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Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act

How the “heartbeat” lawsuits may proceed

The recent “Amicus” podcast from Slate had a bonus segment on the many lawsuits that have been filed in relation to and challenge to SB8, the so-called “heartbeat” bill. For all the normal people out there who don’t follow this sort of thing obsessively, here’s their guide to keeping track of them all.

Dahlia Lithwick: I think the question you and I have probably received the most in the last two weeks is: “How do I even watch SB 8 unfold?” I think there was a collective sigh when Dr. Alan Braid admitted in the pages of the Washington Post that he had in fact performed an illegal—under SB 8—termination of a pregnancy, inviting litigation. Two helpful litigants, both out of state, came forward to sue him.

I think there are a lot of lanes here and folks are confused about timing. So let’s walk through it:

-We’ve still got the ongoing challenge by the providers that the Supreme Court refused to enjoin. That’s going to be heard in December at the Fifth Circuit.

-We have the Biden Administration—the Justice Department has brought a suit that has not resulted in immediate injunction. That is to be heard next week.

-We have a new suit, filed Thursday night by the same group of providers who filed the Fifth Circuit case, saying they’re seeking this extraordinary relief, a petition for cert before judgment.

-We have these two civil suits against Dr. Braid.

-And then after all, we have Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Mark, can you please draw a map of the world of SB8 and what is going to happen first, if you can, and what, if anything, is going to happen before Dobbs?

Mark Joseph Stern: Sure. So let’s start with the state lawsuits. Two different out-of-state lawyers have filed suits in Texas state court against Dr. Alan Braid, who wrote a piece in the Washington Post acknowledging that he performed an abortion after six weeks in Texas in violation of SB8. Those cases are now going to be litigated in Texas state courts, and the doctor is going to raise as a defense, among other things, the fact that Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. And so it is just not constitutionally permissible for him to be punished for performing an abortion that is legal under binding Supreme Court precedent.

Let’s assume that both of these state courts are on the level and are going to acknowledge Roe as binding precedent. In that case, they will presumably throw out the lawsuits, but that doesn’t mean that SB 8 is over or that it’s enjoined. Because the way this law is written, it’s essentially impossible for any Texas state court to block it across the state. It has to be litigated in each individual case. And so no matter the outcome of these particular Texas lawsuits, SB 8 will still be in effect.

This particular doctor may be off the hook because he’ll raise the constitutional right to an abortion as a defense, but everybody else in Texas will still be under the thumb of SB8. It will continue to work its way through the Texas court system, probably very slowly.

Then we have the Justice Department lawsuit. The Justice Department lawsuit, I think, is one of the stronger suits we’ve seen, because the Justice Department representing the United States can sue Texas directly. It can say “We are filing suit against the state of Texas, including all of its agents,” which would presumably encompass anyone who sued under SB8. That’s something a private plaintiff can’t do. Only the United States gets to sue an individual state because the Supreme Court has said sovereign immunity is not a problem in this context. And so that case is currently sitting before a federal judge in Texas, and that judge will soon hold a hearing on whether or not to issue a preliminary injunction blocking SB 8 throughout the entire state of Texas by issuing a decision directly against Texas. But we have to sit on our hands and wait for that because the federal judge is not rushing it. The Justice Department asked him to rush it, but he said, ‘No, I’m going to take my time on this.” And so we’re all waiting for early October, when that case will move forward.

Then we have the petition before the Supreme Court, which is really part of the same case that we all freaked out about in early September. This is the same lawsuit that was filed against state court judges and clerks in Texas. That was the first bite at the apple, the first effort by abortion providers to block SB8. As you recall, they went to a federal judge, the same judge who’s hearing the DOJ suit, and they said, “Please block this law.” The Fifth Circuit swooped in before the judge could do anything and prevented him from doing anything. The providers went to the Supreme Court and by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court threw up its hands and said, “We can’t do anything later.” A couple weeks later, the Fifth Circuit issued a decision saying, “Well, we really think you sued the wrong people. We don’t think that you can sue state judges and state court clerks. And so we are going to hold onto this case and will decide this question formally in a couple of months.”

So now, the providers have gone back up to the Supreme Court and said, “Look, we get that you ruled against us last time and we’re not asking for ruling on the merits. We’re not asking you to issue a shadow docket decision just saying up-or-down vote, whether SB8 can be blocked and should be blocked. All we’re saying, all we’re asking is for you to say that we sued the right people, that some of the folks we sued can be sued, and thus bring this case back down to the original federal judge who was hearing it in the first place and clear away all of these obstacles so that he can decide on the merits, whether to issue an injunction.”

That’s the lay of the land for SB8 and all the while, we’ve got Dobbs in the background, which is a completely different case, not directly related to the Texas case at all. That’s a challenge to Mississippi’s 15 week abortion ban. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in that case on Dec. 1 and probably issue a decision in June of 2022.

Couple of things. In re: the courts that will hear the two lawsuits against Dr. Braid, both lawsuits were filed in Bexar County. One is known to have been assigned to a Democratic judge, the other filing didn’t have a court assigned to it at the time of my posting. I don’t feel like checking the partisan label on every Bexar County civil district court judge, but I can say confidently that the odds are that judge is also a Democrat. They still have to follow the law, of course, but if Dr. Braid’s defense is “this law is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced” as we expect, they can make that ruling. They may be limited in how much of SB8 can be struck down, however, based on the way the law was written and a related case currently before SCOTx, as noted in the comments to that post. Someone more versed in civil procedure than I will have to explain what happens from there if that is the result in at least one of these cases. As a reminder, both of the plaintiffs have expressed some level of opposition to SB8.

