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December 11th, 2021:

SCOTUS allows providers’ lawsuit against SB8 to proceed

There’s a lot to unpack here.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday ruled that the legal challenge brought forward by abortion providers against Texas’ abortion restriction law may continue, bringing new life into what has become the most significant effort to overturn the statute so far.

The court allowed the suit to continue on an 8-1 decision but did not stop the law’s enforcement. Instead, the suit will continue in a lower federal court where abortion providers will resume seeking to block the law, commonly referred to as Senate Bill 8.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed with allowing the suit to continue but condemned the high court’s decision to leave the law in effect, saying it has had “catastrophic consequences for women seeking to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion in Texas.”

“The Court should have put an end to this madness months ago, before S. B. 8 first went into effect,” she wrote. “It failed to do so then, and it fails again today.”

In a separate decision, the court dismissed a separate challenge from the Biden administration.

The justices also allowed the abortion providers to sue some state licensing officials, but not state court clerks, citing difficulties surrounding sovereign immunity. This could make it difficult for providers to get the law’s enforcement blocked overall in court.

“By blessing significant portions of the law’s effort to evade review, the Court comes far short of meeting the moment,” Sotomayor said. “By foreclosing suit against state court officials and the state attorney general, the Court clears the way for States to reprise and perfect Texas’ scheme in the future to target the exercise of any right recognized by this Court with which they disagree. This is no hypothetical. New permutations of S. B. 8 are coming.”

[…]

The providers’ suit returns to U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, who previously blocked enforcement of the law for two days. It was resumed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is known as perhaps the nation’s most conservative appellate court.

The suit could now follow a similar trajectory as before: If Pitman blocks the law again, abortion opponents will likely appeal to the 5th Circuit as well — and then the case could land before the Supreme Court once more.

[…]

Katherine Franke, a professor of law at Columbia University and director of the university’s Center of Gender and Sexuality Law, said she was pleased that the Supreme Court allowed the provider’s lawsuit to continue — but the court continues to make concessions over a person’s right to an abortion.

“What the [Supreme Court] has done is reiterate what their earlier ruling was, which is that a majority does not see a constitutional emergency in this case, even though SB 8 clearly and intentionally violates established Supreme Court law,” she said.

Franke said allowing the law to stay in effect while court proceedings continue proves that abortion rights are in jeopardy more than something like religious freedom. Although Friday’s decision allows the fight against Texas’ law to continue, she said more should have been done to protect abortion rights.

“The decision could have been much worse than it was … but this decision takes place within a larger legal landscape where the underlying right that’s at stake — that the court has not even addressed yet — could very well be eliminated and overruled,” she said. “It’s not a complete loss. I wouldn’t say it’s a partial victory, but it’s not a complete loss.”

See here for the previous entry, here for this ruling, and here for the dismissal of the Justice Department lawsuit. I’d like to see some more commentary on that ruling, because I don’t like it at all. The most thorough analysis I’ve seen of the main ruling so far comes from Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern.

The upshot of Friday’s decisions is this: Abortion providers can now ask U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman to block S.B. 8. Pitman will swiftly grant their request by issuing an injunction against “executive licensing officials” tasked with enforcing the law, a decision that should stand in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Texas’ clinics will presumably begin providing abortions again, though they are not fully protected from civil suits.

In the meantime, all parties will await the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, due by June, which may overturn Roe v. Wade and permit Texas to implement a more straightforward abortion ban. And other states may still pass S.B. 8–style laws that empower vigilantes to sue abortion providers, as long as they tweak the language to comply with Friday’s decision.

[…]

Now the court has issued the narrowest possible decision to let the providers’ suit proceed. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for the court rejected their primary theory: that providers could sue state court judges and clerks to prevent the docketing of S.B. 8 cases. Gorsuch held that these agents of the state enjoy “sovereign immunity,” the doctrine that states are generally immune from private lawsuits. There is an exception from this rule called Ex parte Young that permits individuals to sue state officials, but Gorsuch held that it does not apply to state court judges and clerks. “Usually, those individuals do not enforce state laws as executive officials might,” he wrote; “instead, they work to resolve disputes between parties.”

Gorsuch identified other roadblocks, asserting that there is “no case or controversy” between providers and state courts and no remedy that “permits clerks to pass on the substance of the filings they docket—let alone refuse a party’s complaint based on an assessment of its merits.” He also rejected the plaintiffs’ attempt to sue Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, writing that Paxton has no authority to enforce S.B. 8. And even if Paxton did have such power, Gorsuch concluded, federal courts cannot “parlay” an injunction against an attorney general “into an injunction against any and all unnamed private persons who might seek to bring their own S.B. 8 suits.”

