An appellate court, also known as an appeals court or even a “court of second instance” is a court given the authority to hear an appeal of a lower court decision. In the United States, we have a multi-tiered system for appeal in the federal system: after trial courts, there are courts of appeal (12 regional circuit courts and 1 court for the federal circuit), and from there cases would be appealed to the Supreme Court.
I promise, this isn’t another moment to review the third branch of government or to review how to make an appeal in the federal court system.
Early last week, two appeals courts handed down conflicting decisions about aspects of the Affordable Care Act, or, as it’s known, Obamacare. According to the USA Today report, “A divided federal appeals court panel dealt a potentially major blow to President Obama's health care law Tuesday, ruling that participants in health exchanges run by the federal government in 34 states are not eligible for billions of dollars in tax subsidies.”
The article goes on, “Just two hours after that ruling, a separate three-judge federal appeals court panel in Richmond unanimously upheld the law and its system of subsidies and tax credits, putting it in opposition to the D.C. appeals court. That could raise the potential of a Supreme Court showdown.”
What are the courts ruling on in the first place?
The 2-1 decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia circuit, according to the New York Times, “struck down a regulation issued by the Internal Revenue Service that authorizes the payment of premium subsidies in states that rely on the federal insurance exchange.”
The Affordable Care Act has a section providing tax subsidies for those who get healthcare through an exchange established by a state. For the past few years, the IRS has interpreted this to include federal exchanges as well as state-specific ones. The District of Columbia court, however, struck down this interpretation, saying that for the states that have opted out of a state-run healthcare exchange - 36 total - taxpayers who participate in the federal exchange are not eligible for those tax subsidies.
Just a few hours later, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA unanimously ruled the opposite way: that the IRS interpretation is within the agency’s discretion. According to the American Bar Association Journal, “Having considered the parties’ competing arguments," the 4th Circuit said, "we remain unpersuaded by either side." Congress' intent is unclear, the court said, and the IRS interpretation is entitled to deference.”
So we are in the midst of competing court rulings on a law that has received more national, state and local press than probably any other in recent years. Obamacare is the watershed of the president’s terms; between Supreme Court decisions upholding its existence, to the logistics of many of us recent college graduates trying to navigate the healthcare website, to taxpayer complaints and controversial subsidies.
But it is a curious moment when two courts of equal weight in the judicial system rule in opposing ways. In such a situation, the Supreme Court is often called upon to hear a case and render a final, definitive ruling.
I want to suggest that this is perhaps an instance of the larger problem of over-reliance on the courts to be the final definitive interpretation of laws that are either ambiguously written or ambiguously interpreted. The third branch of government was not meant to be the primary interpreter of the law nor the effectual lawmaker. But with the increasing number of disputes referred to courts, we rely more and more on those court decisions to give us the working understanding of the law in question.
This is problematic for doing justice, not because the courts are incapable of rendering just decisions, but because they are, by nature, a last resort. If we hope for a change in policy or a change in legislation, we ought to petition Congress; we ought to vote, we ought to write letters and research pending legislation. Relying on legal teams and panels to determine the validity, the scope and the proper interpretation of the law, often as an attempt to counteract the other two branches of government on their own terms leads, not to more justice in our legislative or executive branches, but to an increasingly removed lawmaking, where we learn the meaning of the law from a court decision, not our representatives in government or the agencies charged with the execution of the law.
The Supreme Court has heard numerous cases regarding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. They have ruled on the individual mandate, on employer requirements and religious freedom. The dispute in the appellate courts may well be taken up by SCOTUS in the next year.
It is worth us reconsidering whether this law, a watershed in American politics, has been made more by the crafting of the original act passed by Congress, the interpretation and execution of the law by the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies, or by the Courts’ reexamination of the law’s numerous components.
-Hilary Yancey is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Baylor University, where she hopes to focus her studies in bioethics and the philosophy of the human person. You can find Hilary writing about everyday life and faith at her blog:http://thewildlove.wordpress.com chatting on Twitter and Instagram at @hilaryyancey.