Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

September 10th, 2021:

Justice Department sues over “heartbeat” law

Good.

The Justice Department sued Texas on Thursday over its new abortion restrictions law, Attorney General Merrick Garland told reporters, a week after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the law.

Garland announced the lawsuit, filed in a federal district court in Austin, after abortion rights advocates, providers and Democratic lawmakers called for the Biden administration to act. Other legal challenges have been stymied due to the design of the law, which opponents say was engineered to flout a person’s right to an abortion established by Roe v. Wade in 1973.

“This kind of scheme to nullify the Constitution of the United States is one that all Americans, whatever their politics or party, should fear,” Garland said.

The Texas statute, which went into effect Sept. 1, is considered one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation. It prohibits abortions once a “fetal heartbeat” — a term medical and legal experts say is misleading — can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks into pregnancy, before many people know they’re pregnant. Providers say that the law prevents at least 85% of the procedures previously completed in the state.

Garland said Texas’ statute is “invalid under the Supremacy Clause and the 14th Amendment, is preempted by federal law and violates the doctrine of intergovernmental immunity.” He called the law a “statutory scheme” that skirts constitutional precedent by “thwarting judicial review for as long as possible.”

Previous laws aimed at restricting or stopping abortions have been struck down over the years by the Supreme Court. But this law uses the novel mechanism of relying on private citizens filing lawsuits to enforce the law, not state officials or law enforcement. This makes it especially difficult to strike down in court because there is not a specific defendant for the court to make an injunction against.

The law empowers any private citizen in the nation to sue someone found to be “aiding and abetting” an abortion, including providers, doctors and even Uber drivers.

The law has seemingly brought most abortions to a halt in the state. Major clinics canceled appointments, fearful of being inundated with lawsuits in which they’d have to pay a penalty of at least $10,000 if they are found to be in violation of the law. Some clinics have even stopped performing abortions allowed under the new restrictions — before fetal heart activity is detected — out of fear of getting hit with lawsuits.

“The United States has the authority and responsibility to ensure that Texas cannot evade its obligations under the Constitution and deprive individuals of their constitutional rights,” the lawsuit stated. “The federal government therefore brings this suit directly against the State of Texas to obtain a declaration that S.B. 8 is invalid, to enjoin its enforcement, and to protect the rights that Texas has violated.”

[…]

Abortion providers and advocates applauded the Justice Department joining the legal battle to overturn the statute.

“It’s a gamechanger that the Department of Justice has joined the legal battle to restore constitutionally protected abortion access in Texas,” Nancy Northup, president of Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “Right now, and every day this law is in effect, patients are being denied access to essential health care, and the hardest hit are people of color, those struggling to make ends meet, undocumented immigrants and others with pre-existing obstacles to access healthcare.”

Alexis McGill Johnson, Planned Parenthood Federation of America president, said in a statement the lawsuit was “a needed announcement” and thanked Biden and the federal government for the action.

Prior to Thursday’s announcement, legal experts expressed doubts as to how a federal lawsuit might work or how successful it might be. Because of the way the law is constructed, experts have been dubious about how the legal saga will play out in courts and those same challenges could impede efforts by the Justice Department. Federal lawmakers have also vowed to overturn the new restrictions by codifying Roe v. Wade in federal law, but those efforts likely face their own political challenges.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. I am of course no legal expert, but I see this case in terms of two simple principles. One is that a state cannot abrogate a constitutional right. I think we all agree on that basic principle. Given that, and given that abortion is still a constitutional right under current law and precedent, this should be a slam dunk, despite SCOTUS’ cowardly and scurrilous hiding behind the “it’s too clever and complex for our wee little brains” dodge. And two, the targeting of completely unrelated people like Uber drivers is such an egregious overreach that it could be argued as an unconstitutional taking of their property. This law would still be unconstitutional if it didn’t put Uber drivers at risk, but their inclusion makes it extra special unconstitutional.

But really, we shouldn’t even be having this argument. This law is “clever” in the way that a grade schooler claiming that they can’t be made to do homework because it violates their religion is “clever”. It’s time that a court treated it with the contempt it deserves. The 19th, Mother Jones, Slate, Daily Kos, and the Chron have more.

Now that’s a vaccine mandate

Good.

President Joe Biden on Thursday imposed stringent new vaccine rules on federal workers, large employers and health care staff in a sweeping attempt to contain the latest surge of Covid-19.

The new requirements could apply to as many as 100 million Americans — close to two-thirds of the American workforce — and amount to Biden’s strongest push yet to require vaccines for much of the country.

“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” Biden said, his tone hardening toward Americans who still refuse to receive a vaccine despite ample evidence of their safety and full approval of one — the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine — from the US Food and Drug Administration.

He said vaccinated America was growing “frustrated” with the 80 million people who have not received shots and are fueling the spread of the virus. And he acknowledged the new steps would not provide a quick fix.

“While America is in much better shape than it was seven months ago when I took office, I need to tell you a second fact: We’re in a tough stretch and it could last for awhile,” Biden said in an early evening speech from the White House.

At the center of Biden’s new plan is directing the Labor Department to require all businesses with 100 or more employees ensure their workers are either vaccinated or tested once a week, an expansive step the President took after consultation with administration health officials and lawyers. Companies could face thousands of dollars in fines per employee if they don’t comply.

Biden also signed an executive order requiring all government employees be vaccinated against Covid-19, with no option of being regularly tested to opt out. The President signed an accompanying order directing the same standard be applied to employees of contractors who do business with the federal government.

He also said 300,000 educators in federal Head Start programs must be vaccinated and called on governors to require vaccinations for schoolteachers and staff.

