Federal judge blocks Texas abortion law

On Wednesday evening, a federal judge blocked the enforcement of a Texas ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, a blow to a new law that severely limited the procedure statewide.

US District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin issued a preliminary injunction blocking the law, saying the state had pursued “an unprecedented and aggressive plan to deprive its citizens of an important and well-established constitutional right.”

His order came in a case brought by the Department of Justice, which sued Texas last month after abortion rights advocates failed to secure a court order against the Texas restrictions.

The law, known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, or SB 8, has been in effect for a month. It prohibits doctors from knowingly performing an abortion if there is detectable embryonic heart activity.

Texas lawmakers designed the measure to be difficult to challenge in court by prohibiting state officials from enforcing the law. Instead, the law delegates enforcement to private parties and authorizes civil damages of $ 10,000 or more to anyone who successfully sues a defendant accused of performing or assisting in such an abortion.

“Since SB 8 came into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in a way that is constitutionally protected,” Obama-appointed Justice Pitman said in a statement. . 113-page decision. “It is up to other courts to find a way to avoid this conclusion; this court will not sanction one more day this offensive deprivation of such an important right.

Protesters marched in Houston on Saturday against Texas’ abortion law.


Photo:

Reginald Mathalone / Zuma Press

The ruling is likely to trigger a new chapter of expedited court proceedings that could return to the Supreme Court in the coming weeks. On September 1, a divided high court rejected an emergency request by abortion providers to block the law. The majority of the court said there were procedural reasons why it could not intervene.

Judge Pitman chose not to delay the effective date of his injunction to give Texas time to seek an immediate stay from an appeals court, which means abortion providers of the State have at least a short window of time to resume offering abortions to a wide range of patients if they wish. do this.

Attorney General Merrick Garland called the decision a “victory for women in Texas and for the rule of law.”

“It is the primary responsibility of the Department of Justice to defend the Constitution,” Garland said. “We will continue to protect constitutional rights against anyone who seeks to undermine them. “

The Texas attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but it filed a notice of appeal shortly after the decision was released. The case will then go to the Fifth United States Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans. In an earlier dispute brought by abortion providers, this court had previously allowed the law to come into force.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder of Whole Woman’s Health, said the organization’s four abortion clinics would immediately resume procedures until 18 weeks pregnant. After the law came into force, clinics had to turn away about 80 percent of patients seeking abortions, Miller said previously. On Wednesday night, she called the judge’s decision astonishing.

“This is the justice that we have been seeking for weeks,” Ms. Miller said.

Texas Right to Life spokesperson Kimberlyn Schwartz said the organization was not surprised by the decision and called the injunction unprecedented.

“We expect a fair shake up at the Fifth Court of Appeal,” Ms. Schwartz said. “The legacy of Roe v. Wade is that you have these judges who will bend over backwards to meet the needs of the abortion industry.”

In the month after the law came into effect, women from Texas traveled to other states for abortions, sparking more patients at clinics in neighboring states.

The Texas measure clearly conflicts with the current Supreme Court precedent protecting abortion rights, but a key issue in the litigation was whether a plaintiff could overcome early procedural hurdles to get a judge to consider the background of state restrictions.

The Justice Department has alleged that the Texas ban violates the constitutional commandment that federal law is supreme over state law, as well as the 14th Amendment due process guarantee, the basis for recognition by the Supreme Court of a constitutional right to abortion.

He also argued that the state measure was pre-empted by federal law because it prohibited certain abortions “that federal agencies are responsible for facilitating, funding or reimbursing”, including through health programs that cover the procedure in cases of rape or incest. Texas law makes no exceptions for such cases.

The state argued that the Justice Department’s trial was inappropriate and said it was not possible for the judge to issue a workable injunction because there was no one the court could validly bar d ‘to apply the law.

Justice Pitman rejected these arguments and concluded that the Justice Department had a valid basis for suing Texas because state law prevented federal officials from fulfilling their obligations. He also said the federal government could take legal action to prevent likely violations of citizens’ constitutional rights. Texas, he added, could not use the unusual design of the law to avoid federal judicial review.

The judge directed his injunction against the state and anyone acting on its behalf. It will remain in place while litigation in the case continues, unless a higher court steps in to stay it.

Write to Brent Kendall at [email protected]

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