(WASHINGTON) -- The Justice Department has filed suit against the state of Texas to block its restrictive law against abortions, Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Thursday, setting up a high-stakes legal battle after the Supreme Court allowed the law to go into effect earlier this month.
"That act is clearly unconstitutional under long-standing Supreme Court precedent," Garland said at a news conference. "Those precedents hold, in the words of Planned Parenthood versus 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.'"
He accused Texas Republicans of crafting a "statutory scheme" through the law "to nullify the Constitution of the United States."
"It does not rely on the state's executive branch to enforce the law, as is the norm in Texas and everywhere else. Rather, the snatcher deputizes all private citizens without any showing a personal connection or injury to serve as bounty hunters authorized to recover at least $10,000 per claim from individuals who facilitate a woman's exercise of our constitutional rights," he said.
As part of its lawsuit, Garland said the DOJ is seeking an immediate court order preventing the enforcement of SB8 in Texas.
Garland also made clear that the department won't hesitate to take similar legal action against other states who might pursue a similar route to restrict abortions in the state.
"The additional risk here is that other states will follow similar models," Garland said, and he denied that the decision to file the suit now was in any way based on political pressure from Democrats or the White House.
The lawsuit accuses Texas lawmakers of enacting the law "in open defiance of the Constitution."
"The United States has the authority and responsibility to ensure that Texas cannot evade its obligations under the Constitution and deprive individuals of their constitutional rights by adopting a statutory scheme designed specifically to evade traditional mechanisms of federal judicial review," the lawsuit says. "The federal government therefore brings this suit directly against the State of Texas to obtain a declaration that S.B. 8 is invalid, to enjoin its enforcement, and to protect the rights that Texas has violated."
The suit also alleges that the law conflicts with federal law by intending to prohibit federal agencies from carrying out their responsibilities related to abortion services.
"Because S.B. 8 does not contain an exception for cases of rape or incest, its terms purport to prohibit the federal government and its employees and agents from performing, funding, reimbursing, or facilitating abortions in such cases," the lawsuit says.
Garland cautioned that the Texas law should concern all Americans, regardless of their politics.
"This kind of scheme to nullify the Constitution of the United States is one that all Americans, whatever their politics or party, should fear. If it prevails, it may become a model for action in other areas by other states and with respect to other constitutional rights and judicial precedents," he said. "Nor one need think hard or long to realize the damage that would be done to our society if states were allowed to implement laws that empower any private individual to infringe on another's constitutionally protected rights in this way. The United States has the authority and the responsibility to ensure that no state can deprive individuals of their constitutional rights through a legislative scheme specifically designed to prevent the vindication of those rights."
The Texas statute, which is the most restrictive abortion law in the country, bars physicians from providing abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, or as soon as six weeks into a pregnancy -- often before a woman would even know they were pregnant. There is an exception for medical emergencies, but not in cases of rape or incest.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court formally rejected a request by Texas abortion providers to block the state's severe new law as legal challenges continue.
The unsigned order from the court said the providers had "raised serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law at issue," but added "their application also presents complex and novel antecedent procedural questions" that they were unable to resolve.
The new law has triggered outrage from those who support a women's right to an abortion nationwide. Companies like Uber and Lyft have offered to pay legal fees for any driver who is sued under the law and dating apps Match and Bumble, both headquartered in Texas, pledged to support women seeking abortions.
On the other side, many state lawmakers have said they intend to copy the wording of the Texas law in order to enact similar bans in their states.