Federal appeals court sides with Texas in battle over abortion law

Texas’ controversial abortion law will remain in place for the time being, after a federal appeals court on Thursday granted the state’s request to suspend a federal judge’s ruling that barred it from being enforced. The ruling is a blow to abortion rights advocates, who had hoped to suspend the law for as long as possible while its constitutionality is debated in the courts. 

The three-judge panel on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1. The Department of Justice, which sued Texas over the law, is able to appeal the decision.  

Texas’ law, which bars abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, has created unique legal challenges for those seeking to overturn it. The law does not allow state officials to enforce the ban — instead, private citizens can file civil lawsuits against clinics, providers or even people who help a woman get an abortion. If the civil suit is successful, the plaintiff is entitled to at least $10,000 from the person who broke the law. That mechanism makes it harder for abortion providers to challenge the law, because it hasn’t been entirely clear who they should sue.

Abortion rights advocates won a temporary victory in early October, when a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction that prevented the law from being enforced. In a 113-page ruling, Judge Robert L. Pitman said it is “substantially likely” that courts will find that the law, known as S.B. 8, violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

“From the moment S.B. 8 went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution,” he wrote. “That other courts may find a way to avoid this conclusion is theirs to decide; this Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right.”

Texas appealed that ruling to the 5th Circuit. Last Friday, the court agreed to temporarily suspend the preliminary injunction while it considered the appeal.