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Texas Judge Reed O’Connor is the ‘Go-To Judge’ for conservatives

December 21, 2018

President Trump has publicly blasted federal judges as liberals who thwart the will of the people and denounced their ability to issue orders that apply nationwide.

A key exception occurred this recently when the president sent out this message on Twitter: “Wow, but not surprising, Obamacare was just ruled UNCONSTITUTIONAL by a highly respected judge in Texas. Great news for America.”

That judge is Houston native Reed Charles O’Connor, who is now a U.S. District Court judge in the Northern District of Texas.

Judge O’Connor , who has chambers in Fort Worth and Wichita Falls, has become the federal judge that Republican state attorneys general and politically conservative special interest groups across the U.S. turn to when they want a federal law or policy overturned or banned. And he has not disappointed.

Legal experts say that Judge O’Connor’s decision late Friday striking down the Affordable Care Act clearly made the University of Houston graduate an automatic finalist for any future openings on the federal appellate courts or even the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since 2016, he has struck down Obama administration rules that expanded civil rights protections to cover sexual orientation, ruled that the Affordable Care Act illegally prohibited discrimination of gender identity, threw out a federal voting rights lawsuit against the city of Farmers Branch and declared portions of the Indian Child Welfare Act unconstitutional because it supported racial preferences.

In 2013, Judge O’Connor issued a ruling declaring that the Obama Administration’s immigration program called the Deferred Action Childhood Arrival, which provides protections from deportation for some younger undocumented immigrants, was illegal - though he withdrew his order a few months later declaring that his court did not have jurisdiction.

In a 55-page opinion last week, Judge O’Connor ruled that the Affordable Care Act is now unconstitutional because Congress effectively eliminated the so-called individual mandate last year as part of federal tax reforms.

If Obamacare is no longer a congressionally imposed tax, it is no longer permissible under the Interstate Commerce Clause.

“This decision isn’t terribly surprising,” says Texas appellate law expert Chad Baruch. “Judge O’Connor seems to be a bit more political in some of his decisions than many of his colleagues on the federal bench. He has a reputation for being well-connected politically, and certainly has made a number of rulings with significant political implications.”

Other legal experts agree.

“Judge O’Connor is a conservative judge whose opinions are frequently affirmed in the Fifth Circuit, as are most district court opinions,” says Haynes and Boone litigation partner Anne Johnson. “The most recent statistics published by the Fifth Circuit show an overall reversal rate of 7.2 percent.

“Judge O’Connor has sided with the conservative position in several highly contentious, partisan cases and, not surprisingly, those kinds of cases continue to be brought in his court,” says Johnson, who specializes in appellate litigation.

Born and raised in Houston, O’Connor went to college at the University of Houston and then graduated in 1989 from the South Texas College of Law in Houston. After four years of practicing law, O’Connor became a state and federal prosecutor from 1994 to 2003, when he went to work as legal counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, where he became close to one of its leading members, Texas Senator John Cornyn.

President Bush nominated O’Connor to the federal bench in 2007. The Senate confirmed his appointment unanimously.

With a decade of federal trial experience now on his resume, Judge O’Connor is widely viewed as a frontrunner for the next opening on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Commercial litigators who practice before Judge O’Connor describe him as a hardworking and fast-moving jurist.

“In one case that I had before Judge O’Connor, I was surprised to receive a very important order very early — around 6 a.m. — on a Saturday morning,” says Christopher Kratovil, a litigation partner at the Dykema law firm. “He has a reputation as being fair minded in civil litigation, with perhaps a slight preference for business defendants.”

Kratovil and other legal experts say that Judge O’Connor is a perfect example of how parties with a specific political agenda can pick a jurisdiction where they are guaranteed a judge they consider friendly to their cause or political leanings.

“In short, Judge O’Connor has been behind three of the highest profile district court rulings in recent memory,” says Kratovil, who specializes in appellate law. “Judge O’Connor is a bold and fearless jurist, and he is a very capable legal writer. He’s not afraid to make controversial decisions in big cases with nationwide implications.

“In these high profile and highly partisan cases, Judge O’Connor seems in many ways to be the ‘Red States’ answer to U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson of Hawaii, who has developed a reputation as the ‘go to’ judge for ‘Blue State’ attorney generals seeking a nationwide injunction,” Kratovil says. “This illustrates the power of one-judge divisions of federal district courts — in Judge O’Connor’s case the Wichita Falls Division of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.”

For a longer version of this article, please visit TexasLawbook.net.

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