AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Justice Department on Thursday sued Texas over a new state law that bans most abortions, arguing that it was enacted “in open defiance of the Constitution.”
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Texas, asks a federal judge to declare that the law is invalid, “to enjoin its enforcement, and to protect the rights that Texas has violated.”
“The act is clearly unconstitutional under long-standing Supreme Court precedent,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a news conference announcing the suit.
The Justice Department argues the law unlawfully infringes on the constitutional rights of women and violates the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which says federal law supersedes state law. He said that federal officials are concerned about similar laws being enacted by other states, which could “deprive their citizens their constitutional rights.”
“It is settled constitutional law that ‘a State may not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy before viability,'” the lawsuit reads. “But Texas has done just that.”
The Texas law, known as SB8, prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity — usually around six weeks, before some women know they’re pregnant. While other states have been able to block similar restrictions from being imposed by courts, Texas’ law (known as SB8) is different in that it allows private citizens to enforce the law through civil lawsuits and not criminal prosecutors.
Pressure had been mounting on the Justice Department not only from the White House – President Joe Biden has said the law is “almost un-American” – but also from Democrats in Congress, who wanted Garland to take action. Garland pledged earlier this week that the Justice Department would enforce the federal law, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.
That law, commonly known as the FACE Act, normally prohibits physically obstructing access to abortion clinics by blocking entrances or threatening to use force to intimidate or interfere with someone. It also prohibits the destruction of property at abortion clinics or other reproductive health centers.
The lawsuit filed on Thursday seeks an immediate injunction to prohibit enforcing the law in Texas. Under the statute, someone could bring a lawsuit — even if they have no connection to the woman getting an abortion — and could be entitled to at least $10,000 in damages if they prevail in court.
“The statute deputizes all private citizens, without any showing of personal connection or injury, to serve as bounty hunters authorized to recover at least $10,000 per claim from individuals who facilitate a woman’s exercise of her constitutional rights,” Garland said. “The obvious and expressly acknowledged intention of this statutory scheme is to prevent women from exercising their constitutional rights by thwarting judicial review.”
The attorney general also argued the Texas law could expose some federal employees at different agencies across the government to civil liability for doing their jobs.
The Texas law is the nation’s biggest curb to abortion since the Supreme Court affirmed in the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade that women have a constitutional right to an abortion.
Abortion providers have said they will comply, but already some of Texas’ roughly two dozen abortion clinics have temporarily stopped offering abortion services altogether. In the meantime, clinics in neighboring states have experienced a surge of patients from Texas.
Texas Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group and a driver of the new law, said Thursday in anticipation of the lawsuit that it was already working with other states to pass similar measures.
“The Biden administration’s ploy represents a desperate attempt to stop the life-saving law by any means necessary,” the group said in a statement.
Renae Eze, a spokesperson for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott stated that his office was certain the courts would uphold Texas law.
“The most precious freedom is life itself. Eze stated that Texas passed a law to ensure that every child born with a heartbeat is protected from the ravages and ill effects of abortion.
The law provides no exceptions in cases of rape or incest, which Abbott on Tuesday defended by falsely asserting that women still have “at least six weeks” to get an abortion. If a woman has regular periods and monitors her cycles carefully, she could find out about a positive result within four weeks of starting a pregnancy.
Abbott also said Texas would strive to “eliminate all rapists from the streets.” Recent surveys by the U.S. Department of Justice found that most rapes go unreported to police, including a 2019 survey that found that only about 1 in 3 victims reported they were raped or sexually assaulted.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing Texas abortion clinics suing over the law, welcomed the Biden administration stepping in.
“It’s a gamechanger that the Department of Justice has joined the legal battle to restore constitutionally protected abortion access in Texas and disarm vigilantes looking to collect their bounties,” said Nancy Northup, the group’s president.
Balsamo reported from New York City.