White: En Banc Review from the D.C. Circuit is No Sure Thing

August 5th, 2014

After the initial panic over Halbig faded, I sensed this breath of relief from many. No worries they thought, the D.C. Circuit–with its newly-appointed “nuclear” Judges–will grant en banc review and fix this horrible mess from two Republican-appointed judges. But, as my friend Adam White points out in the WSJ, en banc review is no sure thing. In fact, the D.C. Circuit is known for not reviewing cases under en banc review, except under the most extreme circumstances. Adam notes that none of those requirements are met here:

Second, en banc rehearing is appropriate for what the federal appellate rules call cases of “exceptional importance.” For the D.C. Circuit, this standard has been met almost exclusively by cases raising serious constitutional issues. Over the past decade seven of the nine cases reheard en banc raised difficult questions of constitutional law, such as the rights of Guantanamo detainees or of terminally ill patients.

Cases that will substantially affect the court’s own workings also can be deemed of “exceptional importance.” In 2011, the court sat en banc to decide whether taxpayers could file lawsuits challenging IRS procedures for obtaining tax refunds.

Halbig checks none of these boxes. It is a straightforward statutory interpretation case. The administration’s supporters seem to believe that Halbig has “exceptional importance” because the Affordable Care Act is exceptionally important to them and the panel’s decision was, in their eyes, wrong. But that is a dangerous interpretation of the standard, for reasons best stated by Judge Harry Edwards —the very D.C. Circuit judge who dissented from the panel decision in Halbig.

“Obviously, no judge agrees with all of the decisions handed down in the circuit,” Mr. Edwards wrote in a 1987 case involving the Department of Health and Human Services. But if each judge called for en banc rehearing simply to overturn a panel decision with which he personally disagrees, it would do “substantial violence to the collegiality that isindispensable to judicial decision-making” [his italics]. Rather, en banc review must be reserved for “the rarest of circumstances,” Mr. Edwards wrote, cases with “real significance to the legal process.”

Mr. Edwards played an important role in the court’s history on precisely this issue. In the 1980s, acrimony on the D.C. Circuit was well known. But in the 1990s, Mr. Edwards became chief judge and restored collegiality, in part by greatly reducing the number of en banc rehearings, to three a year in the 1990s from roughly six a year in the 1980s.

As we have dueling cert petitions, and petitions for rehearing en banc, I’m sure these factors are weighing on the D.C. Circuit judges now.