Jurisprudence

The Supreme Court’s Texas Abortion Decision Is a Disaster for Constitutional Rights

In the guise of a compromise decision, five justices gave states a road map to nullify fundamental liberties.

All nine justices of the Supreme Court wearing their robes and smiling in front of a red velvet curtain
Pool/Getty Images

On Friday, the Supreme Court allowed abortion providers to sue Texas over S.B. 8, the state’s six-week abortion ban. In an 8–1 decision, the justices authorized a lawsuit against “executive licensing officials” who would take action against clinics that violate the law. At the same time, by a 5–4 vote, the justices refused to let providers sue the Texas attorney general or state court clerks. They dismissed the Justice Department’s separate challenge to S.B. 8 with no explanation. And they allowed the law to remain in effect until the lower courts act.

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The upshot of Friday’s decisions is this: Abortion providers can now ask U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman to block S.B. 8. Pitman will swiftly grant their request by issuing an injunction against “executive licensing officials” tasked with enforcing the law, a decision that should stand in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Texas’ clinics will presumably begin providing abortions again, though they are not fully protected from civil suits.

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In the meantime, all parties will await the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, due by June, which may overturn Roe v. Wade and permit Texas to implement a more straightforward abortion ban. And other states may still pass S.B. 8–style laws that empower vigilantes to sue abortion providers, as long as they tweak the language to comply with Friday’s decision.

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Texas Republicans passed S.B. 8 for the express purpose of eluding judicial review. The law bars doctors from performing an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, or two weeks after the first missed period. It has no exception for rape. About 90 percent of abortions take place after six weeks, so the law operates as a near-total ban. But it does not empower the state to enforce its restrictions. Instead, S.B. 8 allows individual citizens to sue abortion providers and their “abettors” in Texas state court for a minimum of $10,000 plus attorneys’ fees. A friend who drives the patient to the clinic, a family member who helps cover the cost of the procedure, a rape crisis counselor who encourages termination: All these people could face ruinous lawsuits under S.B. 8.

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This private enforcement mechanism created a puzzle for clinics: It was unclear whom, exactly, they could sue to halt the law, since it was designed to be enforced by private citizens, not government officials.

Now the court has issued the narrowest possible decision to let the providers’ suit proceed. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for the court rejected their primary theory: that providers could sue state court judges and clerks to prevent the docketing of S.B. 8 cases. Gorsuch held that these agents of the state enjoy “sovereign immunity,” the doctrine that states are generally immune from private lawsuits. There is an exception from this rule called Ex parte Young that permits individuals to sue state officials, but Gorsuch held that it does not apply to state court judges and clerks. “Usually, those individuals do not enforce state laws as executive officials might,” he wrote; “instead, they work to resolve disputes between parties.”

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Gorsuch identified other roadblocks, asserting that there is “no case or controversy” between providers and state courts and no remedy that “permits clerks to pass on the substance of the filings they docket—let alone refuse a party’s complaint based on an assessment of its merits.” He also rejected the plaintiffs’ attempt to sue Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, writing that Paxton has no authority to enforce S.B. 8. And even if Paxton did have such power, Gorsuch concluded, federal courts cannot “parlay” an injunction against an attorney general “into an injunction against any and all unnamed private persons who might seek to bring their own S.B. 8 suits.”

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This part of Gorsuch’s ruling is a victory for providers—albeit an extremely limited one, for two reasons. First, it’s not clear that an injunction against licensing officials would stop bounty hunters from filing lawsuits under S.B. 8; it would only restrict the state’s ability to punish those clinics found liable under the law. Similarly, an injunction against licensing officials may not stop citizens from suing “abettors” who facilitate an abortion. Second, Texas and other states can easily work around Friday’s decision. Wary of that outcome, Chief Justice John Roberts—along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor—dissented from Gorsuch’s refusal to let providers sue state court clerks and the Texas attorney general. Roberts and Sotomayor wrote separate dissents, both focusing on Texas’ flagrant attempt to “nullify” rights protected by the federal Constitution.

