Texas, through its legislature, has now made unmistakably clear that women are not equal to men. It is no exaggeration to say that Texas has moved from being the Lone Star State to being the Handmaid State. The reference, for the small number of people who don’t know, is to The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood in which women in a theocratic authoritarian society are forced into what amounts to sexual slavery for the benefit of the men who run the country.
The headlines about the adoption of SB 8 by Texas are still fresh and resonating around the country and the world. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to enjoin the enforcement of the law while its constitutionality is considered on the merits. Thus, Texas, proud Texas, has become the leader in subordination of women. Through the back door in Texas, a Republican (53%)/male (73%)/aged (67% over 49/14% over 69)-dominated state legislature has introduced a version of Sharia Law to the United States.
There are, of course, significant reasons to believe that SB 8 is unconstitutional under both the Texas Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. Whether Texas likes it or not, the established federal constitutional principles of the Fourteenth Amendment “equal protection of the laws” and “due process” still apply to the states:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The dissenting opinions in the Supreme Court’s astonishing back-handed approval of the Texas maneuver say as much. If the Court’s current view of the law stands, states will be encouraged to adopt similar laws on other subjects, insulating such laws from judicial review. That, as with the current case, is simply unsustainable and would undermine the separation of powers, among other things.
It’s important to understand that Texas thinks it’s been very clever in crafting this statute so that it will escape meaningful judicial review on the merits. It had the audacity to represent to the Supreme Court that it was entirely realistic to believe that the entire elaborate text of SB 8 would have been enacted but that no one would take up the opportunity to earn a quick $10,000 (the minimum statutory damages). In perhaps the most ridiculous legal position I have seen in years, the Texas Attorney General told the Supreme Court, “This Court cannot expunge the law itself. Rather, it can enjoin only enforcement of the law.” He argued since government officials “explicitly do not enforce the law,” the abortion providers “have not shown that they will be personally harmed by a bill that may never be enforced against them by anyone.”
Thus, Texas would have us believe that it passed a law giving private citizens standing to bring lawsuits against other citizens with a minimum payoff of $10,000 plus attorneys’ fees and costs, with zero risk of having to pay fees & costs for the defendant if the suit were judged frivolous, but no one will bother to file suit under the law. That’s a whopper even by Texas standard.
There are a multitude of serious substantive problems with SB 8. Here are just a few of the big ones:
- The medical premise for the law is not scientifically accurate;
- The essence of the statute is to confer “standing” on the entire civilian population of Texas to bring actions to sue physicians who perform abortions in conflict with the many non-medical details of the statutory scheme and to sue any person or entity that aids and abets the violation, with the assured award of not-less-than $10,000 in damages for each successful case brought, plus reimbursement of attorneys’ fees and costs incurred;
- Plaintiffs may not be assessed attorney’s fee and costs even if the suit is thrown out because the statute is ruled unconstitutional, so the millions of potential plaintiffs incur no risk in bringing such suits;
- Being an aider or abettor is determined without regard to the actor’s knowledge of the legality of the procedure;
- Relying on some unspecified mind meld, the law authorizes suits against aiders/abettors who merely “intend” to assist forbidden abortions;
- The clear intent of the legislation is to stack the legal deck against people who would help a woman with an abortion and thereby prevent abortions from being performed in Texas;
- The statute in the words of Justice Sotomayor, “a breathtaking act of defiance—of the Constitution, of this Court’s precedents, and of the rights of women seeking abortions throughout Texas,” dissenting from the Court’s decision to allow the Texas law to be effective Sept. 1 without appellate review;
- The Supreme Court’s decision to allow SB 8 to become effective was based on a complete distortion of the holding in California v. Texas, a 2021 case addressing whether injunctive relief could be had against a statute whose key operative provision had been removed by Congress. The Court there said, “to find standing here to attack an unenforceable statutory provision would allow a federal court to issue what would amount to “an advisory opinion without the possibility of any judicial relief.” That is plainly not the case with the Texas statute which is not only enforceable but is drafted precisely to induce massive enforcement by citizen bounty-hunters. The fact that enforcement may occur at the hands of private persons inspired and enabled by a state law does not affect the impact of the law on its targets. Further, the cause of action created by the statute is fully effective and ready to be used, totally different than the tax provision removed from the law at issue in California v Texas.
- Texas devoted much legislative language trying to (a) prevent federal court review of the statute and (b) control the nature and effect of the review. The very obvious goal was to have the law continue to apply to everyone who had not yet been sued, even if judicial review held the law facially unconstitutional in one case. Texas-sized hubris here, trying to tell the federal courts what they can and can’t do. Texas has decided to simply ignore the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.
