by Robert N. Weiner, Litigation Partner, Arnold & Porter LLP
*This post originally appeared on Balkinization
Sometimes, lawyers are fortunate that an opponent does not get the opportunity to reply to their argument and they get the last, unchallenged, word on an issue. The Halbig case [D.C. Circuit Court panel opinion negatively impacting the federal government’s effort to help low-income persons obtain health care insurance] presents a prime example. On Monday, the plaintiffs seeking to nullify a key provision of the Affordable Care Act filed their response to the Government’s petition for rehearing en banc. The response takes full-- albeit not fair -- advantage of being the last word before the D.C. Circuit considers the petition.
To begin with, the Halbig plaintiffs never cite Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, even though it is the controlling authority regarding en banc review. The Rule expressly recognizes that rehearing en banc is appropriate in order to avoid intercircuit conflicts, and that provision is directly applicable here. Currently, there is a conflict between Halbig in the D.C. Circuit, denying tax subsidies to help low income families afford insurance in states with a Federal Exchange, and King in the Fourth Circuit, allowing such subsidies. A grant of en banc review by the D.C. Circuit will automatically vacate the Halbig decision ending the intercircuit conflict and presenting the full court the opportunity to avoid one altogether if the D.C. Circuit ultimately agrees with the Fourth. If there is no conflict, the Supreme Court will have no compelling reason to take this rather narrow, yet overblown issue of statutory interpretation.
The absence of a Government opportunity to reply may also have loosened the reins on the discussion of case law in the Halbig response. Arguing against rehearing en banc, the Halbig plaintiffs cite instances where the D.C. Circuit has denied such review in important cases. But the response fails to point out that most of those cases predate the amendment of Rule 35 in 1998 expressly identifying avoidance of a circuit split as a basis for en banc review and emphasizing in the Advisory Committee Notes the particular importance of such review in cases like this one, where rehearing could resolve the conflict. D.C. decisions that came before that change in Rule 35 shed no light on whether en banc review is appropriate on this ground.
Of the post-1998 D.C. cases cited by the Halbig plaintiffs, one involved a situation where the Supreme Court had already granted cert on the issue. The other cases cited presented no conflict. Thus, none of these cases resolves whether en banc review is appropriate here, where the D.C. Circuit’s panel opinion is the source of the intercircuit split.