Did The Eleventh Circuit Just Fire A Warning Shot Over Tea Party Judge Vinson’s Bow?

Shortly after Tea Party Judge Roger Vinson issued an error-ridden opinion striking down the Affordable Care Act, a non-party to the lawsuit named Robert Smith attempted to appeal Vinson’s decision. Vinson promptly replied by dismissing Smith’s notice of appeal on the grounds that, as a non-party, Smith cannot appeal. Yet there’s a big problem with Vinson’s decision to dismiss this appeal — as a trial judge, Vinson lacks the legal authority to decide an appellate matter.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit released an order today reminding Vinson who is in charge:

A district court has a ministerial duty to forward to the proper court of appeals any notice of appeal that is filed. District courts cannot dismiss an appeal based on a perceived defect.

In light of these well-established principles, Respondents, including the District Judge, are directed to file a response to the petition for writ of mandamus within 14 days of the date of this order.

It is, to say the least, unusual for a court of appeals to order a trial judge to explain why he failed to follow the law in handling a routine matter. While it is likely that Smith’s appeal will ultimately be dismissed by the Eleventh Circuit, Vinson’s inability to complete an easy and purely ministerial task raises questions about his competence.

Moreover, it is reasonably likely that the Eleventh Circuit issued this unusual order as a warning to Vinson against overreaching his own authority yet again. In Vinson’s erroneous decision striking down just one provision of the Affordable Care Act, Vinson not only reached the bizarre conclusion that the entire Act must be cast aside because one small piece is “defective,” he also implied that the federal government must immediately cease applying any part of the law. DOJ responded to Vinson’s legally-questionable opinion by pointing out that, among other things, Vinson did not take any of the legal steps that a judge is required to take before enjoining a party against future action — and seeking clarification about whether Vinson really meant that, despite his own failure to carry out these required legal steps, the United States is no longer allowed to enforce the ACA.

In light of this context, today’s Eleventh Circuit order pointing out a different, far less significant error on Vinson’s part could very well be a warning to the Tea Party judge that his judicial superiors are watching and they are prepared to put him in his place.