Justice Sotomayor’s eloquent dissent in Whole Woman’s Health v Austin Reeve Jackson, Judge, joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan, said everything that should have been needed to stop the law in its tracks:
The Court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand.
It cannot be the case that a State can evade federal judicial scrutiny by outsourcing the enforcement of unconstitutional laws to its citizenry.
… the Court has re- warded the State’s effort to delay federal review of a plainly unconstitutional statute, enacted in disregard of the Court’s precedents, through procedural entanglements of the State’s own creation
I am going to go out on a limb here and predict that after further briefing and argument, a majority on the Supreme Court will find its way back to reality and reason by rejecting the Texas law on multiple constitutional grounds . Meanwhile, the women of Texas will have to live with the white hoods of handmaidens under the thumb of their totalitarian masters.
For those with the interest and fortitude to understand the details of this astounding act of legislative hubris, here is an unfortunately long explanation of exactly what SB 8 purports to do.
The key scientific idea on which the law is based is that the presence of a fetal heartbeat “has become a key medical predictor that an unborn child will reach live birth.” Texas tries to tie this idea to a further finding that “the pregnant woman has a compelling interest in knowing the likelihood of her unborn child surviving to full-term birth based on the presence of cardiac activity.” Based on my limited review, those “findings” are of limited relevance, since there are other significant predictors of ultimate viability and nothing in the law specifically addresses the communication of this specific information to the pregnant woman considering an abortion.
Instead, absent a “medical emergency,” the statute bans abortions after the mere detection of a fetal heartbeat and nothing more. Adding to the pretextual nature of this, the statute conveniently fails to define “medical emergency,” thereby creating a condition in which both the physician and the pregnant woman can never be certain that later litigation will not reject the physician’s determination and expose the physician to an intolerable financial risk.
It’s important to understand that the statute does not directly expose the pregnant woman to lawsuits – the targets of the legislative scheme are the doctors, clinics and anyone else who,
Knowingly engages in conduct that aids and abets the performance or inducement of an [prohibited] abortion, including paying for or reimbursing the costs of an [prohibited] abortion through insurance or otherwise … regardless of whether the person knew or should have known that the abortion would be performed or induced in violation of this chapter….
The sweep of this language encompasses every imaginable form of support for the abortion process and is plainly designed to intimidate medical personnel, insurance companies as well as friends and family of the pregnant woman.
But that’s not all. The statute authorizes civil damage suits against any person who “intends to engage” in forbidden aiding and abetting of a prohibited abortion. No, I’m not making this up. We are in the land of science fiction, popularized by the movie Minority Report in which a special police force is authorized to arrest murderers before they commit their crimes. In Texas’ case, the “offense” is civil, not criminal but the penalties are large enough to deal a death blow to the finances of many people (minimum statutory damages of $10,000 plus costs and attorneys’ fees).
The damage provisions apply to every forbidden abortion the defendant performed or aided/abetted. If multiple parties are sued for aiding and abetting a single abortion, it appears the plaintiff stands to collect the minimum damages against each one.
Under the special statute of limitations applied by Texas, the specter of being sued will hang over potential aiders/abettors for six years.
The drafters anticipated that there might be other defenses presented to courts in the civil cases and have preemptively eliminated them. Thus, the following are rejected as possible defenses: a good faith belief in the unconstitutional nature of the law, reliance on court decisions that are later overruled or reliance on federal court decisions that are “not binding” on the state court where suit is brought.
These provisions are designed to prevent judicial review by federal courts of the state’s statutory law as written and as applied. Texas has, apparently seceded from the U.S. Constitution, or at least thinks it has.
In a cynical twist, Texas added a provision that seems at first look to mitigate the intimidation created by the rest of the statute: it provided an “affirmative defense” for those sued under the statute if (1) the defendant conducts a “reasonable investigation” and (2) then “reasonably believes” that the abortion physician “had complied” or “would comply” or “will comply” with the statute. I say this is cynical because the Texas legislators may be presumed to understand that that whatever a “reasonable investigation” means, an aider/abettor trying to conduct such an investigation will almost certainly be stymied by the privacy provisions of HIPAA (the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), not to mention the natural distaste any doctor will have to being embroiled in a lawsuit. The burden of proving an “affirmative defense” is on the person asserting it, so this looks like a Texas head-fake.
