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A notorious judge undermines the Navy's vaccine requirement

Judge Reed O'Connor isn't famous, but the judge who just undermined the Navy's vaccine requirement is notorious in legal/political circles for a reason.
A gavel sits on a desk inside the Court of Appeals at the new Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, which celebrated its official opening on Monday Jan. 14, 2013, in Denver.
A gavel sits on a desk inside the Court of Appeals at the new Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, which celebrated its official opening on Monday Jan. 14, 2013, in Denver.Brennan Linsley / AP

Depending on where servicemembers may be deployed, American troops were already required to receive up to 17 different vaccinations, but after the FDA approved Covid-19 vaccines, the list climbed to 18.

This was in keeping with American traditions, as well as common sense: The United States needs to be able to deploy military forces. The more troops are vulnerable to a deadly contagion during a pandemic, the more it undermines readiness. The Biden administration's decision on this over the summer was hardly a tough call.

Nevertheless, 35 Navy sailors refused to get vaccinated, claiming the protections were at odds with their Christian beliefs. As NBC News reported, the troops found a sympathetic judge.

A federal judge on Monday barred the U.S. Department of Defense from punishing a group of Navy SEALs and other special forces members who refused COVID-19 vaccines on religious grounds. U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor, acting in response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of 35 special forces service members, issued a preliminary injunction blocking the Navy and Defense Department from enforcing the mandate.

These Navy service members were facing a range of possible disciplinary actions for refusing to follow orders. Now, those actions are on hold, thanks to a conservative judge in Texas.

Part of the problem with the court's preliminary injunction is its highly dubious reasoning.

"Our nation asks the men and women in our military to serve, suffer, and sacrifice. But we do not ask them to lay aside their citizenry and give up the very rights they have sworn to protect," the court order read. It went on to say, "The Covid-19 pandemic provides the government no license to abrogate those freedoms. There is no Covid-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution."

It's a curious argument. Those who volunteer for service in the United States Armed Forces make a great many sacrifices, including giving up some of their constitutional rights during their service. This is not new, and it's been bolstered by court rulings for generations.

But nearly as notable was the judge who published this curious argument.

It's probably safe to assume most Americans have never heard of Judge Reed O'Connor of the Northern District of Texas. But in legal/political circles, this guy has earned a reputation.

The week before Christmas in 2018, for example, a judge agreed to strike down the entirety of the Affordable Care Act, root and branch. Even many conservatives and ACA critics agreed that the ruling was indefensible, and reactions tended to include words and phrases such as "pretty bananas," "embarrassingly bad," and "absurd."

It was Judge Reed O'Connor who issued the ruling. The New York Times noted soon after that Republicans had a habit of bringing their cases to the Northern District of Texas, because of their confidence that O'Connor would give them what they wanted.

He ruled for Texas in 2015 when it challenged an Obama administration measure extending family leave benefits to married same-sex couples.... He also ruled for Texas in 2016, blocking the Obama administration from enforcing guidelines expanding restroom access for transgender students.

Then he ruled against the ACA, and this week, he issued a preliminary injunction against punishing troops that ignore vaccine orders.

It probably wasn't a coincidence when these Navy SEALs and other special forces members who refused Covid-19 vaccines brought their case to the Northern District of Texas. It's called "judge shopping" for a reason.