The Department of Justice will ask the Supreme Court to step in and block a controversial Texas law that bars most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy while legal challenges play out, a department spokesperson said Friday.
The petition will once again place the justices in the center of a firestorm created by the law that bars abortions before most women even know they are pregnant.
DOJ did not say when it will formally petition the court.
On September 1, a deeply divided court allowed the Texas law to go into effect, as a part of a different legal challenge brought by abortion providers. That decision rendered Roe v. Wade a dead letter in the country’s second-largest state. Since then, other challenges to the law have ricocheted through the courts.
As the justices consider the law again, they will review the record detailing how the law has impacted women and clinics on the ground over the past six weeks. In sworn declarations, abortion providers say that it has had a chilling effect because staff are “plagued by fear and instability,” and they “remain seriously concerned that even providing abortions in compliance with S.B. 8 will draw lawsuits from anti-abortion vigilantes or others seeking financial gain” under the law’s provision, which offers up to $10,000 in damages.
Providers in neighboring states said under oath that they have been overwhelmed with patients traveling from Texas seeking an abortion. When Judge Robert Pitman of the US District Court for the Western District of Texas temporarily blocked the law last week he said that from the moment it went into effect, “women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution.”
And in a stark warning directed to the Supreme Court Pitman wrote: “that other courts may find a way to avoid this conclusion is theirs to decide; this Court will not sanction one more day of the offensive deprivation of such an important right.”
The 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals, however, has stayed Pitman’s ruling, meaning the law is in effect for now. It rejected the Justice Department’s petition to lift the stay Thursday night, paving the way for the upcoming Supreme Court fight.
A key issue in the case is whether the federal government has the legal right or “standing” to bring the challenge at hand. The DOJ says it does, in part, because private individuals bringing suit are acting as agents of the state and the government has the power to protect the fundamental rights of its citizens.
But Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, says the federal government doesn’t have the right to step in.
He is supported by a brief filed by Jonathan Mitchell, one of the architects of the law who is now representing three individuals who are interested in bringing lawsuits against those who may violate the law.
Mitchell wrote that the states “have tools in their arsenal to limit the judiciary’s opportunities to pronounce their statutes unconstitutional.”
Mitchell said that states can structure their laws in a way that “reduces or eliminates” laws from being challenged before they are actually enforced. “And that is what Texas has done,” he said. “By prohibiting state officials from enforcing the statute and by authorizing the citizenry to enforce the law through private civil-enforcement actions, Texas has boxed out the judiciary from entertaining” such challenges.
Mitchell added that abortion is “not a constitutional right,” but instead it is “a court-invented right that may not even have the majority support on the current Supreme Court.”
In December, the Supreme Court will also consider a Mississippi law that bans the procedure after 15 weeks. In that case, the state is asking the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision legalizing abortion nationwide prior to viability, which can occur at around 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Neither the Texas law nor the Mississippi law has an exception for rape or incest.
This story has been updated with additional details.
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