FORT WORTH, Texas (CN) – A Texas federal judge ruled Friday night that the Affordable Care Act is invalid due to last year’s tax cuts removing the individual mandate tax penalty, handing Republican critics their largest victory yet against the controversial law.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor issued a partial summary judgment invalidating the individual mandate and declared the Affordable Care Act of 2010’s remaining provisions “inseverable and therefore invalid.”
He agreed with lead plaintiff Texas’ reasoning that the reduction of the tax penalty to zero in the Republican-enacted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 effectively guts the ACA because the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Obamacare in 2015 based on the conclusion that the mandate would be an unconstitutional exercise of federal power without the tax penalty.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded Judge O’Connor’s ruling, saying it “halts an unconstitutional exertion of federal power” over the country’s health care system.
“Our lawsuit seeks to effectively repeal Obamacare, which will give President Trump and Congress the opportunity to replace the failed social experiment with a plan that ensures Texans and all Americans will again have greater choice about what health coverage they need and who will be their doctor,” he said in a statement.
Paxton said health insurance premiums rose an average of 105 percent from 2013 to 2017 in 39 states where the federal government runs health exchanges.
Filed in February, the lawsuit drew a quick and forceful intervention by a coalition of sixteen Democrat-led states, who argue the reduction of the tax penalty to zero failed to repeal any statutory provision of the law.
The Trump administration, the defendant in the case, announced in June that it would not defend Obamacare in the lawsuit. The Justice Department acknowledged how unusual the decision was in light of the office’s “longstanding tradition of defending the constitutionality” of laws if reasonable arguments can be made in their defense. The Democrat-led states have since assumed defense of Obamacare in the case.
In his ruling, O’Connor concluded Congress “did nothing to repudiate” the Supreme Court’s opinion of the individual mandate’s essentiality to Obamacare in last year’s tax cuts.
“The Intervenor Defendants thus ask the Court to infer a severability - related intent from a Congress that did not and could not amend the ACA and that therefore did not and could not repeal the Individual Mandate or the enacted text stating the mandate is ‘essential’ to the whole scheme when working ‘together with the other provisions,’” the 55-page opinion states. “They then ask the Court ‘to graft that intent’ onto the Congress that did pass the ACA, that did employ the Individual Mandate as the keystone, and that did memorialize its intent through enacted text stating the Individual Mandate is essential.”
The American Medical Association and several other health care and physicians groups filed a brief in support of the Democrat-led states in June, claiming Texas lacks standing and that killing the law would “wreak havoc” on the American healthcare system.
Judge O’Connor heard oral arguments on the motion in September, stating he would reach a decision “as soon as I can.” Protesters opposing the lawsuit chanted outside of the courthouse during the four-hour hearing, with a disabled protester confronting one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys for allegedly telling “bald-faced lies” to reporters.
O’Connor, appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush, is no stranger to overturning policies of President Barack Obama. In January 2017, he blocked an Affordable Care Act rule change that would have banned physicians from citing religious objections when refusing to perform abortions or gender-reassignment surgeries.
O’Connor concluded the rule change “likely violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as applied to private plaintiffs.” Lead plaintiff Texas claimed the policy violated the “medical judgment and conscience rights” of doctors who could be forced to perform the procedures.
In March 2015, O’Connor halted implementation of a rule by the Obama Labor Department to force employers in anti-gay marriage states to recognize same-sex couples married in other states. Lead plaintiff Texas claimed the extension of Family and Medical Leave Act benefits to same-sex couples would violate the Texas Constitution because it redefined the definition of what a “spouse” is.
Under the FMLA, eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for family or medical reasons, including family emergencies or childbirth.
Democrats roundly condemned O’Connor’s latest ruling over the weekend.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday the “awful” ruling “undoes pre-existing conditions and jeopardizes the tens of millions of people getting good health care” in state exchanges.
“But it goes way beyond that — it would knock out treatment of opioids, would raise drug prices and close the‘doughnut hole’ so seniors would pay higher drug prices,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
“It would eliminate maternal care, all kinds of women’s health. It is an awful, awful ruling and we are going to fight this tooth and nail.”
Schumer said he will seek a vote on the Senate floor to approve intervention in the lawsuit.
“A lot of this depends on congressional intent,” he said. “If a majority of the House and a majority of the Senate say that this case should be overturned, it will have a tremendous effect on the appeal.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged citizens on Saturday to sign up for Obamacare on the last day of enrollment in spite of the ruling, as the law remains in effect and will be appealed to the Fifth Circuit and likely again to the Supreme Court.
“We won’t let the GOP’s cruel lawsuit stop Americans from getting affordable health care,” she tweeted.
President Trump lauded O’Connor as a “highly respected” judge hours after the ruling, gloating that “Obamacare has been struck down as an UNCONSTITUTIONAL disaster!”
“Now Congress must pass a STRONG law that provides GREAT healthcare and protects pre-existing conditions,” he tweeted. “Mitch and Nancy, get it done!”
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.