WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Wednesday granted the Justice Department’s request to halt enforcement of the recently passed Texas law that bans nearly all abortions in the state while the legal battle over the statute makes its way through the federal courts.
In his 113-page ruling, Robert L. Pitman, a Federal District Court judge in Austin, Texas, sided with the Biden administration, which had sued to halt a law that has changed the landscape of the abortion fight and further fueled the national debate over whether abortion will remain legal across the country.
His decision to pause enforcement of the law, known as Senate Bill 8, could have an immediate impact on women in Texas who have scrambled to find health care providers in other parts of the country to get abortions.
“From the moment S.B. 8 went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their own lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution,” Judge Pitman wrote in his opinion.
“This court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right,” he added.
Judge Pitman enjoined the State of Texas or anyone acting on its behalf from enforcing the law. He also said state court judges and state court clerks who had the power to enforce or administer the law were not to do so.
In a statement Wednesday night, Susan B. Anthony List, a national anti-abortion organization, criticized the ruling.
“Now an unelected judge has interfered with the clearly expressed will of Texans,” the group said. “For two generations, the U.S. Supreme Court has tied the hands of states to enact laws protecting unborn children and their mothers. It is time to restore this right to the people and update our laws.”
The group said the Texas measure had “saved more than 4,700 babies since it took effect over a month ago.”
Texas clinics welcomed the ruling.
Whole Woman’s Health, a group that operates four clinics in the state, said, “This is the justice we have been seeking for weeks.” The statement said the group was “making plans to resume abortion care up to 18 weeks as soon as possible.”
A spokeswoman said she did not know precisely when that would be.
Last month, the Justice Department sued Texas over the law, which bans abortions once cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo, usually after about six weeks of pregnancy. Health care experts say that women may not even know they are pregnant during that time frame. And the law makes no exception for pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest.
The department then filed an emergency motion requesting an order that would prevent Texas from enforcing Senate Bill 8 while its lawsuit moves through the courts.
At the center of the legal debate over the law is its enforcement mechanism, which essentially deputizes private citizens, rather than the state’s executive branch, to enforce the restrictions by suing anyone who performs an abortion or “aids and abets” a procedure. Plaintiffs are incentivized to file suit because they recover legal fees, as well as $10,000 if they win.
Understand the Texas Abortion Law
The most restrictive in the country. The Texas abortion law, known as Senate Bill 8, amounts to a nearly complete ban on abortion in the state. It prohibits most abortions after about six weeks of preganancy and makes no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from incest or rape.
Citizens, not the state, will enforce the law. The law effectively deputizes ordinary citizens — including those from outside Texas — allowing them to sue clinics and others who violate the law. It awards them at least $10,000 per illegal abortion if they are successful.
Patients cannot be sued. The law allows doctors, staff and even a patient’s Uber driver to become potential defendants.
The Supreme Court’s decision. The Supreme Court refused just before midnight on Wednesday to block a Texas law prohibiting most abortions, less than a day after it took effect and became the most restrictive abortion measure in the nation. The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining the court’s three liberal members in dissent.
Judge Pitman said that through its abortion law, Texas has pursued “an unprecedented and aggressive scheme to deprive its citizens of a significant and well-established constitutional right.”
The Supreme Court declined last month to block the Texas law in a 5-to-4 decision, even though it did not rule on whether the law and its unorthodox enforcement mechanism are constitutional.
Opponents and supporters of the Texas law recognize that it is an enormous shift in the nation’s battle over abortion, which has long rested on whether the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that granted women the constitutional right to the procedure. The Supreme Court is also soon scheduled to hear another case, from Mississippi, on a state law restricting access to abortion after 15 weeks.
The Texas law essentially allows a state to all but ban abortions before a legal test of that watershed case. If the law is not stopped by the courts, other Republican-led state legislatures could use it as a blueprint for their own restrictions.
There is no guarantee that the Justice Department’s civil suit against Texas will make its way to the Supreme Court. The case would first reach the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, one of the most conservative in the country. Should the appeals court rule that Senate Bill 8 is constitutional, the Supreme Court, now ruled by a conservative majority, could decline to hear the case.
If the Supreme Court does choose to hear the case, it will be asked to consider the impact that outsourcing enforcement to private citizens could have on the power of the courts and to rule on the constitutionality of Senate Bill 8.