Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II received a largely warm — though at times combative — greeting Wednesday at his alma mater, Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., while engaging students on subjects including federalism, the Constitution and his challenge to President Obama's health care overhaul.
Virginia's top prosecutor, most notable for his high-profile lawsuits against the federal government on health care and carbon emissions, delivered remarks and took questions before about 60 students at the Catholic high school.
His jacket slung over a nearby stool, the state's attorney general spent a portion of his 90-minute appearance in the auditorium-style setting talking about his office's efforts to combat criminal activity, Medicaid fraud and elderly abuse.
He also ticked off his two major legislative priorities — mental health and property rights. The General Assembly this year started the process of enshrining property-rights protections in the state Constitution by agreeing that it should prohibit the government seizing land for anything other than a public use. The measure would have to be approved again during the 2012 session before appearing on a ballot.
"It's one thing if they take it for a road or a jail or a school or a use that we'd all agree is a public use," he said. "But ... they take it from one private owner ... and give it to another one. Where's the public use in that?"
Mr. Cuccinelli, a Republican, appeared to relish the back-and-forth with students about what he called federal overreach and the legality of Mr. Obama's health care overhaul. One student suggested that the law, which will require most Americans to purchase insurance by 2014 or face a penalty, is constitutional under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.
"We can disagree on that point, and the Supreme Court will decide which of us is right," Mr. Cuccinelli said, eliciting laughs from the crowd.
But the exchange turned somewhat combative when an English teacher appeared to challenge Mr. Cuccinelli's assertion that the current federal government's willingness to step outside the law to pursue policy was unlike anyone in the room had seen. He pointed out President Nixon's assertion that he was above the law and questioned whether Mr. Cuccinelli would have taken the previous administration to court had they set up the health insurance mandate.
"Oh, I would have," Mr. Cuccinelli said. "Whether I'm biased or not — you'll all learn come next June of 2012," he said, referring to the probable timeline for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the health care case.
The Obama administration last month appealed directly to the Supreme Court to uphold the portion of the law requiring that all Americans purchase insurance, while a group of 26 states moved for the court to strike down the entire law.
In August, a federal appeals court in Atlanta declared the so-called "individual mandate" provision unconstitutional but did not strike down the entire law. A federal appeals court based in Richmond recently ruled that the state of Virginia's case lacked standing, and Mr. Cuccinelli has since appealed that to the U.S. Supreme Court as well.
"I think he was more or less challenging the notion that I would ever sue a Republican administration that went outside the Constitution, and I think if he knew anything about Virginia politics he'd know — at the drop of a hat — I'd relish the opportunity," Mr. Cuccinelli said afterward of the teacher's queries.
"But not everybody believes that," he continued, walking to his car. "And the people who dont believe that tend to come with preconceived notions. Whether I can disabuse him of that or not, I can just tell it the way it is and let them make their own decision."
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