In a significant ruling Friday, a federal judge in Texas declared the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, to be unconstitutional in its entirety, citing a key change in the law implemented by Republicans in their big tax reform bill last year.
U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor, a conservative George W. Bush-appointee, issued the ruling on the eve of the deadline for signing up for Obamacare coverage. His ruling is expected to be appealed, which means the conservative-majority Supreme Court, with newly appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh, will have a chance to reassess the constitutionality of the law.
The lawsuit was brought by conservative Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, 18 other Republican attorneys general, and one governor, The Denver Post reports. The plaintiffs argue that the law in its entirety is invalid because the removal of the penalty tax nullifies the argument used by Chief Justice John Roberts in 2012 upholding the law on the premise that the ACA is ultimately a tax and thus falls under the authority of Congress, which has "the power to impose taxes," in this case "on those without health insurance."
"Once the heart of the ACA — the individual mandate — is declared unconstitutional, the remainder of the ACA must also fall," states the lawsuit, the Post notes. Democrats countering the suit claim that even though the tax is reduced to $0.0, it still remains a hypothetical tax.
In his ruling Friday, O'Connor agreed with Republicans that with the tax aspect of the law scheduled for elimination starting January 2019, the 2012 ruling's defense of the law is invalidated, making the entire law unconstitutional.
"The remainder of the ACA is non-severable from the individual mandate, meaning that the Act must be invalidated in whole," wrote O’Connor in his 55-page opinion, Bloomberg reports.
The Post reports that in a court brief, Justice Department officials "contended that, once the insurance mandate’s penalty is gone next month, that will invalidate the ACA’s consumer protections, such as its ban on charging more or refusing to cover people with preexisting medical conditions." However, the Trump administration officials said that many parts of the law could continue to remain in place.
The dismantling of Obamacare has been one of President Trump's top priorities since taking office. In October 2017, Trump signed an executive order designed to expand health insurance options, in part as a means of providing alternatives to Obamacare.
Trump responded to O'Connor's ruling in a series of celebratory tweets Friday.
"As I predicted all along, 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. Mitch and Nancy, get it done!" he wrote. "Wow, but not surprisingly, ObamaCare was just ruled UNCONSTITUTIONAL by a highly respected judge in Texas. Great news for America!"