There are also the various state court lawsuits against specific parties, in which groups like Planned Parenthood have sought (and so far gotten) temporary restraining orders preventing those parties from filing SB8 lawsuits. These actions are very limited in scope and will not affect the long-term future of SB8, they will just potentially create some obstacles to the lawsuits against the people that SB8 targets.

As noted later, the Fifth Circuit will get another chance to stick its nose in once Judge Pitman makes a ruling in the Justice Department lawsuit. I think we can all take a guess as to why they might do. That’s down the line, and we have plenty to occupy ourselves with until then. Hope this clarifies things. You can listen to that episode of “Amicus” at the link above, but you need to be a Slate Plus member to hear this segment.

Justice Department files its motion for an injunction against SB8

Let’s hope they get a quick win.

The Justice Department has asked a federal judge to grant a temporary restraining order or injunction that would prevent Texas from enacting a law that bans nearly all abortions in the state, heating up a battle between the Biden administration and Texas Republicans, led by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The department argued in a court filing late Tuesday that Texas had adopted the law, known as Senate Bill 8, “to prevent women from exercising their constitutional rights.”

The move comes less than a week after the Biden administration sued Texas to try to block the nation’s most restrictive abortion law, which bans the procedure as early as six weeks into pregnancy and allows private citizens to take legal action against anyone who helps someone terminate their pregnancy.

In Tuesday’s emergency filing, the department argued that even though the Supreme Court has ruled that “a State may not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy before viability,” Texas has banned abortions months before viability — at a time before many people even know they are pregnant.

The brief said Texas had devised “an unprecedented scheme that seeks to deny women and providers the ability to challenge S.B. 8 in federal court. This attempt to shield a plainly unconstitutional law from review cannot stand.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the motion. For those of you who’d like to get the highlights, here you go:

By all accounts, the arguments being made by the Justice Department are strong. We’ll just have to see what the courts – specifically, the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS – make of it. There was no indication as of the time of those tweets when the court would hear arguments or issue a ruling, but now there is:

After the United States Department of Justice filed a preliminary injunction/restraining order against Texas in another attempt to halt Senate Bill 8, a federal judge granted the Biden administration a hearing on Oct. 1 to review temporarily banning the anti-abortion law.

In the signed statement, Judge Robert Pitman stated that Texas shall file in response to the motion no later than Sept. 29, 2021 and the U.S. shall file its reply in response no later than the morning of the hearing.

Mark your calendars. You can see a copy of the judge’s order here, and as Steve Vladeck notes doing it this way rather than granting a temporary restraining order prevents the state from running to the Fifth Circuit and getting the TRO halted. The Trib, the Chron, and the Current have more.

UPDATE: 24 Dem AGs File Amicus Brief Backing DOJ Challenge To Texas Abortion Ban. Good.

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.

More on the AG response to the “heartbeat” bill

Yes, like this.

Democrats on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee are calling on U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice to prosecute people who are now empowered to file lawsuits against abortion seekers under Texas’ new abortion law.

In the letter signed by all Democratic members of the committee, including Texas Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Sheila Jackson Lee and Veronica Escobar, Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York urged the department to take legal action against “would-be vigilantes” and reiterated Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in the ruling.

“The Department of Justice cannot permit private individuals seeking to deprive women of the constitutional right to choose an abortion to escape scrutiny under existing federal law simply because they attempt to do so under the color of state law,” the Democrats’ letter said. “Indeed, the Department is fully empowered to prosecute any individual who attempts, ‘under color of any law,’ to deprive a United States citizen of ‘any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution.’”

The members went on to call the new Texas law a clear violation of women’s right to choose an abortion under the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

[…]

This call for action comes after Garland issued a statement Monday saying law enforcement officials were exploring options to challenge the law “to protect the constitutional rights of women and other persons, including access to an abortion.”

Garland said DOJ officials have contacted U.S. attorneys and FBI field offices to “discuss our enforcement authorities,” but did not go into detail on specific enforcement measures.

That’s in line with what I wanted. There’s plenty of ideas out there. We need to see them get translated into action. Sooner rather than later would be nice. The Chron has more.

The federal response to the “heartbeat” bill

I hope it amounts to something, and I hope they’re quick about it.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said Monday the Department of Justice is “urgently” exploring ways to challenge Texas’ strict new abortion law, but did not specify what options were being considered.

Garland’s statement in a press release comes days after the U.S. Supreme Court denied Texas abortion providers an emergency injunction against the new law banning abortions after fetal cardiac activity can be detected, which can occur as early as six weeks into pregnancy, when many don’t know they are pregnant.

The Supreme Court stated it was not ruling on the constitutionality of the law but was refusing to block it at this point.

Twenty abortion providers originally filed the lawsuit against the state in July to try and shield themselves from the law, which allows private citizens to sue providers and others suspected of helping women get what are now illegal abortions. Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 8 into law in May, after abortion providers already began sounding alarms about its potential impacts.

In his statement Monday, Garland also said that federal officials will rely on the decades-old Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act to “protect those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services.” That federal law bans threats of force or physical obstruction against those seeking such health services.

“The department will provide support from federal law enforcement when an abortion clinic or reproductive health center is under attack,” the statement said.

Garland said DOJ officials have contacted U.S. attorneys’ offices and FBI field offices to “discuss our enforcement authorities.”

[…]

President Joe Biden denounced the Texas law in a statement released on Wednesday, also without specifying a course of action.

“My administration is deeply committed to the constitutional right established in Roe v. Wade nearly five decades ago and will protect and defend that right,” Biden said.

We don’t know what the specifics of this will be, so let me state a general principle that I hope they follow: Roe v Wade remains the law of the land, abortion remains a constitutionally protected right, and any interference in the expression of that right will be met with the full force of the federal government. Bring the pain, scorch the earth, and don’t back down. Talking tough is easy, we need to see action. Slate and Daily Kos have more.