SCOTUS Sends Texas Abortion Law to Appeals Rather Than to Judge Who Previously Blocked It

The United States Supreme Court decided not to send Texas' abortion law to a district judge who previously blocked it but instead sent it to the federal appeals court that has allowed the law to remain in place twice.

Texas abortion clinics asked the Supreme Court to "act speedily" regarding the case of the state's abortion ban after six weeks. The clinics also wanted the case to be sent to U.S. Judge Robert Pitman, who had previously blocked the law from being enforced.

Justice Neil Gorsuch granted the clinic's request for the court to act quickly but instead returned the case to the appeals court.

Officials in Texas have indicated they will try to keep the abortion ban case contained in the appeals court for the "foreseeable future."

"The Supreme Court left only a small sliver of our case intact, and it's clear that this part of the case will not block vigilante lawsuits from being filed. It's also clear that Texas is determined to stop the plaintiffs from getting any relief in even the sliver of the case that is left," said Marc Hearron, the lawyer representing the clinics at the Supreme Court.

The abortion law, known as S.B. 8, has been in effect for the past three months. The law forbids abortions after heart activity has been observed in the embryo. However, this usually happens around six weeks, before some women know they're even pregnant.

The law also does not make any exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

The Supreme Court Building
The U.S. Supreme Court recently returned a Texas law forbidding abortions after heart activity has been observed in an embryo to an appeals court. Above, the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on December 4. Daniel Slim/ AFP/Getty Images

Pitman previously ordered the law blocked in early October, but the appeals court countermanded his order two days later.

S.B. 8 bypasses state officials who enforce laws and deputizes private citizens to sue clinics, doctors and anyone else who helps provide an abortion after the cardiac cutoff.

In last week's majority opinion penned by Gorsuch, the Supreme Court limited who can be sued by the clinics as part of their effort to win a court order stopping enforcement of the law and allowing them to resume providing abortions without major financial risks.

The court found that only state licensing officials can be sued, an outcome the clinics said would not stop the filing of lawsuits against providers if abortions resume.

Gorsuch wrote that "it appears" the licensing officials can be sued. "Of course, Texas courts and not this one are the final arbiters of the meaning of state statutory directions," he wrote.

The state signaled plans to ask the appeals court to seek a definitive ruling from the Texas Supreme Court over licensing officials' role in enforcing the ban.

The appeals court would then have to decide whether it will involve the state's high court, which would put the case on hold.

The Supreme Court also has before it a Mississippi abortion case in which the justices indicated at arguments on December 1 that they are prepared to possibly overrule Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the cases forming the basis for a nationwide right to an abortion.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, Supreme Court
Justice Neil Gorsuch penned last week's Supreme Court opinion sending an abortion-rights case to an appeals court. Above, Gorsuch stands during a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 23. Erin Schaff/The New York Times/AP Photo