But the Texas attorney general’s office quickly notified the court of its intent to appeal.
Pitman called out Texas officials for crafting an “unprecedented and aggressive scheme to deprive its citizens of a significant and well-established constitutional right.”
Since the law took effect Sept. 1, Pitman wrote, “women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution.”
“This Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right,” the judge wrote in his 113-page order.
In response to the ruling Wednesday night, one of the state’s largest abortion providers said clinics were making plans to resume abortion services as soon as possible for patients up to 18 weeks into pregnancy. But it was not immediately clear whether they would do so before action by the appeals court.
“This is amazing! Finally, the justice we have been waiting for,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder and chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, which has clinics in Fort Worth, McKinney and Austin.
In a statement Thursday morning, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) said, “We disagree with the Court’s decision and have already taken steps to immediately appeal it to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The sanctity of human life is, and will always be, a top priority for me.”
More than a dozen other states have passed similar laws that ban abortion after a physician has detected cardiac activity, usually around six weeks. But federal judges prevented those laws from taking effect, citing the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that guarantees the right to abortion before viability, usually around 22 to 24 weeks.
The Texas law is different and was specifically crafted to avoid judicial review. Private individuals are empowered to take civil action against anyone who helps a patient terminate a pregnancy after the six-week mark. That design made it difficult for opponents of the law to challenge it in court until a civil action was filed against an abortion provider or clinic employee.
Pitman’s ruling Wednesday was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department after the six-week ban took effect. The government urged the court to allow women in the state to “exercise their constitutional rights.”
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland called the ruling a “victory for women in Texas and for the rule of law” and said in a statement that the department would continue to “protect constitutional rights against all who would seek to undermine them.”
Paxton’s legal team said in court that the federal government had no legal grounds to sue the state because the law is enforced by private citizens rather than state government officials.
In granting a preliminary injunction, the judge said Texas lawmakers had contrived an “unprecedented and transparent statutory scheme” by allowing citizens with no connection to the person seeking an abortion to interfere with a constitutional right through the state’s judicial system.
The judge’s order specifically directs Texas officials to publish the injunction on all state court websites and to “inform all state court judges and state court clerks” of the federal court’s order.
John Seago of Texas Right to Life , which backed the law, said the direction from Pitman to state courts and clerks is “astonishing and an incredible overreach from a federal judge onto state courts.”
Pitman, a nominee of President Barack Obama, acknowledged the concerns of Texas officials about allowing the federal government to file such suits against a state. But, the judge said, this case is “exceptional” because of the design of the state law and its effect on the constitutional rights of women in Texas.
The judge said his injunction should discourage other states from enacting similar legislation that curtails constitutional rights while evading judicial review.
“If legislators know they cannot accomplish political agendas that curtail or eliminate constitutional rights and intentionally remove the legal remedy to challenge it, then other states are less likely to engage in copycat legislation,” he wrote.
The federal lawsuit in Texas is one of several legal battles involving the law. The Supreme Court had allowed the measure to stand while litigation continues, in part because of its novel design. The high court’s conservative majority said in early September that the challengers had not shown that they were suing the proper defendants.
Separately, the justices have agreed to hear a case Dec. 1 involving Mississippi’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks, which directly presents the question of whether to overturn Roe.
In the Texas case, state officials said any injunction blocking enforcement would not provide a long-term legal shield for physicians who want to resume abortions in the state after the six-week period. If the injunction is reversed, lawsuits can still be filed up to four years after the abortion at issue is performed.
Miller of Whole Woman’s Health said she has contacted law firms prepared to represent her staff, including 17 doctors, if they are sued retroactively.
“We do expect the state to appeal, and when they do we will also be ready,” she said.
For the past month, patients in Texas have traveled long distances to Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado to terminate pregnancies, advocates say. But some who are seeking abortions say they cannot take time off work or child care or find money for such a trip.