Attorneys general resisting healthcare lawsuit

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Published: March 31,2010

Tags: attorneys general, healthcare, healthcare reform

PHOENIX — Republican governors in two western states want to join in legal challenges to recent federal health care legislation, but each is meeting stiff resistance from the same obstacle: an attorney general from the rival party.

Amid campaign-year jockeying, high-profile health-care disputes have erupted between the states’ top elected officials in both Arizona and Nevada.

In Nevada, Democratic Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto rebuffed demands Tuesday from Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons that she join 14 of her colleagues in suing the federal government over health reform.

Masto said the suit would be unlikely to succeed, while Gibbons said he was “exploring his options” to pursue a lawsuit on his own.

Both Gibbons and Masto are up for re-election.

“I am disappointed the attorney general has refused to fight for the rights of Nevada citizens,” Gibbons said. “But I swore an oath to protect Nevada citizens and that is exactly what I intend to do.”

In Arizona, Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat, also is declining to sue on his state’s behalf. The move angered Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who asked the GOP-controlled Legislature for authority to go around Goddard and file suit. On Tuesday, Arizona House and Senate committees approved Brewer’s request, sending the measures to final votes in both chambers.

Goddard is running for governor, while Brewer is facing a Republican primary challenge from the right, and the issue has emerged as an early battle in the campaign for governor.

“I think the attorney general is derelict in his duties and responsibilities to the citizens of this state,” said Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce of Mesa.

Goddard has called Brewer’s actions a “shameful stunt to score political points.”

Elsewhere, battles have emerged among top state leaders, with distinct political overtones:

— In Colorado, Washington and Wisconsin, Republican attorneys general have sued or tried to sue despite opposition from Democratic governors.

— In Kansas and Kentucky, Republicans lawmakers have demanded that their states sue; the Republican lieutenant governor in Missouri has made a similar request.

— In Georgia, the Democratic attorney general is facing an impeachment resolution after he refused the Republican governor’s request to sue. Democratic lawyers in Minnesota and Mississippi hadn’t yet decided whether to honor lawsuit requests from Republican governors.

Republicans pushing lawsuits claim that the health care overhaul, signed last week by President Barack Obama, is unconstitutional because it requires people to buy insurance from a private contractor, and claim it eviscerates states’ rights.

Republicans in Arizona and Nevada also say the health overhaul will put massive burdens on state Medicaid programs.

Arizona risks losing billions in federal Medicaid dollars if lawmakers don’t reverse part of the state budget adopted earlier this month. In response to big deficits, the budget eliminated a health care program for children and dropped health coverage for 310,000 people in the state’s Medicaid program.

The cuts would have saved about $400 million in the next fiscal year. Lawmakers have said they have no choice but to reverse them.

Lawsuit opponents argue that there is little chance of success because legal precedent is firmly on the side of the federal government.

In a letter to the governor released Tuesday, Masto of Nevada said under the U.S. Constitution’s commerce and spending clauses, “the authority given to Congress is extensive and appears strong enough to support the Act.”

Some lawsuit opponents also argue that states don’t have standing to sue because the law doesn’t require anything of state governments. Rather, the mandate to buy insurance is levied on taxpayers.

And opponents say states would waste tax dollars by joining a suit that will proceed anyway. If successful, the impact of the suit would affect all states, not just those that sue.

Both Brewer and Gibbons say lawyers have offered to take the case for free, including, in Nevada, a Republican running for attorney general. Arizona House Republicans beat back a Democratic proposal to ban the use of state time or money on the suit.

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