What You Need to Know About Friday’s Court Ruling

Late Friday evening, a judge in Texas handed down his ruling in the latest Obamacare lawsuit. Here’s what you need to know about the ruling (if interested, you can read the opinion here), and what might happen next:

What Did the Judge Decide?

The opinion contained analyzed two different issues—the constitutionality of the individual mandate, and whether the rest of Obamacare could survive without the individual mandate (i.e., severability). In the first half of his opinion, Judge Reed O’Connor ruled the mandate unconstitutional.

Wait—Haven’t Courts Ruled on the Individual Mandate Before?

Yes—and no. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled the individual mandate constitutional. In his majority opinion for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts (in)famously concluded that, even though Obamacare’s authors proclaimed the mandate was not a tax—and said as much in the law—the mandate had the characteristics of a tax. Even though Roberts concluded that the mandate exceeded Congress’ constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause, he upheld it as a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power to tax.

However, in the tax bill last year Congress set the mandate penalty to zero, beginning on January 1, 2019. The plaintiffs argued that, because the mandate will no longer bring in revenue for the federal government, it no longer qualifies as a tax. Because the mandate will not function as a tax, and violates Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause, the plaintiffs argued that the court should declare the mandate unconstitutional. In his opinion, Judge O’Connor agreed with this logic, and struck down the mandate.

What Impact Would Striking Down the Mandate Have?

Not much, seeing as how the penalty falls to zero in two weeks’ time. Striking the mandate from the statute books officially, as opposed to merely setting the penalty at zero, would only affect those individuals who feel an obligation to follow the law, even without a penalty for violating that law. In setting their premiums for 2019, most insurers have already assumed the mandate goes away.

Then Why Is This Ruling Front Page News?

If the court case hinged solely on whether or not the (already-defanged) mandate should get stricken entirely, few would care—indeed, the plaintiffs may not have brought it in the first place. Instead, the main question in this case focuses on severability—the question of whether, and how much, of the law can be severed from the mandate, if the mandate is declared unconstitutional.

What Happened on Severability?

Judge O’Connor quoted heavily from opinions in the prior 2012 Supreme Court case, particularly the joint dissent by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. He ruled that the justices viewed the mandate as an “essential” part of Obamacare, that the main pillars of the law were inseparable from the mandate.

The judge also noted that some of the lesser elements of Obamacare (e.g., calorie counts on restaurant menus, etc.) hitched a ride on a “moving target,” that he could not—and should not—attempt to determine which would have passed on their own. Therefore, he ruled that the entire law must be stricken.

Haven’t Things Changed Since the 2012 Ruling?

Last year, Congress famously couldn’t agree on how to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare—but then voted to set the mandate penalty to zero. A bipartisan group of legal scholars argued in this case that, because Congress eliminated the mandate penalty but left the rest of the law intact, courts should defer to Congress’ more recent judgment. Judge O’Connor disagreed.

What Happens Now?

Good question. Judge O’Connor did NOT issue an injunction with his ruling, so the law remains in effect. The White House released a statement saying as much—that it would continue to enforce the law as written pending likely appeals.

On the appeal front, a group of Democratic state attorneys general who intervened in the suit will likely request a hearing from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. From there the Supreme Court could decide to rule on the case.

Will Appellate Courts Agree with This Ruling and Strike Down Obamacare?

As the saying goes, past performance is no predictor of future results. However, it is worth noting two important facts:

1.      The five justice majority that upheld most of the law—John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotamayor—all remain on the Supreme Court.
2.      As noted above, Chief Justice Roberts went through what many conservatives attacked as a bout of legal sophistry—calling the mandate a tax, even though Congress expressly said it wasn’t—to uphold the law, more than a year before its main provisions took effect.

What About Pre-Existing Conditions?

On Friday evening, President Trump asked for Congress to pass a measure that “protects pre-existing conditions.”

I have outlined other alternatives to Obamacare’s treatment of pre-existing conditions. However, as I have explained at length over the past 18 months, if Republicans want to retain—or in this case reinstate—Obamacare’s treatment of pre-existing conditions, then they are failing in their promise to repeal the law.