Watch Live: Garland speaks as DOJ readies response to Texas abortion law

Washington — Attorney General Merrick Garland is holding a press conference Thursday afternoon to announce a “civil enforcement action” by the Justice Department, which is expected to be related to Texas’ controversial law banning abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, sources tell CBS News.

Garland’s remarks come after President Biden last week directed the White House to launch a “whole of government effort” to respond to a decision by a divided Supreme Court allowing the Texas ban to take effect, with a specific focus on the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. 

As the Justice Department explored options to challenge the Texas measure, Garland said it would continue protecting women seeking to obtain reproductive health services through enforcement of a federal law prohibiting “the use or threat of force and physical obstruction that injures, intimidates, or interferes with a person seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services.”

Called the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act, the law was enacted in 1994 and also prohibits intentional damage or destruction of abortion clinics. The department has filed more than 15 FACE actions in more than a dozen states, according to the Justice Department.

The expected action from the Justice Department would set up a showdown between the federal government and the Republican-led state as the Supreme Court prepares to hear a blockbuster dispute over a Mississippi abortion ban in the coming months, which could pave the way for further limits on the procedure by states.

In its 5-4 decision last week, the Supreme Court declined to block the Texas law, which outlaws nearly all abortions in the state. The measure is the most restrictive in the nation, as it bars the procedure after roughly six weeks into a pregnancy, leaving women with a narrow window — likely two weeks, at most — in which they can legally obtain an abortion after finding out they are pregnant.

While a dozen states have passed similar laws banning abortions at early stages, they have been blocked by federal judges from taking effect, as the Supreme Court’s precedents prohibit states from outlawing the procedure before fetal viability, which generally occurs around 24 weeks.

But the Texas law differs from the others in that it authorizes private citizens, not state officials, to enforce it through civil lawsuits in state courts. This novel enforcement scheme complicated efforts by abortion providers to stop the law from taking effect, as it was unclear who they should sue. 

Under the Texas measure, plaintiffs who successfully sue a violator of the law — clinics, providers or even people who help a woman obtain an abortion — are entitled to at least $10,000 from them.

Because the Texas abortion ban was able to effect, other red states are considering similar legislation replicating the enforcement mechanism. 

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the lower chamber would take up legislation later this month that enshrines the right to an abortion into federal law. It’s unlikely, though, that the bill would clear the Senate, where it needs 60 votes to advance.

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee also sent a letter to Garland on Tuesday asking him to “use the full power of the Department of Justice to defend a woman’s constitutional right to choose an abortion.”