Contradictory Obamacare Rulings Issued by Appellate Courts

John Commins, July 22, 2014

Two federal appeals courts on Tuesday issued diametrically opposed politically charged rulings on the legality of tax credits for millions of Obamacare enrollees in 34 states who purchased their health insurance through the federal exchange.

In a 2–1 ruling in Halbig v. Burwell, judges on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals said that specific language in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act does not authorize the Internal Revenue Service to extend tax credits to an estimated 4.7 million people in 34 states who bought coverage through the federally facilitated exchange.

"We reach this conclusion, frankly, with reluctance. At least until states that wish to can set up Exchanges, our ruling will likely have significant consequences both for the millions of individuals receiving tax credits through federal Exchanges and for health insurance markets more broadly," Judges Thomas Griffith and Raymond Randolph, both Republican appointees, wrote in their majority opinion.

"But, high as those stakes are, the principle of legislative supremacy that guides us is higher still. Within constitutional limits, Congress is supreme in matters of policy, and the consequence of that supremacy is that our duty when interpreting a statute is to ascertain in the meaning of the words of the statute duly enacted through the formal legislative process. This limited role
serves democratic interests by ensuring that policy is made by elected, politically accountable representatives, not by appointed, life-tenured judges."

Senior Judge Harry T. Edwards, a Democratic appointee, dissented, and wrote that the "appellants' argument cannot be squared with the clear legislative scheme established by the statute as a whole."

John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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