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Judge Who Invalidated Obamacare Has Been A ‘Go-To Judge’ For Republicans, Critics Say

In 2015, demonstrators in Washington, D.C., urged Supreme Court justices to save the Affordable Care Act from a legal challenge. The federal health law survived, but last week U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor ruled it invalid. An appeal of his controversial decision is underway. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor has a history of siding with Republicans on ideologically motivated lawsuits. His ruling last week, in which he sided with the GOP on a challenge to the Affordable Care Act, was not a one-off.

In fact, critics say, his history is ultimately why that case was before him in the first place.

By all accounts, O’Connor’s ruling is sweeping. It says the entire health care law became invalid when Congress zeroed out, in 2017, the tax penalty for Americans who don’t have health insurance — a penalty that had been tied to what’s known as the law’s individual mandate that nearly everyone have insurance.

“I think he went too far in rejecting the entire law,” said Josh Blackman, a conservative legal scholar and professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. “I think he could have stopped short and simply severed the Obamacare mandate.”

While O’Connor’s decision may seem a bit extreme to some legal scholars, it wasn’t surprising.

Justin Nelson, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said if you know anything about O’Connor’s past rulings, this was predictable.

“In case after case,” Nelson said, “what he has shown is that he has tended to side with the Republican attorneys general who are bringing ideological suits.”

Nelson recently ran an unsuccessful campaign to oust Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who led this multistate legal challenge to the health care law. Nelson said Paxton and the other Republican attorneys general have filed lawsuits in the U.S District Court for the Northern District of Texas because they know there’s a good chance they’ll get O’Connor as the judge.

“Judge O’Connor has been the go-to judge for Ken Paxton and Republican attorneys general who want to file ideological suits in any court across the country,” Nelson said. “Reed O’Connor is their best shot to get a ruling that they like.”

O’Connor, who did not respond to NPR’s requests for comment, was a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill before he was nominated to the federal bench by George W. Bush in 2007. So far, he has had to weigh in on at least a couple of contentious issues.

For example, O’Connor is known for striking down an Obama-era rule that protected transgender students. In that case he also sided with Paxton, who filed that legal challenge.

“They’ve done this over and over again on the hope that Judge O’Connor would rule on behalf of an ideological agenda,” Nelson said. “And I don’t think that is proper. I don’t think that is right.”

Paxton has filed lawsuits in other courts, too. He filed challenges to Obama-era immigration laws in a court in South Texas, which also has a reliably conservative judge on the bench.

Blackman said criticism of this practice is “overblown.”

“All lawyers generally file the case where it leads to the best chance of success,” Blackman said. “And to the extent that [there’s a] criticism — that’s criticism of the attorney general and not of the judge. The judge doesn’t control which cases come to him.”

Furthermore, because O’Connor is getting a lot of ideological lawsuits brought to him, it’s making his voting record more controversial, Blackman added.

“I think by virtue of the attorney generals’ form selection,” he said, “Judge O’Connor’s had a greater share than average of hot-button issues.”

However, Blackman said, he is concerned that criticisms of controversial opinions are increasingly shifting toward the judges who issue the opinions — instead of toward the decisions themselves.

“President Trump does this all the time,” Blackman said. “Politicians do it all time. And usually this happens to Supreme Court justices, but here it is being done to a district court judge in Fort Worth — who, 99 percent of his docket no one will even know about.”

No matter how controversial O’Connor’s ruling on the health care law, Blackman said, the decision over the Affordable Care Act will now pass to another judge, as the case moves on to a higher court.

This story is part of a partnership that includes KUTNPR and Kaiser Health News.

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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