DOJ to Court: Obamacare Unconstitutional

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March 26, 2019

The Department of Justice took the view Monday that the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional.

In a short letter to a court considering the question, attorneys for the DOJ supported a lower court ruling that invalidated the ACA, President Obama's landmark healthcare law.

"The Department of Justice has determined that the district court's judgment should be affirmed," they wrote, asking that no "portion of the district court's judgment be reversed."

In February 2018, 20 states filed suit, arguing the ACA exceeded Congress's tax power.

In December 2018, Judge Reed O'Connor of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas agreed that the Individual Mandate, the requirement that every American purchase an insurance product, was unconstitutional.

O'Connor ruled the entire ACA, popularly called Obamacare, was therefore invalid.

Citing relevant case law, O'Connor explained in his Texas v. United States decision that the Individual Mandate was essential to the rest of the law. "[I]t is evident that the Legislature would not have enacted" the law "independently of" the unconstitutional provision, he wrote.

"That is a conclusion the Court can reach without marching through every nook and cranny of the ACA’s 900-plus pages," O'Connor wrote, "because Congress plainly told the public when it wrote the ACA."

The case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

Reacting to O'Connor's December ruling, Trump celebrated the decision as "[g]reat news for America."

Trump also maintained in December that the ACA should be replaced by another sweeping federal healthcare law, one that would cover pre-existing conditions. "Now Congress must pass a STRONG law that provides GREAT healthcare and protects pre-existing conditions. Mitch and Nancy, get it done," Trump said.

The DOJ, under Attorney General Bill Barr, is now publicly pushing for the Fifth Circuit to affirm O'Connor's ruling. According to the Hill, the DOJ had previously taken the view "that the law's pre-existing condition protections should be struck down." Now, it seeks the entire law's removal.

Republicans have previously taken a more limited approach. In 2017, the then-Republican-controlled Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. It repealed the penalties for those violating the Individual Mandate, but left most of the law intact.

O'Connor's ruling relied on that limited change to determine that the Individual Mandate "can no longer be fairly read as an exercise of Congress's Tax Power." He concluded that, since the Individual Mandate was "unconstitutional" and "inseverable" from the rest of the law, the entire law was therefore "invalid."

Healthcare proved a central issue in the 2018 midterm elections. Republicans struggled to outline what federal guarantees of care they opposed, while Democrats freely came out in favor of expansive healthcare regimes, including Medicare-for-all.

The issue promises to again feature prominently as both parties prepare their messages for the 2020 election.