Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Whole Woman’s Health Alliance

Fifth Circuit wants to see how much it can gut abortion rights before it acts

That’s the takeaway you should have from this.

A Texas law banning a common second-trimester abortion procedure will remain blocked after federal judges Wednesday postponed a decision until the Supreme Court takes action on a similar case.

A federal district court in 2017 struck down the ban, which was passed as part of state Senate Bill 8. Attorney General Ken Paxton and other officials then appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

[…]

But the Supreme Court has yet to decide whether it will take up that case, which was launched by abortion provider June Medical Services. The case challenges a Louisiana law that required doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges.

See here for some background. Rewire brings the details.

In November 2017, a federal district court declared the provision of SB 8 that bans D and E abortions unconstitutional and permanently blocked the measure from taking effect. The decision, authored by Judge Lee Yeakel, was a rock-solid win for abortion rights. Yeakel determined that Texas had failed to offer any evidence to support its claims that banning D and E abortions promoted its interest in fetal life without unduly burdening a patient’s right to choose. According to Yeakel’s findings, the evidence failed to show that the other methods advanced by the state for terminating an abortion were available and safe. Therefore, Yeakel ruled, the D and E ban had the effect of banning most second-trimester abortions and was an undue burden on abortion rights.

Naturally, the state of Texas appealed Yeakel’s decision. During oral arguments in November, it was clear the conservative members of the Fifth Circuit were looking for a way to reverse Yeakel’s decision and allow the D and E ban to take effect. But then came the Roberts Court’s order in [June Medical Services v.] Gee in February: a reprimand, of sorts, to the Fifth Circuit for trying to unilaterally overturn a district’s court factual findings in order to allow a patently unconstitutional abortion restriction to take effect. The judges on the Fifth Circuit are conservative and bold, but they are not stupid. They are not going to risk setting themselves up for another opportunity for the Roberts Court to reel them in, just a month later.

At issue in Gee—the case the Fifth Circuit is waiting on the Roberts Court to resolve—is Act 620, a Louisiana law that would require any physician providing abortion services in Louisiana to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the procedure. Act 620 was specifically modeled after one of the provisions in Texas’ HB 2 that was eventually declared unconstitutional in 2016 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

A federal district court blocked Act 620 from taking effect following a six-day trial, issuing detailed findings of fact as to the undue burden Act 620 would place on abortion rights. But the Fifth Circuit disagreed and reversed the district court, ruling the law should take effect.

[…]

When the Supreme Court decided in February to stay the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Gee, it likely did so not because it disagreed with the court on the merits of its decision, but to send a message. The Fifth Circuit had so wildly and intentionally flouted abortion rights jurisprudence in its application of Whole Woman’s Health to uphold Act 620 that Chief Justice John Roberts joined with his liberal colleagues to temporarily block their ruling. Roberts’ voting record makes it clear he is no fan of abortion rights. So it’s reasonable to interpret his decision as a message to appellate courts like the Fifth Circuit that if anyone is going to be rewriting abortion rights jurisprudence, it will be the conservative justices on the Supreme Court under his guidance.

All this could explain Wednesday’s short order in Whole Woman’s Health v. Paxton delaying any decision in that case pending an outcome at the Supreme Court in Gee.Gee is allowed to take effect. Presumably, the Fifth Circuit would rule in short order to allow Texas’ D and E ban to take effect as well.

Should the Roberts Court take Gee, then the outcome of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Paxton remains in limbo until Gee is resolved.

I noted this in passing when I wrote about how whatever else happens, some new bit of anti-abortion legislation will pass this session. It’s just a matter of whether things get worse from there, and if so by how much.

Omnibus lawsuit against Texas abortion laws begins

Gotta say, I’m less optimistic about this now than I was when it was filed.

State attorneys and lawyers representing reproductive rights groups argued in federal court Monday over whether a sweeping lawsuit challenging more than 60 Texas abortion regulations should move forward.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel told state attorneys that their 73-page argument confused him. He also expressed confusion about what reproductive rights groups were arguing over.

“This needs to be something not that the court understands but the public understands,” Yeakel said. “I find this case difficult to understand with the status of the record.”

[…]

Stephanie Toti, senior counsel at the Lawyering Project and lead attorney for the reproductive rights groups in the case, said during the hearing that “once upon a time, Texas started off with a reasonable regime to regulate the system of abortion.”

“The system has become so burdensome that it’s increasingly difficult for patients and providers to navigate,” Toti said.

Reproductive rights groups also argue that the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” booklet for patients is medically inaccurate. The suit targets a University of Texas System policy barring students from getting credit for internships and field placements at institutions that provide access to abortions.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, said in a news release that the organization is “proud to lead another legal challenge in Texas.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, this lawsuit was filed in June, with the main argument being that the Whole Women’s Health SCOTUS ruling of 2016 made a bunch of previously-passed laws illegal as well. It seemed like a great idea at the time, right up until Anthony Kennedy decided to hang up his robe. Be that as it may, the hope here is to get at least a partial injunction from the district court, and see where we go from there. For that, we’ll have to wait on Judge Yeakel. The Chron has more.

Omnibus lawsuit against anti-abortion laws

Talk about going big.

Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned major provisions of Texas’ omnibus House Bill 2, abortion rights groups want to use that decision to take down years’ worth of anti-abortion legislation, before the court makeup changes. In a 5-3 decision, the justices determined that provisions of the 2013 law didn’t provide “medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes.” Emboldened by the ruling, abortion providers went through years of Texas regulations to determine others that could be challenged under the same health and safety standard, leading to the lawsuit filed against the attorney general, state health department, and others.

“I think of this as an omnibus repeal,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president of Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, the lead plaintiff in the HB 2 case and the new lawsuit. “There’s a new standard, and we can look at it to challenge a bunch of things at once.”

The lawsuit, which Hagstrom Miller calls “the big fix,” is far-reaching. Filed in federal district court in Austin, it challenges a parental notification law from 1999 and abortion reporting requirements from 2017. It takes issue with the state’s ultrasound requirement, mandatory waiting period, parental consent requirement, restrictions on medication abortion and telehealth services, provider licensing laws and more than 20 other restrictions.

[…]

Work began on the new lawsuit not long after the HB 2 decision. Last May, Hagstrom Miller hinted at litigation, saying at the reopening of her Austin clinic that “we have the opportunity to try to get some other things fixed by the Supreme Court before the makeup changes — if the makeup changes.” She had already started brainstorming this lawsuit, holding meetings with providers and scribbling regulations to tackle on whiteboards, she told the Observer on Wednesday.

The new challenge comes as conservative lawmakers around the country are aggressively pushing anti-abortion legislation. One bill proposed during the last session of the Texas Legislature would have criminalized abortion and charged women and providers with murder. The Legislature passed a measure that bans the most common form of second-trimester abortion, and another that requires the burial or cremation of fetal remains after abortions and miscarriages. Both are currently blocked, but some anti-abortion advocates hope to push the former to the Supreme Court.

The Trib lists the plaintiffs: the Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, the Afiya Center, Fund Texas Choice, the Lilith Fund, the Texas Equal Access Fund, the West Fund and Dr. Bhavik Kumar, who serves as medical director of the Whole Woman’s Health Alliance clinic. I can imagine them scoring at least a significant partial win in district court, then running into significant resistance from the Fifth Circuit – basically, exactly what happened with the lawsuit against HB2 – and after that who knows. It’s a bold strategy and has the potential for a lot of good, but as with any bold strategy there’s risk as well. Needless to say, I wish them all the best. A press release from the West Fund is here, and the Chron and Texas Monthly have more.