Texas abortion law is temporarily blocked by a federal judge

State News

It wasn't immediately clear how the temporary order may affect access to abortions in the state. The law is constructed in a way that people who violate it could be liable to litigation if enforcement is reinstated.

Abortion rights supporters gather to protest Texas SB 8 in front of Edinburg City Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, in Edinburg, Texas. The nation’s most far-reaching curb on abortions since they were legalized a half-century ago took effect Wednesday in Texas, with the Supreme Court silent on an emergency appeal to put the law on hold.(Joel Martinez/The Monitor via AP)

Editor’s note: This story was updated with new information.

A federal judge temporarily blocked Texas’ near-total abortion ban Tuesday as part of a lawsuit the Biden administration launched against the state over its new law that bars abortions as early as six weeks of pregnancy.

The state of Texas quickly filed a notice of appeal. The state will almost definitely seek an emergency stay of Pitman’s order in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is known as perhaps the nation’s most conservative appellate court.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin — a 2014 Obama nominee — issued a temporary restraining order to block enforcement of the law, after the court held arguments from federal and state attorneys on Friday.

It’s unclear how Pitman’s order may affect access to abortions in the state — or if it’s likely to at all. The law forced all major abortion clinics to stop offering abortions barred under the law and some have stopped offering the procedure altogether — out of fear of litigation. The law is constructed in a way where people who violate the law, even while it is being temporarily blocked, could be liable to litigation once and if the law’s enforcement was reinstated and any existing suits could continue.

Despite the threat of retroactive lawsuits, the Center for Reproductive Rights said the clinics and doctors it represents “hope to resume full abortion services as soon as they are able.” The organization acknowledged that the order is temporary and expected the state would appeal — but called the ruling a “critical first step.”

“For 36 days, patients have been living in a state of panic, not knowing where or when they’d be able to get abortion care,” Nancy Northup, president & CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement Wednesday. “The cruelty of this law is endless.”

Whole Woman’s Health said it was making plans to resume abortions outlawed under Texas’ law.

“This is AMAZING. It’s the justice we have been seeking for weeks,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health said in a statement.

The 5th Circuit has already paused court proceedings in another lawsuit Pitman is overseeing that was lodged by abortion providers over the state’s law. The U.S. Supreme Court could also eventually be asked to step in on this case.

Texas Right to Life, a prominent anti-abortion organization, has said it would consider filing lawsuits against providers or doctors who perform abortions outlawed under S.B. 8 — if Pitman’s order is reversed.

“Any abortions that are committed after September 1, 2021 —there is a four year statute of limitations that somebody can retroactively sue for those abortions — so we are going to be vigilant,” said Kim Schwartz, the organization’s media and communication director.

Schwartz said the organization fully expects the 5th Circuit to step in and reverse Pitman’s order.

In a press release, the ACLU of Texas also pointed to the uncertainty on how Wednesday’s order and the state’s appeal will affect procedures in the state.

“Though the court’s ruling offers a sigh of relief, the threat of Texas’ abortion ban still looms over the state as cases continue to move through the courts. We already know the politicians behind this law will stop at nothing until they’ve banned abortion entirely,” Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project said in a statement. “This fight is far from over, and we’re ready to do everything we can to make sure every person can get the abortion care they need regardless of where they live or how much they make.”

The ruling from Pitman is the strongest judicial action so far against Texas’ abortion law, which went into effect more than a month ago.

Pitman’s order primarily forbids state court judges and court clerks from accepting suits that the law, passed as Senate Bill 8, allows. Pitman ordered the state to publish his order on all “public-facing court websites with a visible, easy-to-understand instruction to the public that S.B. 8 lawsuits will not be accepted by Texas courts.”

He called the case “exceptional” and ordered that the state and “any other persons or entities acting on its behalf” be blocked from enforcing the statute. Pitman gave a scathing response to Texas’ request that the court allow it to seek an appeal prior to blocking the law’s enforcement.

“The State has forfeited the right to any such accommodation by pursuing an unprecedented and aggressive scheme to deprive its citizens of a significant and well-established constitutional right,” Pitman wrote in his order. “From the moment S.B. 8 went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution.”

He acknowledged that his order could be appealed in another court and added: “this Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right.”

The Department of Justice sued Texas on Sept. 9 and alleged the law was deliberately constructed to flout constitutional rights by making it difficult to challenge in court. But the state responded that just because the law is difficult to challenge judicially doesn’t mean it should be overturned.

The statute bars abortions in the state as early as six weeks — a period before many know they’re pregnant. It has been able to survive legal challenges unscathed before Friday because of the novel way the law was written.

By empowering anyone in the nation to file lawsuits against a provider or person who aids someone in getting an abortion and barring state enforcement, SB 8 makes it difficult to name the correct defendants in the lawsuits that would block enforcement of the law.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court decided to not block the law in a late-night 5-4 vote — on the day it went into effect. The court cited procedural difficulties and tossed that legal case back to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where it currently sits. But justices stressed that the court was not ruling on the statute’s constitutionality, namely not overruling Roe v. Wade, which helped established a constitutional right to an abortion.

The Department of Justice’s case is one of many lawsuits filed in an effort to block the enforcement of Texas’ abortion law.

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