Thursday, September 04, 2014

It's All Political

As I predicted, the D.C. Circuit will rehear Halbig en banc. Again, I don't think this decision was either compelled or foreclosed by FRAP 35, because I don't think that there is any real standard regarding whether to grant rehearing en banc other than "if the court feels like it" (though the persistance with which some commentators skate past "resolving a circuit split" as a reason for en banc review astounds me, given that it is one of the more common rationales for such review).

Of course, it is widely predicted that the full D.C. Circuit will be more favorable to the government's interpretation of the Affordable Care Act than was the three-judge panel. This fact makes opponents of the ACA sad. Or, in the case of Michael Cannon, it causes them to fulminate about how the decision to rehear is "political". Here is his rationale:
(1) Senate Democrats eliminated the filibuster on most judicial nominations primarily so they could seat President Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit; (2) President Obama and Senate Democrats then “packed” the D.C. Circuit with their judicial nominees; (3) the Halbig ruling was written by a judge supported by President Obama when he was a senator and praised by Democrats for his fair-mindedness; (4) President Obama nevertheless appealed the Halbig ruling to a panel where, thanks to the elimination of the filibuster on most judicial nominees, Democratic appointees now outnumber Republican appointees by 8-5; (5) D.C. Circuit court Judge Harry Edwards made political arguments both during oral arguments over Halbig, when he shouted at plaintiffs’ counsel that they were trying to “gut the statute,” and in his dissent, where he questioned the plaintiffs’ motives; (6) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Halbig ruling vindicates the decision to pack the D.C. Circuit; (7) the president’s supporters urged him to appeal the Halbig ruling to the full D.C. Circuit, (8) this move is consistent with the Obama administration’s strategy of delaying this litigation as long as possible, which would tend to prejudice the courts because delay further entrenches the subsidies that the Halbig ruling declared illegal, and increases the disruption that will be caused by eliminating those subsidies; and (9) granting en banc review is a highly unusual move for the D.C. Circuit, in large part due to the influence of Edwards, who has argued at length against en banc rehearings because they consume considerable resources and threaten comity among the judges on the circuit.
You'll note that, nine subdivisions notwithstanding, there are not in fact nine different reasons here. Most of them are various building blocks on the claim made in #2, that the D.C. Circuit was "packed" with Democratic nominees after the elimination of the filibuster. Erm, no. "Packing", as in FDR's notorious Court-packing plan, occurs when one increases the number of slots on a judicial (or other) body so as to give oneself more opportunities to make appointments. "Filling preexisting vacancies", by contrast, is not "packing" the Court under any definition -- otherwise every judicial nomination is a form of packing. When I began my clerkship on the Eighth Circuit, for example, that court's composition of active judges was split 9-2 in favor of Republicans (it's now 8-3). That's not because it was "packed", it's because President Bush was fortunate enough to see seven vacancies open up on the Court during his tenure (President Clinton saw two, President Obama so far has seen one). The imbalance is because he filled vacancies; it would be absurd to say he "packed" the court.

What else? Well, #6-8 seem to all assert that it's "political" for supporters of the ACA to want to win in court, rather than just giving up. Oh, and then we have the idea in #5 that saying that the Halbig challenge would "gut the statute" is a "political argument." Put aside the fact that it's, you know, true -- what's "political" about this argument? This is perfectly legal in nature -- the upshot of accepting the Halbig challenge is that a central component of the Affordable Care Act would, legally, cease to function. The political angle is that lots of people would cheer said outcome because they want the ACA to collapse -- but that doesn't make the descriptive observation any less legalistic.

But as bad as all of this is, it pales in comparison to the mutilation of Chevron that we see at the end of the piece:
I do not see the outcome of en banc review as a foregone conclusion. Consider: even though the Obama administration’s record in these cases is 3-1, the government has lost ground as Halbig and King have moved through the federal courts. At the district-court level, the government won twice, once at Chevron Step One (Halbig) and once at Chevron Step Two (King). At the appellate-court level, only one out of six judges found for the government at Chevron Step One. Four Democratic appointees lent some weight to the plaintiffs’ argument that the Obama administration is violating the clear language of the PPACA.
For those of you who aren't versed on administrative law, Chevron is the case that governs judicial review of agency interpretations of federal statutes (as we have here). "Step one" asks if the statutory text is clear and unambiguous. If it is, that resolves the case (either the agency is or is not following the clear and unambiguous statutory command). By contrast, if the text is ambiguous, then we go to "step two" and ask if the agency's interpretation is a "permissible" one (which is to say, not "the best one" or "the one the court would adopt", but one that acceptable). Functionally speaking, most of the action occurs at step one, because if the court agrees that the text is ambiguous it will be pretty hard to persuade them that an agency interpretation of said ambiguity is ludicrous on its face.

Cannon, you'll note, seems to have this all backwards. The government winning at step two does not "len[d] some weight to the plaintiffs' argument that the Obama administration is violating the clear language of PPACA." To the contrary, it stands for the proposition that the statutory language is not clear at all but the government's read of it is a perfectly valid and permissible one. Now Cannon is right that it is "better", in a sense, for the challengers to lose at step two rather than step one -- but that's just because it's deeply embarrassing for a challenger to ever lose at step one. Whereas a loss at step two occurs simply out of deference to the government, a loss at step one means the court is affirmatively declaring that the plaintiffs' position is unambiguously incorrect as a reading of the statute. To say that the Obama administration is "losing ground" reminds me of Anthony Lane's immortal response to fans who proclaimed that Star Wars Episode III was an improvement over the other two prequels: "True, but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion."

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