AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas judge said Thursday the enforcement mechanism behind the nation’s strictest abortion law — which rewards lawsuits against violators by awarding judgments of $10,000 — is unconstitutional in a narrow ruling that still leaves a near-total ban on abortions in place.
State District Judge David Peeples of Austin sidestepped the broader legality of the Texas law known as Senate Bill 8, which since September has banned abortions once cardiac activity is detected, usually around six weeks and before some women know they are even pregnant. Abortion providers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the law but it has so far declined to do so.
The ruling in state court has no bearing on the broader and higher-stakes case before the Supreme Court, which has shown no urgency in making a ruling.
Planned Parenthood celebrated the state ruling but said abortion services still remain “virtually inaccessible” in Texas, and supporters of the law that was signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said it was unlikely to have any practical impact or even dissuade lawsuits against abortion clinics.
“This doesn’t change anything on the ground,” said John Seago, legislative director of Texas Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group.
The Texas law uses a novel enforcement mechanism that has essentially allowed it to outmaneuver Supreme Court precedent over a women’s constitutional right to abortion. The law prohibits enforcement by prosecutors and instead leaves it up to private citizens, who are entitled to collect what critics call a “bounty” of $10,000 if they bring a successful lawsuit against a provider or anyone who helps a patient obtain an abortion.
Patients seeking abortions cannot be sued under the law, which allows for anyone to file a lawsuit.
“It is one thing to authorize taxpayers or citizens to file suits against government officials to make them obey a law,” Peeples wrote. “It is quite another thing to incentivize citizens or persons to file suits against other private citizens to extract money from them, with no pretense of compensating the claimant for anything.”
An appeal was expected.
It’s impossible to say where things stand inside the Supreme Court, where the justices typically exchange and revise opinions privately on both sides before handing down a decision. With no action so far, it seems clear that the court lacks five votes, a majority of the nine-member body, to put the Texas law on hold.
When abortion providers asked the court to keep the law from taking effect, the justices refused by a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining his three liberal colleagues in dissent.
“Texans have the right to access abortion free from vigilante lawsuits that are meant to harass providers and abortion fund allies,” Planned Parenthood providers said in a statement. “This ruling is a much-needed step, but abortion rights are still not secure.”