This part of Gorsuch’s ruling is a victory for providers—albeit an extremely limited one, for two reasons. First, it’s not clear that an injunction against licensing officials would stop bounty hunters from filing lawsuits under S.B. 8; it would only restrict the state’s ability to punish those clinics found liable under the law. Similarly, an injunction against licensing officials may not stop citizens from suing “abettors” who facilitate an abortion. Second, Texas and other states can easily work around Friday’s decision. Wary of that outcome, Chief Justice John Roberts—along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor—dissented from Gorsuch’s refusal to let providers sue state court clerks and the Texas attorney general. Roberts and Sotomayor wrote separate dissents, both focusing on Texas’ flagrant attempt to “nullify” rights protected by the federal Constitution.

Gorsuch did, however, identify one slim route around S.B. 8’s blockades: He allowed providers to sue the “executive licensing officials” who “may or must take enforcement actions against the petitioners if they violate” the law. These officials implement state law in a traditional manner, Gorsuch explained, and thus cannot claim sovereign immunity. They fall squarely into the Ex parte Young exception. And so there are no constitutional barriers stopping clinics from naming these parties as defendants in their federal lawsuit to freeze S.B. 8. Every justice except Clarence Thomas joined this part of Gorsuch’s decision; Thomas, alone, would have foreclosed all avenues of relief. So there are five votes to shield state court judges and clerks from federal suit, five votes to shield the attorney general from suit, and eight votes to let the suit against “executive licensing officials” proceed.

“Texas has employed an array of stratagems designed to shield its unconstitutional law from judicial review,” the chief justice wrote. “The clear purpose and actual effect of S.B. 8 has been to nullify this Court’s rulings.” And if legislatures can “annul the judgments of the courts of the United States,” then “the constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery.” He asserted that state court clerks and Paxton were “proper defendants” because both play a role in imposing “burdens on those sued under S.B. 8.” An injunction against such defendants, Roberts acknowledged, may be “novel.” But “any novelty in this remedy is a direct result of the novelty of Texas’s scheme.”

Sotomayor’s dissent was substantially fierier. She criticized the majority for failing to “put an end to this madness months ago, before S.B. 8 first went into effect.” By allowing for such limited relief, Sotomayor wrote, the majority “effectively invites other States to refine S. B. 8’s model for nullifying federal rights,” betraying “not only the citizens of Texas, but also our constitutional system of government.”

[…]

There is a vast chasm between the two blocs in this case. The five most conservative justices appear to view S.B. 8 as a one-off, a desperate attempt to evade a decision (Roe v. Wade) that they themselves probably view as illegitimate. The four other justices see S.B. 8 as a direct threat to the Supreme Court’s authority to “say what the law is” by shielding constitutional liberties from state infringement. It seems the majority is troubled just enough to carve a path around some of S.B. 8’s blockades—but its solution is a ticket good for one ride only. Texas can pass nearly identical legislation that eliminates the powers of “executive licensing officials” and, apparently, lock providers out of federal court once again. Copycat bills have already cropped up in four other states, and Gorsuch has given legislators a road map to ensure that they can fully insulate their legislation from federal court review. He and his hard-right colleagues appear to believe that blue states won’t have the spine to deploy these tricks against rights favored by conservatives, like the right to bear arms.

Not much I can add to that, though you should read Dahlia Lithwick’s companion piece about the pile of failure that is John Roberts as well. The state lawsuit has drawn some boundaries, and if we get another injunction from Judge Pitman that survives the chainsaw massacre of the Fifth Circuit, we’ll be in a somewhat better place than we are right now. But the damage has been done to the clinics, and even without the looming threat of the Dobbs ruling, they may never recover. Mother Jones, The 19th, The Nation, and the Observer have more.

Filing update: We have an Ag Commissioner candidate

But before I can get to that and other news, I have to bring you this:

A Fort Worth man is running for the State Board of Education as a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian and Green Party member. Filing for a place on a primary ballot for multiple parties is allowed, however “a person who becomes a candidate in multiple parties’ primary elections would not be eligible for a place on the general election ballot,” a spokesperson for the Texas Secretary of State’s office said in an email.

Fort Worth school district employee Daniel “DC” Caldwell, who previously ran for Fort Worth mayor, is seeking to represent Tarrant County’s District 11 on the State Board of Education, a seat held by Republican Patricia Hardy of Fort Worth. Caldwell, reached by the Star-Telegram on Wednesday, recognized the unusual nature of his bid.

