Respect for the “rule of law” is one of the guiding principles of the New Jersey Civil Justice Institute. However, we rarely take time out to discuss this important concept or to applaud judges who practice this principle. Today’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Halbig v. Burwell presents us with an opportunity highlight this important concept in a case that is going to be in the headlines for quite a while.
To date, Halbig has not gotten a lot of press, but that is about to change because it is the first big ruling against the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Regardless of your opinion of the ACA, the judges who signed on to this opinion, Griffith and Randolph, should be lauded for their willingness to rule that the law is what the statute says, not what proponents would like it to say. The court sums up this sentiment as follows:
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. 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 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.
NJCJI strongly agrees that judges should interpret the text of the statute, and not seek to advance policy beyond what was actually enacted.