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.