In the years before 2016, when I needed an example of a really stupid policy for my graduate Law and Public Affairs classes, I always could count on Texas. (Of course, once Trump was elected, bad federal policies were so plentiful I didn’t need to look to the states for examples.)
As the Biden Administration moves to reverse many of the damaging, corrupt decisions of its predecessor, Texas legislation is once again filling the “what the shit?” gap. Some bills are just “Texas-sized” versions of current GOP efforts to suppress the vote, while others–like the recent effort to turn citizens into agents of the state authorized to report and punish abortion– are something else altogether.
As Constitutional Law professors Laurence H. Tribe and Stephen I. Vladeck recently wrote in the New York Times, Texas’ version of anti-abortion legislation is “especially worrisome.”
Not only has Texas banned virtually all abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy, a point at which many women do not even know they’re pregnant, it has also provided for enforcement of that ban by private citizens. If you suspect that a Texan is seeking to obtain an abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy, not only will you be able to sue the provider to try to stop it, but if you succeed, you’ll also be entitled to compensation. (And what’s known as the litigation privilege would likely protect you from a defamation claim even if you’re wrong.) The law, known as S.B. 8, effectively enlists the citizenry to act as an anti-abortion Stasi.
All of that would be problematic enough, but enlisting private citizens to enforce the restriction makes it very difficult, procedurally, to challenge the bill’s constitutionality in court. A lawsuit filed in federal court in Austin last week tries to get around those roadblocks. We believe that it should succeed. But if it fails, not only would that leave the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the country impervious to constitutional challenge, it would also encourage other states to follow Texas’ lead on abortion, as well as on every other contested question of social policy.
California could shift to private enforcement of its gun control regulations, never mind the Second Amendment implications of such restrictions. Vermont could shift to private enforcement of its environmental regulations, never mind the federal pre-emption implications. And the list goes on.
The op-ed noted a crucial difference between this legislation and the private attorney general laws that in many states allow people to help enforce certain laws. As they point out, in those situations, citizens are supplementing government enforcement.
The Texas law, by contrast, leaves private enforcement as the only mechanism for enforcing the broad restrictions on abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy. It specifically precludes the state’s attorney general or any other state official from initiating enforcement. Under this new law, private enforcement supplants government enforcement rather than supplements it. If this seems like a strange move, it is. And it appears to be a deeply cynical one, serving no purpose other than to make the abortion ban difficult to challenge in court.
The reason for that difficulty is that, when the state itself is not directly involved in enforcing a law, none of the state’s executive officers are proper defendants to a lawsuit. (What far too many Americans do not understand about their protections under the Bill of Rights is the requirement of state action–the Bill of Rights protects us against government infringement of our liberties–not against intrusions by private actors.)
That said, I wholeheartedly agree with the professors’ citation of a 1948 case involving racially-restrictive covenants in property deeds, in which the Court found that private deed restrictions could only be enforced with the participation of judges, clerks and other state officials. The vigilantes authorized by this legislation may be private citizens, but the law can’t be enforced without involving the apparatus of the state.
As the essay concludes, success in this effort by the state of Texas would set “an ominous precedent for turning citizens against one another on whatever contentious issue their state legislature chose to insulate from ordinary constitutional review.”
This year, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear what’s likely to be its most important abortion case since 1992, when it considers Mississippi’s ban on virtually all abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. But the legal dispute that began in Texas last week is, in our view, the far more important one. Not only is the Texas ban a frontal assault on Roe v. Wade; it’s an assault on our legal system and on the idea that law enforcement is up to the government, not our neighbors.
Texas has often tried to secede from the Union. Failing that, it’s attacking the legal framework that defines us as a union.