Supreme Court won't stop Texas abortion ban, but OKs clinics' suit

The Supreme Court has ruled that Texas abortion providers can sue over the state's ban on most abortions, but the justices are allowing the law to remain in effect.

The court acted Friday, more than a month after hearing arguments over the law that makes abortion illegal after cardiac activity is detected in an embryo. That's around six weeks, before some women even know they are pregnant. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.

The law has been in place since Sept. 1.

The outcome is at best only a partial victory for abortion providers. The same federal judge who already has once blocked the law almost certainly will be asked to do so again. But then his decision will be reviewed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has twice voted to allow enforcement of the abortion ban.

The case could return to the justices and so far there have not been five votes on the nine-member court to put the law on hold while the legal fight plays out.

The court's conservative majority also seems likely to roll back abortion rights in a Mississippi case that was argued last week, although that decision is not expected until the spring.

The high court ruling came a day after a state court judge in Texas ruled that the law's enforcement, which rewards lawsuits against violators by awarding judgments of $10,000, is unconstitutional yet left the law in place.

RELATED: State judge declares Texas abortion law unconstitutional, doesn't stop enforcement

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

"They were somewhat surprising to me, for sure," constitutional law attorney David Coale said.

Coale has been watching this case closely.

In an 8 to 1 ruling, with only Justice Clarence Thomas voting the other way, abortion providers can resume seeking to block the law as it progresses through lower court proceedings.

The court fight over the Texas law is focused on its unusual structure and whether it improperly limits how the law can be challenged in court. Texas lawmakers handed responsibility for enforcing the law to private citizens, rather than state officials.

The law authorizes lawsuits against clinics, doctors and anyone who "aids or abets" an abortion performed after cardiac activity is detected. That's usually around six weeks of pregnancy before some women even know they are pregnant.

"Which means that as a result of today's rulings, the civil penalties part of SB8, to $10,000 of ballot…that's still in place. That's the guts of the statute," Coale explained.

In a separate decision, the court dismissed a separate challenge from the Department of Justice.

"We're excited to see that the Supreme Court actually practice judicial restraint in dismissing the Biden administration's lawsuit," said Kimberlyn Schwartz, with Texas Right to Life.

Schwartz said it’s alarming that the justices saw validity in the abortion provider's lawsuit.

"because again, it sues the Texas state health officials and agencies. But those individuals don't have standing to enforce this law. The Texas Heartbeat Act relies on private citizens to enforce this policy," Schwartz added. 

After the ruling, the ACLU hosted a media call with the plaintiff's in the case, including Whole Woman's Health, which operates two clinics in North Texas, and Planned Parenthood.

They expressed their frustration with the ruling.

"Today's decision is not okay. It is unjust, cruel, and inhumane," Amy Hagstrom Miller, Whole Woman’s Health. "Our patients deserve better than that, the constant attacks on their reproductive autonomy."

"Over and over again, we are forced to violate our conscious and our training and turn away patients who need us. We must look them in the eye and tell them no when they beg us for help," said Dr. Bhavik Kumar, M.D., with Planned Parenthood Houston.

EXPLAINER: What to know about Texas' abortion law

The case raised a complex set of issues about who, if anyone, can sue over the law in federal court, the typical route for challenges to abortion restrictions. Indeed, federal courts routinely put a hold on similar laws, which rely on traditional enforcement by state and local authorities.

The court was divided 5-4, with conservatives in the majority, on another knotty issue, whom to target with a court order that ostensibly tries to block the law. The court ruled that Texas licensing officials may be sued, but dismissed claims against state court judges, court clerks and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Chief Justice John Roberts and the three liberal justices dissented from that part of the decision in an opinion that said the purpose of the Texas law was "to nullify this court's rulings" on abortion.

"The nature of the federal right infringed does not matter; it is the role of the Supreme Court in our constitutional system that is at stake," Roberts wrote. 

In a separate opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor chastised her colleagues for what she said was "delay" in the case that has had "catastrophic consequences for women seeking to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion in Texas." She said the court's decision closed off the most direct route to challenging the law and would "clear the way" for other states to "reprise and perfect Texas' scheme in the future to target the exercise of any right recognized by this court with which they disagree."

Since it took effect in September, the law has imposed the most restrictive abortion curbs in the nation since the Supreme Court first declared a woman's right to an abortion in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

RELATED: Texas’ controversial fetal heartbeat bill becomes a law blocking most abortions

In its first month of operation, a study published by researchers at the University of Texas found that the number of abortions statewide fell by 50% compared with September 2020. The study was based on data from 19 of the state's 24 abortion clinics, according to the Texas Policy Evaluation Project. 

Texas residents who left the state seeking an abortion also have had to travel well beyond neighboring states, where clinics cannot keep up with the increase in patients from Texas, according to a separate study by the Guttmacher Institute.

The justices declined to block the law once before, voting 5-4 in September to let it take effect. At the time, the three appointees of former President Donald Trump and two other conservative colleagues formed the majority.

The Associated Press contributed to this story