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Justice Department Sues Texas Over New Abortion Ban

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland holds a press conference Thursday to announce a lawsuit against Texas. The Department of Justice is seeking a permanent injunction against the state's new abortion law.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland holds a press conference Thursday to announce a lawsuit against Texas. The Department of Justice is seeking a permanent injunction against the state's new abortion law.

Updated September 9, 2021 at 6:25 PM ET

The Department of Justice has sued the state of Texas over a new law that bans abortions after about six weeks, before most people realize they are pregnant, all but halting the procedure in the country's second-largest state.

The lawsuit says the state enacted the law "in open defiance of the Constitution."

"The act is clearly unconstitutional under long-standing Supreme Court precedent," Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a news conference Thursday afternoon. "Those precedents hold, in the words of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that 'regardless of whether exceptions are made for particular circumstances, a state may not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy before viability.' "

The Justice Department is seeking a permanent injunction from a federal court in the Western District of Texas. But it's likely the U.S. Supreme Court will have the final word on the matter.

Garland noted the law deputizes private citizens "to serve as bounty hunters authorized to recover at least $10,000 per claim from individuals who facilitate a woman's exercise of her constitutional rights."

He pointed out the law has thus far had its intended effect.

"Because this statute makes it too risky for an abortion clinic to stay open, abortion providers have ceased providing services," he said. "This leaves women in Texas unable to exercise their constitutional rights and unable to obtain judicial review at the very moment they need it."

Experts said the Texas law is among the most strict in the nation, in part because it allows private citizens to sue anyone perceived to be helping patients obtain abortions and doesn't make exceptions for cases involving rape or incest. Several other GOP-led states have announced they are considering adopting similar measures.

The Justice Department case may be designed to slow some of that momentum. The attorney general said if the federal government and the courts didn't block the Texas law, other states could easily put other constitutional rights in jeopardy.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted that the administration "should focus on fixing the border crisis, Afghanistan, the economy and countless other disasters instead of meddling in state's sovereign rights."

The state's Republican governor, Greg Abbott, said he was confident Texas would prevail in court, according to a written statement.

The lawsuit follows heavy pressure from congressional Democrats, who have urged Garland to use the "full force" of the Justice Department.

"We urge you to take legal action up to and including the criminal prosecution of would-be vigilantes attempting to use the private right of action established by that blatantly unconstitutional law," wrote House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and 22 other Democrats.

Last week, the Supreme Court allowed the Texas law to go into effect over dissent from Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. President Biden called the court's majority opinion "an unprecedented assault on a woman's constitutional rights under Roe v. Wade, which has been the law of the land for almost 50 years."

At an event Thursday, Vice President Harris said the administration and the Congress should work to codify Roe.

"We are heartened to see the Biden administration stepping in to take action to vindicate Texans' rights," said Helene Krasnoff, vice president, public policy litigation and law, for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Read the full lawsuit below:

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Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.