Annulment? What annulment? Really, what annulment?
ORIGINAL POST: Canon 1682 requires that every "sentence which first declare[s] the nullity of marriage to be transmitted ex officio to the appellate tribunal" and Canon 1684 states that only "after the sentence which first declared the nullity of the marriage has been confirmed at the appellate level. . .[can] the persons whose marriage has been declared null contract a new marriage . . ."
In other words, "an annulment" (which sounds as if it's a single thing) actually requires two distinct, affirmative decisions. It's not like in American law, where winning at trial is sufficient to establish one's rights. In canonical matrimonial cases, a petitioner who proves his case for nullity at trial ("first instance") does not yet "have" an annulment: a petitioner must to receive two concurring affirmative sentences in order to have an annulment. Persons involved in the annulment process are repeatedly cautioned about this point of canon law.
Now, as near as we can figure (oh, how I hate relying on the secular media here), Joseph Kennedy petitioned for, and received, at first instance a declaration of nullity regarding his marriage to Sheila Rauch. But Rauch apparently exercised her right under 1983 CIC 1417 to appeal directly to the Roman Rota, which would mean that the Kennedy-Rauch annulment case was not completed when it went to Rome. Thus the Rota sat as a tribunal of "second instance" (JPII, Pastor bonus, a. 128, 1) in which capacity it rejected Kennedy's petition. This annulment, then, was not so much "reversed" by the Rota, as it failed to win completion therein. Granted, the effect is the same, no second marriage is permitted Kennedy (or Rauch), but it's not as if Kennedy "had" his annulment for ten years, and then mean old Rome took away. Kennedy, it seems, never had his annulment in the first place. (Not that that technicality prevented him from marrying civilly, but, hey, he had already done that before Boston reached its first instance decision!)
But all of this raises an interesting question. Personal opinions of Kennedys aside, it seems unfair to make someone wait for 10 years to find out what his matrimonial status in the Church really is. But canon law already recognizes this: Canon 1453 urges (but does not strictly require) that "first instance" cases be resolved in one year, and that "second instance" cases be decided within six months. When the Roman Rota accepted Rauch's appeal, it took on the task of sitting as a second (not as a third, but as a second) instance court. Thus, why the Rota took (not six months, which would clearly be unreasonable, but 8 or even) 10 years to decide what was only a second instance case is, well, not clear. Were the facts alleged so difficult to determine? Were there novel legal questions raised? I wonder.
In his Rotal address of 1984, and even more strongly in his 1996 remarks, Pope John Paul II reminded Rotal judges that annulment petitions are petitions in justice that impact the status of persons in the Church; as such, said the pope, the faithful have a right to a timely answer (whether affirmative or negative) to their questions, yes, even if those persons are rich and famous and regard Church teaching on marriage as a bunch of Catholic gobbledygook that no one believes anymore (Sheila Rauch Kennedy, Shattered Faith, 10-11, quoting Joe Kennedy).