Most civil lawsuits are brought by people who believe that someone else personally wronged them, and should have to pay for doing so. But that’s not what is happening with right-wing litigants in the federal courts, who are bringing strategic cases that seek to expand the reach of a narrow strain of evangelical Christianity; minimize the reach of government regulation; or, sometimes, both.
To get in the courtroom, the right needs people who are willing to sign on to these efforts. Fortunately for the right, and unfortunately for the rest of us, these people exist, and now that the federal courts are crammed full of outcome-driven conservative crusaders, their wins are coming in bunches.
Last month, federal district court Judge Reed O’Connor, a reliable conservative, threw out most of the ACA’s requirement that insurers cover the costs of preventative care, including screenings for common cancers and sexually transmitted diseases. But the party asking O’Connor to do so, Braidwood Management, isn’t a health insurer. It bills itself as a “management company” whose employees work at one of several health- and pharmacy-adjacent businesses. Braidwood is controlled by one person, Dr. Steven Hotze, who says he was inspired to get into the business by his Christian worldview, which “ignited a deep desire to offer the message of hope and optimal health to all who need to hear it.” Among his more notable pearls of wisdom are, you will be shocked to learn, is getting very alarmed about the “so-called” COVID-19 vaccine.
When he’s not pushing outright quackery, Hotze is the public face of a well-oiled ACA wrecking machine. Typically, he describes himself as a Christian businessman who objects on religious grounds to providing employees with insurance that covers preventative care, thus working hand in glove with Republican politicians to try to persuade courts to do what Congress would not. When Hotze first sued the government over Obamacare in 2013, he announced it at the Texas Lieutenant Governor’s press room, surrounded by Texas legislators. Hotze’s rhetoric at that press conference—“It is imperative that this unwarranted federal overreach be challenged, to ensure that Texas maintains the most innovative and economically viable health care system in the country,” he said—would not be out of place in a Republican presidential deviate in 2012 or 2016 or 2020 or next year.
Hotze isn’t just worried about the fall of civilization due to free STD testing. He’s also an all-purpose weirdo who reliably claims a deeply personal interest in whatever cause National Review writers are blogging about. In 2015, Hotze tried to get a referendum on the ballot in Houston to repeal its equal rights ordinance. In 2020, he joined Texas lawmakers who were suing to force the state to roll back its meager expansions of voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. He sued over the use of drive-through voting, too, which put Hotze at odds with (and, improbably, to the right of) Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who had temporarily expanded access to early voting.
Perhaps Hotze’s looniest legal misadventures came in the aftermath of the 2020 election, when he funded a voter fraud investigation during which one of his investigators, a former cop, ended up deliberately crashing into an air conditioning repairman’s truck and then pulling a gun on him. (The theory, apparently, was that the air conditioner repairman was ferreting away ballots in his truck; it should go without saying that the truck contained nothing but HVAC parts and a very angry driver.) Because Hotze funded this nonsense, he was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and unlawful restraint, and the air conditioner guy sued him as well.
Braidwood is often joined in his ACA lawsuits by Dr. John Kelley, and sometimes by Kelley’s company, Kelley Orthodontics. Unlike Hotze, Kelley’s business seems to provide normal, run-of-the-mill dentistry; like Hotze, Kelley doesn’t want to provide ACA-compliant insurance to employees at his practice, which he calls a “Christian professional association.” Kelley was also involved with a 2020 lawsuit that sought to stop Texas doctors from providing abortion care during the pendency of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and PPE rationing. The organization that handled the lawsuit, the conservative Thomas More Society, called the lawsuit what it was: an effort to stop abortion entirely.
Of course, impact litigation isn’t new, or a strategy used exclusively by the left or the right. But by tracking the cases in which these parties are involved—Hotze, Braidwood, Kelley, Kelley Orthodontics, and sometimes for good measure, a Braidwood sub-entity—you can see how tenuous the link between individual plaintiff and desired outcome has become. In 2013, Hotze and Braidwood asked a federal court to declare the ACA unconstitutional, arguing that it illegally forced them to transfer money to private insurers. Hotze and Braidwood were represented in that case by Andrew Schlafly, son of all-time wackadoodle Phyllis Schlafly and attorney for Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group of hard-right weirdos founded in the 1940s to preserve the “free market medical system.”
When that effort failed, rather than try and destroy the ACA in one fell swoop, they shuffled the names around and tried a new tactic. In 2018, Kelley, his wife Alison, and the Hotze Health & Wellness Center sued over the ACA’s contraceptive mandate, arguing it violated their religious freedom. This time, they had a new high-profile conservative attorney, Jonathan Mitchell, and sued in a particular division of a federal district court in which they knew their judge would be O’Connor, George H. W. Bush appointee Terry Means, or Trump appointee Mark Pittman. Kelley and Hotze later added Braidwood as a plaintiff, and drew O’Connor as their judge, who issued a decision blocking the contraceptive mandate that the U.S. Supreme Court eventually threw out.
Hotze and Kelly are basically sock puppets for conservative activism, and their ability to hide behind anodyne-sounding business names is especially appealing for the people actually pushing the litigation. In the most recent preventative care case, the attorney, Mitchell, requested that the court remove Kelley’s name and substitute Braidwood’s because media coverage had “triggered a wave of threats and cyberbullying” aimed at Kelley, which “would be alleviated if Braidwood were designated as the first-listed plaintiff going forward.” The only thing better than ending access to free cancer screenings is ending access to free cancer screenings anonymously.
The biggest challenge for the conservative legal movement is that their substantive positions, from ending bodily autonomy to reinstituting child labor to facilitating mass shootings, are not popular with the American people. Entities like “Braidwood Management” and “Kelley Orthodontics” are valuable pieces in a shell game, allowing activists to champion pet causes without having to deal with the well-deserved backlash that would inevitably ensue.
It doesn’t matter how dubious a “management company’s” interest in ballot fraud or an orthodontist’s interest in COVID-19 stay-at-home orders may be. Conservatives understand that in a judiciary dominated by Trump appointees, they just have to get a foot in the courthouse door. The Trump appointees will take care of the rest.