Jurisprudence

Which Lawsuit Will Be the First to Properly Challenge the Texas Abortion Ban?

Several have been filed. Here’s a guide to which ones will go where, and when.

Abortion rights activists rally at the Texas State Capitol on September 11, 2021 in Austin, Texas — one holds a sign with SB 8 crossed out.
Abortion rights activists rally at the Texas State Capitol on September 11, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images

On this week’s Amicus, when Mark Joseph Stern joined Dahlia Lithwick for the Slate Plus segment, the two tried to answer the most common question they’ve both been getting from readers this week: What exactly is going to happen next with SB 8? The infamous Texas abortion ban is now the center of several legal challenges. It prohibits abortion after six weeks, a clear violation of Roe v. Wade—but to evade judicial review, the law empowers private citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion for $10,000. So far, this scheme has prevented any court from blocking the law. Lithwick and Stern talk through the full list of suits trying to take down SB 8, alongside an assessment of how long each suit might take, and which, if any, we might expect to prevail.

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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.

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-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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

Lithwick: I think that’s the lay of the land, and I think anybody who expects instant relief or clarity in the coming days is probably going to be disappointed. At minimum, what I’m hearing you say is we may get an injunction in the Justice Department suit and the Supreme Court may act quickly on this second petition that came in on Thursday night.

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Stern: Yes, that’s right. And so if the court does act quickly and rules favorably for the providers here, that case will go back down to the federal judge who will then have two different lawsuits against SB 8 before him, the one filed by these abortion providers and the one filed by the Justice Department. And it seems like we can bet that this particular judge, Judge Pitman, an Obama appointee, a friend of reproductive rights, will issue an injunction eventually, probably in October blocking SB 8. The big question mark then is what does the Fifth Circuit do? Because the Fifth Circuit is extremely conservative. I think there’s a chance that no matter what Judge Pittman does, some Trump appointees on the Fifth Circuit will find a way to reinstate SB8.

Listen to the whole episode here:

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