AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Supreme Court on Friday dealt a final blow to a legal challenge of the nation’s most restrictive abortion law.
The state’s high court said licensing officials are not responsible for enforcing the state’s near-total ban on abortion, effectively ending the challenge brought by abortion providers across the state.
“There is nothing left,” said Marc Hearron, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which led the challenge against the Texas law known as Senate Bill 8. “This case is effectively over with respect to our challenge to the abortion ban.”
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in January asked the high court to resolve a central question in the case and determine whether the medical licensing officials named in the lawsuit are responsible for enforcing the law – and therefore eligible to be sued.
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Abortion providers argued in court that state agencies regulating doctors, nurses, pharmacists and the health care system have an enforcement role that makes them an appropriate target for their lawsuit against the law, also known as Senate Bill 8.
But lawyers for the state said the law clearly states that only private citizens can enforce the law through civil litigation.
Justices on the Texas Supreme Court agreed, with Justice Jeffrey Boyd writing that the law includes “emphatic, unambiguous, and repeated provisions” stating that civil litigation “is the ‘exclusive’ method for enforcing the act’s requirements.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton celebrated the state’s “major victory.”
“This measure, which has saved thousands of unborn babies, remains fully in effect, and the pro-abortion plaintiffs’ lawsuit against the state is essentially finished,” Paxton said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, abortion providers decried the opinion as a failure of the court system, arguing that while the law has reduced the number of abortions in the state, demand for the procedure has stayed the same.
“This ban does not change the need for abortion in Texas, it just blocks people from accessing the care they need,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, in a statement. “The situation is becoming increasingly dire, and now neighboring states – where we have been sending patients – are about to pass similar bans. Where will Texans go then?”
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Complicated legal battles over Senate Bill 8 have played out across local, state and federal courtrooms since the law went into effect in September. The litigation has fueled national debates about constitutional rights and access to abortion.
Central to the debate is the unique enforcement mechanism employed in the law, which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Instead of creating a criminal penalty, the law allows any private individual to sue abortion providers or people who aid and abet an abortion in violation of the law. Successful litigants can collect at least $10,000.
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Abortion providers from across the state original sued numerous state officials to block the law, but a divided U.S. Supreme Court said in December that only one of those challenges could proceed in Texas courtrooms: the one targeting state medical licensing officials.
The case was sent to the 5th Circuit, much to providers’ chagrin. They had hoped the case would be sent to a federal district court in Austin with a history of siding with abortion rights advocates.
The 5th Circuit ultimately sided with attorneys for the state and agreed to ask the Texas Supreme Court to wade into the case, a highly unusual move that was expected to significantly delay a resolution in the case.
Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, said in a series of tweets that Friday’s opinion “closes the last back door” in providers’ efforts to block the law.
“This is yet another ruling that keeps SB 8 on the books, denying millions of Texans of their constitutional rights,” he said.
Contributing: The Associated Press