“I understand that nobody hardly ever does that, but I have lots of reasons,”said Caldwell, who teaches special education at Boulevard Heights. “The simplest to articulate is really that we should have more unity and less division. Like really, I have friends on both sides of the aisle and even down the hall, as it were. I have an inclusionist rather than exclusionist philosophy. … I’ve read the platform or value statement of the Green Party, of Libertarian Party, of the of the Democratic Party, of the Republican Party, and when it comes down to fundamentals, we actually have far more in common than we’d like to admit.”

A spokesperson for the Texas Secretary of State’s office wrote in an email that filing for multiple parties is almost unprecedented, “with the notable exception of former Gov. Shivers,” who served as Texas governor from 1949-1957. He was both the Republican and Democratic nominee in his 1952 bid.

[…]

State law says a person “who voted at a primary election or who was a candidate for nomination in a primary is ineligible for a place on the ballot for the succeeding general election for state and county officers as … the nominee of a political party other than the party holding the primary in which the person voted or was a candidate.”

University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus put it this way: “You can file for primaries for multiple parties but you won’t be able to win in the general if you do that.”

“Candidates who try to run in more than one party primary are effectively without any party,” he said in an email.

But Caldwell interprets the law as allowing him to appear on the general election ballot.

“It prevents you from running as an independent or running as a write in, or being nominated by more than one at the same time, but it does not prevent you from being in the primary,” he said. “But if you happen to win, you can only accept one of the nominations. That’s what it’s intended to do. That’s what it literally says.”

Pretty sure Caldwell also ran for the HCC Board in 2017. Dude gets around. I admit, I thought Patrick Svitek had somehow screwed up the spreadsheet, but no. There’s only one thing to say to that:

Anyway. I promised you a Democratic candidate for Ag Commissioner, and I aim to deliver. Meet Susan Hays.

I’m running for Agriculture Commissioner because corruption is bad for business. No one trusts the incumbent to do what’s right for Texas. Farming is hard, but ethics should be easy.

I grew up in rural Texas in the middle of ranching and hunting country. But like many of my generation I left for the city to get an education and make a living. My law practice took me to advising cannabis producers and businesses, and pushing Texas to open the door to this high-value crop with the hemp program. I welcomed the opportunity to get back to the country and find a way to make an income off the land again. Working on the roll-out of the hemp program, I started hearing rumors of corruption. Folks talking about having to pay thousands of dollars to get a hemp license which sounded pretty strange to me because I knew the law was intended to make things easy and affordable on farmers.

Then, the Commissioner’s political consultant got arrested for trying to sell hemp licenses for $25,000.

Licenses that cost $100 and are available to anyone.

And that made me mad.

And so here she is. In a just world, she’ll clean the clock of that malevolent clown Sid Miller. In this world we’ll have to see, but being pro-hemp and anti-corruption seems like a good place to start.

On the Congressional side, a couple of candidacies to note. One is in CD02, where Woodlands-area activist and organizer Robin Fulford has filed. No announcement yet – she’s been teasing it on Facebook, not that it was a terribly well-kept secret to begin with – but her name is now in bold on the Svitek spreadsheet. CD02 is a tougher district than it was before, not really a competitive one by the new numbers, but no one will outwork Robin. In CD07, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher now has a primary opponent, Centrell Reed. I know nothing more about her than what you can see for yourself. I would have thought if someone was going to challenge Rep. Fletcher in her newly drawn district it would be more of a traditional political type. That does not appear to be the case here. I’ll be interested to see how she runs.

I’ll wrap up in Harris County, where a name I’d forgotten about has turned up on the Commissioners Court Precinct 4 candidates list: Clarence Miller, who can credibly claim to have been the first candidate in this race. Also running for County Commissioner is Gary Harrison, who has filed in Precinct 2 against Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

Finally, while Erica Davis hasn’t yet filed for County Judge, or updated her webpage to reflect her candidacy for that office, someone else has filed. Frequent City Council candidate Georgia Provost is now in the race. I’d say she’s better known than Erica Davis, and that’s not to be dismissed in a primary. I believe in Judge Hidalgo, and I believe she’ll want to start spending some of that campaign cash of hers sooner rather than later.

The deadline is Monday. There are still a number of races I’m looking at that don’t have candidates yet. I’ll update on Monday morning, and then we’ll see where we end up. Leave your hot gossip here in the comments.

It’s 2021 Runoff Day

The interactive map of voting locations is here, and a list with addresses is here. I do believe that most of the votes for the runoff have already been cast, but I’ve been wrong before. I’ll have results tomorrow. Those of you in HISD district V (Sue Deigaard), VI (Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca), and VII (Anne Sung) really need to make sure you vote.