A federal judge in Texas just ruled the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional

The Friday night decision could be the death knell of Obama's signature policy achievement

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published December 14, 2018 9:47PM (EST)

This Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017 photo shows the HealthCare.gov website, where people can buy health insurance, displayed on a laptop computer screen in Washington.  (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
This Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017 photo shows the HealthCare.gov website, where people can buy health insurance, displayed on a laptop computer screen in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The Affordable Care Act, the signature policy achievement of President Obama and his attempt to create a de facto universal healthcare system vis-a-vis a neoliberal stew of public and private healthcare providers, has been ruled unconstitutional in federal court by U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor, multiple outlets reported on Friday.

The suit in question, filed in January, concerned the law's individual mandate provision, which required every citizen to purchase healthcare in some way. The Supreme Court had previously ruled the individual mandate was constitutional in a 5-4 decision in 2012. At the time, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “the Affordable Care Act’s [ACA] requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax ... Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.”

Judge O'Connor's decision tonight effectively argues the opposite. "The Court finds the Individual Mandate 'is essential to' and inseverable from 'the other provisions of' the ACA," wrote O'Connor in his 55-page long opinion. "For the reasons stated above, the Court grants Plaintiffs partial summary judgment and declares the Individual Mandate, 26 U.S.C. § 5000A(a), UNCONSTITUTIONAL. Further, the Court declares the remaining provisions of the ACA, Pub. L. 111-148, are INSEVERABLE and therefore INVALID," the opinion continued.

The district court ruling does not necessarily mean the law is officially null, however. As the Washington Post notes, "legal experts have been forecasting that the Texas case would be appealed and could well place the law again before the high court, giving its conservative newest member, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, a first opportunity to take part." The Supreme Court may or may not choose to hear the appeal, however. If they do, given the changed composition of the Supreme Court since the 2012 ruling, it is possible the Supreme Court will agree with Judge O'Connor's ruling.

Since Judge O'Connor did not issue an injunction, the Affordable Care Act and its provisions will remain intact for the time being, meaning no one with an insurance plan via the ACA will lose coverage.

Politifact notes that 20 million people gained insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

The federal judge who issued the decision, Reed O'Connor, is a well-known right-wing firebrand. In 2016, Judge O'Connor tried to prevent the implementation of a federal directive to allow transgender students to choose which restroom they would like to use. In 2017, O'Connor issued an injunction that would undo a different Affordable Care Act provision and thus permit discrimination "based on gender identity or pregnancy termination," as Salon's Amanda Marcotte explained at the time.

Conservatives have been irate over the Affordable Care Act since its inception, even though the idea of it — specifically, using the private sector and expanding the market in order to provide semi-universal coverage — is considered to be a right-wing policy position. Indeed, the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, seeded the basic proposal for what would become the Affordable Care Act, essentially the free market "solution" to universal healthcare. That conservatives were opposed to Obamacare from the get-go seems largely motivated by their blanket opposition to anything President Obama touched.

This is a breaking story and may continue to be updated. 

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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