Not content to stack the deck against women, their physicians and their families and friends, Texas has added a provision barring absolutely the award of attorneys’ fees and costs against a defendant. This means that the most egregious unfounded lawsuits brought by damage-hunting lawyers and others can be brought with impunity. Which is, of course, exactly what Texas wants – a legal unchallengeable in terrorem regime that will force Texas women to take significant health risks and/or incur staggering expenses to get an abortion regardless of the reason or need. The statute also enables bounty-hunting plaintiffs to bring suits where they live against defendants who live across the state, with the proviso that venue can only be changed if the plaintiff agrees.
The statute also immunizes the state of Texas and its officers from any legal challenge to the statute and further provides that if a court finds the statute unconstitutional in its application to one person, the statute may still be enforced against everyone else. This is an obvious attempt to deprive the federal courts of jurisdiction to adjudicate the constitutionality of the statute as written and not just “as applied.” The courts of Texas may stand for such a violation of the separation of powers, but it is hard to imagine that the federal courts will accept it.
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of SB 8 is the provision that purports to instruct the courts in the nature and scope of their decisions and in the meaning of “unconstitutional:”
No court may decline to enforce the severability requirements … on the ground that severance would rewrite the statute or involve the court in legislative or lawmaking activity. A court that declines to enforce or enjoins a state official from enforcing a statutory provision does not rewrite a statute, as the statute continues to contain the same words as before the court’s decision. A Judicial injunction or declaration of unconstitutionality: (1) is nothing more than an edict prohibiting enforcement that may subsequently be vacated by a later court if that court has a different understanding of the requirements of the Texas Constitution or United States Constitution.
This is Texas-size hubris that banks on the willingness of the Supreme Court of the United States to permit a state to decide for itself the nature, scope and effect of the Court’s decisions as regards the U.S. Constitution. Maybe the current Court will buy that nonsense, but I will be surprised as it would seem to overturn the very foundations of the federal system and the separation of powers, among other things.
Texas gives prevailing parties in any constitutional or other challenge to the abortion law three years to file for award of attorneys’ fees and costs. This opportunity applies even if the plaintiff in such suit wins the case on grounds that the severability provisions are unconstitutional or preempted by federal law!
It appears that the desperation of the Texas legislators to insulate SB 8 from federal court review has led them to a strange and untenable place. The statute contains a confused and obtuse section that appears to say that even if a court finds the statute facially unconstitutional, the statute shall still be severed, and the “unconstitutional applications” shall remain enforceable. Further, in such case the statute “shall be interpreted as if containing language limited the statute’s application to the persons, group of persons, or circumstances for which the statute’s application will not violate the United States Constitution and Texas Constitution.
That seems like an overt invitation for the courts to rewrite the legislation to help the Texas legislature save it. There may be precedent for such an astonishing approach, but I am not aware of it. That is, I believe, precisely what courts don’t, and should not, undertake. If the legislature writes an unconstitutional statute, it is the responsibility of the legislature to rewrite the law to repair the damage, unless some form of severance is possible that satisfies the court that it is not in fact just rewriting the law.
The legislation forces the physician to try to talk the woman out of going through with an abortion. This occurs through a series of compulsory disclosures and medical advice that the law declares, ipso facto, to be medically accurate and sound without any specific knowledge of the health condition of the woman in question.
The law addresses the issue of rape/incest and developmental abnormalities by exempting the woman from being forced to hear an explanation of the sonogram images, but rape/incest/developmental abnormalities, and, for that matter, threats to the woman’s life, are not otherwise treated as relevant to the process by which the woman gives consent to the abortion.
Finally, note that the Texas Constitution includes the following:
Sec. 3. EQUAL RIGHTS. All free men, when they form a social compact, have equal rights, and no man, or set of men, is entitled to exclusive separate public emoluments, or privileges, but in consideration of public services.
But it also includes this:
Sec. 3a. EQUALITY UNDER THE LAW. Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, race, color, creed, or national origin. This amendment is self‑operative. (Added Nov. 7, 1972.)
But also this:
Sec. 32. MARRIAGE. (a) Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman.(b) This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage. (Added Nov. 8, 2005.)
But there’s also this:
THE POWERS OF GOVERNMENT
Sec. 1. SEPARATION OF POWERS OF GOVERNMENT AMONG THREEDEPARTMENTS. The powers of the Government of the State of Texas shall be divided into three distinct departments, each of which shall be confided to a separate body of magistracy, to wit: Those which are Legislative to one; those which are Executive to another, and those which are Judicial to another; and no person, or collection of persons, being of one of these departments, shall exercise any power properly attached to either of the others, except in the instances herein expressly permitted.
I predict the ACLU and other entities that are going to challenge SB 8 are going to have a field day with these contradictory provisions, some of which are inconsistent with existing Supreme Court precedent and, of course, the U.S. Constitution.