The good guys appear to have the upper hand in this case. It seems unlikely that will last for very long, however.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday grilled attorneys for abortion providers, the federal government and Texas over the state’s near-total abortion ban — and possibly hinted at support for allowing at least one legal challenge to the law to stand.
The majority of justices pushed back on the enforcement mechanism that has allowed the law to skirt judicial review so far but seemed skeptical of the federal government’s claims that it had a right to sue the state over the law.
The Supreme Court heard hearings over Texas’ abortion law, also known as Senate Bill 8, as part of two lawsuits — one lodged by abortion providers and the other by the U.S. Department of Justice. Both focused on procedural technicalities surrounding the law and the suits challenging it, not on abortion rights nor the constitutionality of the law itself.
Those questions centered on whether Texas’ enforcement strategy for the law is allowable — which empowers private citizens to sue those who perform or help someone get an abortion disallowed by the law — and whether the United States has the right to sue Texas over the statute.
Notably, conservative Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh seemed to push back on Texas’ unique enforcement mechanism. Their line of questioning and comments suggested they might side with abortion providers in condemning the “loophole” that the law exploits to thwart judicial review. Kavanaugh and Barrett, along with three other conservative justices, voted against temporarily blocking the law on Sept. 1, when the law took effect.
Texas’ law, which blocks abortions at about six weeks into a pregnancy, skirts constitutional precedent by forbidding state officials from enforcing it and instead relying on private citizens to sue those in violation. Typically, in suits aiming to overturn laws considered unconstitutional, courts don’t block the laws themselves — they block their enforcement. This is the reason opponents have struggled to name the right defendants to block the law.
Much of the discussion Monday centered around how that enforcement mechanism could be replicated to cast a chilling effect other rights protected by the Constitution: not just abortion rights, but also gun ownership, freedom of the press and same-sex marriage.
The significance of SB 8’s unusual structure and what that might mean for constitutional rights more broadly was a key focus. It is a point newly confirmed Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar honed in on during the second argument of the day.
“If the state can just take this simple mechanism of taking its enforcement authority and giving it to the general public, backed up with a bounty of $10,000 or $1 million, if they can do that, then no constitutional right is safe,” Prelogar argued. “No constitutional decision from this court is safe. That would be an intolerable state of affairs and it cannot be the law. Our constitutional guarantees cannot be that fragile, and the supremacy of federal law cannot be that easily subject to manipulation.”
Three of the court’s conservative justices — Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Justice Amy Coney Barrett — indicated openness to the arguments made by Texas’ abortion providers, noting in particular that the law turns state officials into enforcement agents. Both Barrett and Kavanaugh previously voted the opposite way, joining the court’s conservative wing in a September 2 decision allowing SB 8 to take effect.
Barrett asked leading questions about the clinics’ inability to obtain constitutional relief in state court under SB 8, which reveals she might vote in the providers’ favor, said Joanna Grossman, a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law.
Kavanaugh had already been deemed a likely swing vote. Kavanaugh showed particular skepticism of Texas’ argument and questioned whether the law could be used as a blueprint for other issues beyond abortion, such as restricting gun rights.
Those questions spoke to a deeper issue: Allowing the Texas law to stay in effect could weaken not only the federal government, but the Supreme Court’s overarching authority, by giving states a blueprint for writing laws that violate court precedent but circumvent judicial review.
That appears to be a powerful motivator, suggested Leah Litman, a constitutional law expert at the University of Michigan.
“The court is likely to protect its institutional authority, and that desire will probably unify and unite Democratic appointees and Republican appointees,” she said.
Focusing on the Whole Woman’s Health lawsuit could also allow the court to avoid some of the thornier constitutional questions raised in the U.S. government’s case, she added.
“The U.S. v Texas lawsuit might be — by asking what is the injury to the U.S. — that may be seen as teeing up bigger questions they don’t want to address,” [Melissa Murray, a reproductive law expert at New York University] said. “There may be more appetite for the provider suit.”
As both The 19th and Slate point out, whatever SCOTUS does here, they can clear a path for Texas to more cleanly ban abortion in the coming months.
In exactly one month, the justices will hear a more important case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that gives them an opportunity to overrule Roe v. Wade. And if Roe goes, Texas will simply ban abortion outright, obviating the need for the convulated workaround at the center of today’s oral arguments. For the three justices who are torn over S.B. 8, the solution may be simple: Affirm the federal judiciary’s supremacy over states that undermine their authority, then hand those states the power to ban abortion whenever, wherever, and however they please.
Previously, the big stumbling block for the conservative justices was the question of who to sue; in their shadow docket decision, the justices sounded uncertain about whether abortion providers can sue state judges and clerks to halt S.B. 8 in its tracks. Under a doctrine known as Ex parte Young, plaintiffs can sue government officials tasked with enforcing a law, though it’s unclear whether judges qualify. On Monday, Kavanaugh seemed to propose a compromise: close the “loophole” that Texas has “exploited” by allowing providers to sue clerks but not judges. The case would then go back down to the district court, who could bar Texas clerks from docketing S.B. 8 cases, thereby defanging the law. As a result, the Justice Department’s lawsuit would become irrelevant, because abortion providers could protect their own interests in federal court.
The best part of this compromise, to the conservatives, is that it could become irrelevant to abortion within months. On Dec. 1, the court will hear arguments in Dobbs, which asks them to overrule Roe v. Wade. If the majority accepts this invitation, Texas won’t need to worry about S.B. 8 anymore; it has already passed a “trigger law” that will automatically ban abortion if Roe falls. At the same time, blue states will not be able to deploy S.B. 8–style schemes against disfavored rights like the Second Amendment. We may remember S.B. 8 not as the start of a new era in state supremacy over constitutional rights, but as a last gasp of defiance before the Supreme Court plunged us into a post-Roe world.