MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It was last week that a ruling by a federal judge in North Texas raised questions about the future of the Affordable Care Act. Judge Reed O'Connor sided with a group of Republican state officials who had challenged the law. Many court-watchers say the ruling was predictable and say that's why the case was before Judge O'Connor in the first place. Ashley Lopez of KUT in Austin reports.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: O'Connor's judgment was sweeping. It said the entire health care law became invalid when Congress zeroed out the tax penalty for people who don't have health insurance that's known as the individual mandate.
And O'Connor's decision has been pretty controversial, even among conservative legal scholars like Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston.
JOSH BLACKMAN: I think he went too far in rejecting the entire law. I think he could have stopped short and simply severed the Obamacare mandate.
LOPEZ: And while O'Connor's decision may seem a bit extreme to some legal scholars, what it is not is surprising. Justin Nelson, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says if you know anything about O'Connor's past rulings, this was predictable.
JUSTIN NELSON: In case after case, what he has shown is that he has tended to side with the Republican attorneys general who are bringing ideological suits.
LOPEZ: Nelson recently ran an unsuccessful campaign to oust Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Paxton led this multistate legal challenge to the health care law. Nelson says 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'd get O'Connor as the judge.
NELSON: 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. Reed O'Connor is their best shot to get a ruling that they like.
LOPEZ: O'Connor was a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill before he was appointed by George W. Bush. So far, he's had to weigh in on a couple of contentious issues. For example, O'Connor is known for striking down an Obama-era rule protecting transgender students. In that case, he also sided with Ken Paxton, who filed that legal challenge as well, says Nelson.
NELSON: They've done this over and over again on the hope that Judge O'Connor would rule on behalf of an ideological agenda. And I don't think that is proper. I don't think that's right for what we think is the basis for what we hope is the rule of law in that justice is blind.
LOPEZ: Paxton has filed lawsuits challenging Obama-era immigration laws in other courts, including a court in South Texas that also has a reliably conservative judge on the bench. But conservative legal scholar Josh Blackman says he thinks this is all overblown.
BLACKMAN: All lawyers generally file the case where it leads to the best chance of success. And to an extent that the criticism - that's a criticism of the attorney general and not of the judge. A judge doesn't control which cases come to him.
LOPEZ: And Blackman says because O'Connor is getting a lot of ideological lawsuits brought to him, it's making his voting record more controversial.
BLACKMAN: I think by virtue of the attorney general's form selection, Judge O'Connor's had a greater share than average of hot-button issues.
LOPEZ: Ultimately, though, one of Blackman's biggest concerns here is that criticisms of controversial opinions are increasingly shifting toward the judges who issue the opinions and less towards the decisions themselves.
BLACKMAN: You know, President Trump does this all the time. Politicians do it all the time. And usually, this happens to Supreme Court justices. But here, it's being done to a district court judge in Fort Worth who, 99 percent of his docket, no one will ever even know about.
LOPEZ: And ultimately, Blackman says, no matter how controversial O'Connor's ACA decision is, it is now up to the next judge who will inevitably hear the case as it moves on to a higher court. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.
KELLY: And that story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KUT and Kaiser Health News.
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