Three-judge panels of two federal courts of appeals today issued directly conflicting rulings on a key IRS regulation implementing the Affordable Care Act. This regulation authorized subsidies for those purchasing insurance from government exchanges, regardless of whether those exchanges were established by the federal government (as in most states) or by an individual state. If this regulation is invalid and subsidies are therefore not available on exchanges established by the federal government, then one leg of the government’s three-legged stool in the Affordable Care Act is removed in more than half the states in the country.
In Halbig v. Burwell, a split panel of the D.C. Circuit held the regulation invalid. Shortly thereafter, the Fourth Circuit issued a directly contrary decision in King v. Burwell, upholding the IRS regulation. Most news coverage thus far has focused on the D.C. Circuit’s decision. There may be a few reasons for this: (1) lots of policy journalists in D.C.; (2) the D.C. decision came first; and (3) the D.C. decision would alter the status quo significantly, while the Fourth Circuit decision would maintain the status quo.
The Fourth Circuit decision is important as well, though less for what it holds than for how its upholding of the regulation might actually benefit the challengers who lost the panel decision. In short, the Fourth Circuit’s decision may speed up the timing of Supreme Court review of this issue. Here’s why: En banc review would probably be favorable for the government in both courts. This means it is likely that the government will seek en banc review in the D.C. Circuit case. The decision to grant en banc review by itself would vacate the panel decision, thus eliminating the existing circuit split, at least for the time being. And if the en banc D.C. Circuit were to rule differently from today’s three-judge panel, then there would not be a circuit split with the Fourth going forward. In the absence of the Fourth Circuit decision, then, it would take a while before the Supreme Court takes a case raising this issue, and the Court might never grant if there is no split. But because the en banc Fourth Circuit is likely favorable for the government, the plaintiffs in that case are likely to bypass en banc review and head straight to the Supreme Court. The Court has discretion whether to grant certiorari, of course, but a circuit split on such an important part of a massive regulatory scheme is the sort of thing that the Supreme Court should hear. Having a final decision in favor of the government therefore is of some help to the challengers because it enables them to go to the Supreme Court more quickly.