And Biden announced he would require the 17 million health care workers at facilities receiving funds from Medicare and Medicaid to be fully vaccinated, expanding the mandate to hospitals, home care facilities and dialysis centers around the country.

“We have the tools to combat the virus if we come together to use those tools,” Biden said at the outset of what was billed as a major speech to tackle the latest phase of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I mean, I’d have ordered the FAA to issue a vaccine mandate for getting on an airplane as well while I was at it, but maybe that’s still to come. To the extent that this is allowed, and based on a lot of public polling, this will move the needle significantly in the vaccination rates. Still won’t get us to 100%, but it will get us a lot closer. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth and lawsuits – you can already hear Greg Abbott caterwauling – but it is going to have an effect. (And by the way, none of this would have been necessary if it hadn’t been for the likes of Greg Abbott.)

I have no idea what the legal status is of any of this. I’ve seen a few people I trust on Twitter suggest that the President has the authority to impose this kind of rule on large businesses in the name of public safety, especially via his emergency powers, but for sure there will be a broad array of opinion on that. Most of the rest of us are at most barely aware than it’s the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that will be doing the work on this, or that it will take some time for the rule to be developed. But as you can see, it has already had an effect:

The more you know…The Trib and the Chron have more.

First Court denies en banc hearing for Paxton trial move

We’re at a point in the Ken Paxton criminal case where it’s hard to adequately summarize the most recent development in a headline-sized bite.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s securities fraud case can be tried in his home county in North Texas, an appeals court affirmed Thursday when it denied the prosecution’s plea to reconsider the decision.

The 1st Court of Appeals in Houston denied a motion by prosecutors to hold a hearing of the full nine-justice court to review the decision made by a three-justice panel of the court in May to move the case from Harris County back to Collin County, where Paxton lives. The order could have avoided further delays in the six-year-old criminal case against the sitting attorney general and returned the case to what is seen as a friendlier venue to the two-term Republican incumbent. But on Thursday, the prosecution said it would continue its appeals.

“Because we agree with the dissenting justices that there are critical errors in the majority’s decision, we will seek further review of it in the Court of Criminal Appeals,” special prosecutor Brian Wice said in a statement.

Justices Gordon Goodman and Amparo Guerra dissented to the court’s majority opinion and Justice April Farris did not participate. Goodman, who was part of the three-justice panel that sent the case back to Collin, had dissented in part to the original decision.

[…]

In May, the panel of three Democratic justices allowed the case to return to Collin County on a vote of 2-1, ruling that the presiding judge who moved the case out of Collin County in March 2017 had no longer been assigned to the judicial region handling Paxton’s case. The ruling was a major victory for Paxton, who had asked the courts to be tried in his home county, a staunchly Republican area of the state where he and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, are well-known political figures.

But prosecutors had accused Paxton’s legal team of “sandbagging” the courts, by withholding information about the judge’s expired assignment so they could later raise the issue in an attempt to move the case back to Collin County. Wice argued that Paxton’s legal team had waited until the presiding judge, Gallagher, of Tarrant County, had moved the case out of Collin County to bring up his expired term with the appeals court. Wice asked the full appeals court to reconsider the panel’s decision and determine whether Paxton’s legal team knew of Gallagher’s expired term earlier in the case.

The court’s majority denied that request.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I had previously said that the First Court had granted the request for an en banc hearing, but all they had done at the time was ask for a response from Team Paxton to that request. I’ve always said I was not a lawyer, now you know why. Now we wait once again for the CCA process to play out.

Mayor Turner orders unvaxxed city employees to get tested twice a week

So maybe get vaccinated, and avoid all the hassle.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Unvaccinated city workers must get tested for COVID-19 twice a month and report their results to the human resources department, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Wednesday.

Turner signed an executive order implementing the policy,which takes effect Oct 8. It will allow some exemptions for religious and medical reasons.

The plans come as the city regularly has had more than 300 active cases of the virus among its workforce, Turner said. The latest numbers showed 342 workers with the virus, including 129 police, 161 municipal and 52 fire department employees.

Those cases hamper city operations, the mayor said.

“When you have 129 police officers with COVID, they’re not able to perform their jobs. Same thing with municipal workers, and, for example, permitting, that slows things down,” Turner said. “Simply don’t want them to get sick and don’t want anybody, anybody to die.”

[…]

The policy will apply to all police, fire and municipal staff who have not been fully vaccinated. It will not apply to elected officials or appointed members to the city’s boards and commissions.

The fire, police and municipal workers unions did not respond to requests for comment on Turner’s plan.

Turner said staff will face disciplinary action if they do not comply.

“It could even cost you your job,” the mayor said.

The mayor in recent weeks had teased a policy to encourage vaccinations, saying many city workers have not gotten their shots.

Mayor Turner implemented a mask mandate for city employees in early August. As far as I know, that executive order has not been involved in any of the lawsuits over mandates and Greg Abbott’s ban on them. This is a step up from that – it’s not a vaccine mandate per se, but it’s pretty close and I doubt Greg Abbott or Ken Paxton will split hairs. (They already have a reason to be whipped into a frenzy about this.) Whether or not cities can issue vaccine mandates is on the agenda for the next special session. What I’m saying is, I don’t know how long I expect this policy to last. And that’s before we hear of the inevitable resistance from the police and firefighter unions – police unions around the country have been staunch resisters of vaccine mandates, and we know how well the Mayor and the HPFFA get along. I support what the Mayor is doing here – if anything, I’d want to see the testing be more frequent – I just doubt he’ll be able to fully implement it. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.