Call it the "Tale of Two Circuits." Within hours of each other Tuesday, two federal appellate courts looked at the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on the same issue involving the same provision and came to diametrically opposite conclusions.
In Halbig v. Burwell, the D.C. Circuit ruled that the Obama administration changed the meaning of the ACA and wrongly extended billions of tax credits to citizens without congressional authority. It was a stunning loss for the administration. However, a couple of hours later, the neighboring 4th Circuit across the river ruled in King v. Burwell. That three-judge panel ruled that the administration was perfectly within its rights to interpret the law in this fashion.
Depending on which bank of the Potomac you stood on, Obamacare is either in robust health or on life support.
While the decisions have caused a whirlwind of political controversy, neither really turns on the question of national health care. Indeed, these two cases represent well-reasoned but conflicting views of the role of court in statutory interpretation. The conclusion of these rivaling approaches hold the very viability of the ACA in the balance. That answer may have to wait for another appeal to the full courts of these respective circuits and ultimately an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Halbig, Judge Thomas B. Griffith ruled that the statute is clearly worded on a key point of the law. At issue is the very thumping heart of Obamacare: the system of state and federal "exchanges" through which citizens are required to purchase insurance. The law links the availability of tax credits to those states with exchanges "established by the state." However, the administration was caught by surprise when some 36 states opted not to create state exchanges. That represented a major threat to Obamacare. Without the credits, insurance would be "unaffordable" for millions of citizens who can then claim an exemption from the ACA. It would allow a mass exodus from the law — precisely what many citizens and critics have wanted.
To avoid that threat, the Obama administration released a new interpretation that effectively read out "state" from the language — announcing that tax credits would be available even to states with only a federal exchange.
The D.C. Circuit ruled that the "interpretation" was really a rewriting of the federal law and that President Barack Obama had overreached his authority in violation of congressional power.
The 4th Circuit came to the opposite conclusion. The court believed that the IRS was entitled to deference by the courts in what these laws mean in cases of ambiguity. The panel considered the law to be unclear and found that it was reasonable for the IRS to adopt an interpretation that guaranteed tax credits to all citizens.
At the heart of the conflict is a fundamentally different view of the role not just of federal courts but also of federal agencies. I have long been a critic of the rise of a type of fourth branch within our system. The framers created a tripartite system based on three equal branches. The interrelation of the branches guarantees that no branch could govern alone and protects individual liberty from the concentration of power in any one branch.
We now have a massive system of 15 departments, 69 agencies and 383 nonmilitary sub-agencies with almost 3 million employees. Citizens today are 10 times more likely to be the subject of an agency court ruling than a federal court ruling. The vast majority of "laws" in this country are actually regulations promulgated by agencies, which tend to be practically insulated and removed from most citizens.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1984 in Chevron that agencies are entitled to heavy deference in their interpretations of laws. That decision has helped fuel the growth of the power federal agencies in this fourth branch. The court went even further recently in Arlington v. FCC in giving deference to agencies even in defining their own jurisdiction. In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts warned: "It would be a bit much to describe the result as 'the very definition of tyranny,' but the danger posed by the growing power of the administrative state cannot be dismissed."
Regardless of the merits of the statutory debate over the ACA, the question comes down to who should make such decisions. For my part, I agree with the change, but I disagree with the unilateral means that the president used to secure it. Obama has pledged to "go it alone" in circumventing opposition in Congress. The Fourth Circuit decision will certainly help him fulfill that pledge. The result is that our model of governance is changing not by any vote of the public but by these insular acts of institutional acquiescence.
The court may call this merely deferring to an agency, but it represents something far greater and, in my view, far more dangerous. It is the ascendance of a fourth branch in a constitutional system designed for only three.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, has testified before Congress on the constitutional implications of the health care cases.Copyright © 2015, CT Now