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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.

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2 Comments

  1. Kibitzer Curiae says:

    RE: “they are not fully protected from civil suits.”

    Judge Pitman will have to hold an evidentiary hearing before granting relief against the subset of defendants found viable by SCOTUS. There was no preliminary injunction hearing because it was cancelled in connection with the immediate collateral-order appeal on the defendants’ jurisdictional challenges (overruled by Judge Pitman) that the SCOTUS has now addressed.

    As to less than full protections, that would appear to be a dichotomy (either full protection or none, not a matter of degree), but uncertain because the forthcoming injunction will likely not be in the nature of a declaratory judgment (at least not a final judgment) unless perhaps the preliminary injunction request and resulting order is converted into a final summary declaratory judgment and/or permanent injunction even though the ruling is supposed to be rendered in haste. But even that disposition cannot become binding precedent until the Fifth Circuit gets it and rules, and they could conceivably put a stay on it — as previously –thereby prompting another pre-judgment cert petition in the SCOTUS.

    The Fifth might also decide to farm out the state-law question(s) as to enforcement and authority of state regulators to the Texas Supreme Court through the certified question procedure that use regularly but rarely.

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