JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — There’s no shortage of conservative lawyers in Missouri. As the Show-Me state increasingly trends toward Republican political domination, young lawyers with big ambitions in the Grand Ol’ Party have one major hurdle to clear: getting noticed.
Enter Associate Professor of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law, Josh Hawley, 35, who just made headlines for his amicus brief, submitted by the Missouri Liberty Project, for a case headed to the Supreme Court that could fundamentally undo President Barack Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
Hawley is familiar with making headlines battling Obamacare. He served as one of the lead attorneys in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a sweeping and controversial Supreme Court decision that opened the door for employers to dodge the contraception mandate in the ACA if doing so violated their religious beliefs. Hawley was one of the attorneys working for Hobby Lobby well before the case reached the high court. As counsel to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Hawley was working as part of Hobby Lobby’s legal team for years leading up to the case against the Department of Health and Human Services.
“The Obama administration has been more hostile to religious liberty for people of all faiths than any in our nation’s history,” Hawley said. “Religious liberty, regardless of faith convictions, protects personal freedoms that we as Americans hold dear. It’s a line, the line the government cannot cross in telling groups what they can’t do.”
Hawley’s latest foray into a legal fight with Obamacare is manifesting itself in the King v Burwell case. If the Court decides to side with lawyers like Hawley, federal subsidies will not be available in the 34 states — including Missouri — that did not establish their own state-run healthcare exchange. Without federal subsidies, the individual mandate and the employer mandate would also go away. In short, a favorable ruling for Hawley and his fellow conservative legal thinkers would effectively dismantle Obama’s healthcare bill in more than half of the states.
“The voters of Missouri decided in 2012 with a 61 percent margin not to set up an Obamacare exchange and to prohibit the Governor from establishing one through executive order,” Hawley said. “It’s a decision that the Affordable Care Act invites voters in the states to make. Now the Obama administration is trying to issue a rule saying they will spend federal money and set up exchanges in each state anyway.”
With bashing Obamacare is a virtual requirement to join the ranks of Missouri Republicans and an increasing fervor among the party’s most conservative wing to battle any and all perceived threats against religious freedom, Hawley’s name is increasingly whispered among players in the Capitol as a man eyeing a run for public office.
He has the resume. Missouri-born and raised in Lafayette County, a graduate of Yale Law School and Stanford University, Hawley has a reputation as a sharp mind with a knack for explaining complex legalese to average voters. Attorney General would almost certainly be the easiest fit for Hawley’s background and he admits he’s mulling a future in politics.
“As I’ve traveled around the state to talk about our constitution, I’ve met a lot of folks who have urged me to run for a statewide office or pledged support,” Hawley said. “When you have people doing that, you’re definitely going to be giving it some thought. I certainly haven’t made any decisions yet, but I am giving serious thought to whether serving in an elected office is a place to advance the causes I care about.”
Hawley’s biggest barrier in any statewide race would, of course, be money. While he makes an appealing AG candidate, Hawley doesn’t have the advantage of currently serving in an elected office like the state’s two other declared interested parties: Senators Kurt Schaefer, a Republican, of Columbia and Scott Sifton, a Democrat, of St. Louis.
Schaefer was perhaps the first person to publicly declare his 2016 intentions, announcing more than a year ago his desire to serve as Missouri’s Attorney General. Schaefer has spent the last few years raising money and trying to end a primary before it even begins.
Hawley’s focus on religious liberty cases allows him to pivot nicely to a broader — and decidedly campaign-feeling — rhetorical point.
“The fight for religious liberty is the fight for personal freedom writ large,” Hawley said. “The latest Obamacare case isn’t religious, but it’s sure about personal freedom.”
Hawley’s ambitions may not need to trend toward electoral politics. He makes an appealing pick for the appellate court system under the next Republican president, a slot that wouldn’t involve running against a well-funded opponent who hails from the same metropolitan region as your own.
No matter what he seeks next, Hawley pledged to continue to seek out legal cases where religious liberty was in need of defense, saying that “people of all faiths” needed protections from ‘aggressive” federal government overreach.
“States are important players in defending the constitution,” Hawley said. “Historically when we see an assault on constitutional liberties, it’s often the states that end up as the defenders of those liberties.”
Collin Reischman was the Managing Editor for The Missouri Times, and a graduate of Webster University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.