the Commonwealth and its citizens in federal antitrust litigation, but there is no general power to represent the citizens of Pennsylvania in any other kind of civil litigation. (On the inability of the AG to represent private parties, or enter into settlements affecting the rights of private parties, see Commonwealth v. Philip Morris, Inc., 40 Pa.D.& C. 225 (1999).)

It is possible that AG Corbett thinks that the statutory power to "intervene in any other action, including those involving ... the constitutionality of any statute" (71 P.S. §732-204(c)) allows him to join in this lawsuit but, unless the context clearly indicates otherwise, the word "statute" is defined to mean the statutes enacted by the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. 1 Pa.C.S. §1991. (And the context here does not clearly indicate a broader meaning of "statute." Quite the opposite, in fact, because it makes sense to give the AG the duty and power to defend state statutes against challenges to constitutionality, but it makes no sense to give the Pennsylvania AG the general power to challenge the constitutionality of federal statutes.)

The attempt by AG Corbett to challenge the constitutionality of the provisions of federal law which affect individual citizens of Pennsylvania but not the government of Pennsylvania is therefore outside of his power (what lawyers sometimes call "ultra vires") and the courts should deny him any standing to make those challenges.

But that might become moot if the next AG decides to withdraw from the suit.