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Gorsuch did, however, identify one slim route around S.B. 8’s blockades: He allowed providers to sue the “executive licensing officials” who “may or must take enforcement actions against the petitioners if they violate” the law. These officials implement state law in a traditional manner, Gorsuch explained, and thus cannot claim sovereign immunity. They fall squarely into the Ex parte Young exception. And so there are no constitutional barriers stopping clinics from naming these parties as defendants in their federal lawsuit to freeze S.B. 8. Every justice except Clarence Thomas joined this part of Gorsuch’s decision; Thomas, alone, would have foreclosed all avenues of relief. So there are five votes to shield state court judges and clerks from federal suit, five votes to shield the attorney general from suit, and eight votes to let the suit against “executive licensing officials” proceed.

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“Texas has employed an array of stratagems designed to shield its unconstitutional law from judicial review,” the chief justice wrote. “The clear purpose and actual effect of S.B. 8 has been to nullify this Court’s rulings.” And if legislatures can “annul the judgments of the courts of the United States,” then “the constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery.” He asserted that state court clerks and Paxton were “proper defendants” because both play a role in imposing “burdens on those sued under S.B. 8.” An injunction against such defendants, Roberts acknowledged, may be “novel.” But “any novelty in this remedy is a direct result of the novelty of Texas’s scheme.”

Sotomayor’s dissent was substantially fierier. She criticized the majority for failing to “put an end to this madness months ago, before S.B. 8 first went into effect.” By allowing for such limited relief, Sotomayor wrote, the majority “effectively invites other States to refine S. B. 8’s model for nullifying federal rights,” betraying “not only the citizens of Texas, but also our constitutional system of government.” She continued:

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My disagreement with the Court runs far deeper than a quibble over how many defendants these petitioners may sue. The dispute is over whether States may nullify federal constitutional rights by employing schemes like the one at hand. The Court indicates that they can, so long as they write their laws to more thoroughly disclaim all enforcement by state officials, including licensing officials. This choice to shrink from Texas’ challenge to federal supremacy will have far-reaching repercussions. I doubt the Court, let alone the country, is prepared for them.

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Sotomayor compared S.B. 8 to “the philosophy of John C. Calhoun, a virulent defender of the slaveholding South who insisted that States had the right to ‘veto’ or ‘nullif[y]’ any federal law with which they disagreed.” And she warned that the court’s punt “leaves all manner of constitutional rights more vulnerable than ever before, to the great detriment of our Constitution and our Republic.”

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There is a vast chasm between the two blocs in this case. The five most conservative justices appear to view S.B. 8 as a one-off, a desperate attempt to evade a decision (Roe v. Wade) that they themselves probably view as illegitimate. The four other justices see S.B. 8 as a direct threat to the Supreme Court’s authority to “say what the law is” by shielding constitutional liberties from state infringement. It seems the majority is troubled just enough to carve a path around some of S.B. 8’s blockades—but its solution is a ticket good for one ride only. Texas can pass nearly identical legislation that eliminates the powers of “executive licensing officials” and, apparently, lock providers out of federal court once again. Copycat bills have already cropped up in four other states, and Gorsuch has given legislators a road map to ensure that they can fully insulate their legislation from federal court review. He and his hard-right colleagues appear to believe that blue states won’t have the spine to deploy these tricks against rights favored by conservatives, like the right to bear arms.

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In the end, this whole episode may be a sideshow, since the court seems poised to overturn Roe outright by the end of the term. But Friday’s decision has alarming ramifications for the principle that states may not undermine fundamental rights by outsourcing enforcement to bounty hunters. There is nothing in the ruling to stop Republican legislators from deploying a refined version of Texas’ strategy. To the contrary, these legislators now have a blueprint for keeping their unconstitutional laws out of federal court indefinitely. The majority has disabled a time bomb—then given Texas instructions on which wires to reconnect.

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