Democrats push Justice Department to punish ‘potential’ perpetrators of Texas abortion ban

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WASHINGTON — Democrats in Congress are urging the Justice Department to prosecute Texans who sue to enforce the state’s new abortion ban — saying the feds should go so far as to bring criminal charges against the “potential militiamen” – as the party continues to research ways to respond to what Republicans now see as a national model for stopping abortions.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee – including Texas Representatives Sylvia Garcia and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston and Veronica Escobar of El Paso – wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland that the department “cannot allow the second largest state in the land to deprive women of their constitutional rights by contracting out the enforcement of SB 8 to individuals”.

The state’s new abortion ban, the toughest in the nation, allows individuals to file civil lawsuits against those who help women obtain abortions outside of the law’s tight deadlines. Under the law, these civilian law enforcement agencies can recover at least $10,000 in damages from the targets of their lawsuits.

“We urge you to pursue legal action up to and including criminal charges against would-be vigilantes who attempt to use the private right of action established by this blatantly unconstitutional law,” the Democrats wrote. “Two generations of women have come to rely on the right to choose an abortion. This choice is deeply private and should in no way be infringed upon by a third party, let alone a vigilante seeking state pay.

It’s the latest example of Democrats in Washington seeking ways to fight the ban, which went into effect last week after the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to deny an emergency appeal from abortion providers. and others.

So far, they’ve found few answers as Republicans in Texas tout the ban as a model for other states.

“This law will save the lives of thousands of unborn babies in Texas and become a national model,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said last week. “I pray that all other states will follow our lead in defending life.”

The high court did not rule on the constitutionality of the law, leaving the door open to future challenges. But the decision nonetheless renewed calls from the left to abolish the filibuster in the Senate, push through new protections for women through Congress and add justices to the court.

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee pointed to a federal law established after the Civil War that states that US citizens cannot be deprived of their constitutional rights “under cover of any law.”

“The Department of Justice cannot allow individuals seeking to deny women the constitutional right to choose an abortion to escape scrutiny under existing federal law simply because they attempt to do so under the covered by state law,” they wrote.

Jackson Lee, meanwhile, would go further. The Houston Democrat said she plans to file federal legislation to criminalize such an act as a form of harassment.

Jackson Lee said in an interview on the Mehdi Hasan Show that the bill “will penalize those who even look in the direction of a woman who might possibly be thinking about an abortion – even looking. It will be defined as harassment, it will be defined as vigilante and you will have criminal charges.

For now, legal experts doubt the federal government can prosecute individuals.

Susan Klein, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, called it a “political stunt” and said she couldn’t imagine a prosecutor taking such a case.

The law cited by Democrats, she said, is intended to protect against abuse by state actors, such as the police. The government should argue that because Texas law gives citizens the power to enforce its provisions, they become state actors.

Seth Chandler, a law professor at the University of Houston, said the statute the Democrats are talking about was established after the Civil War, aimed at preventing abuses of constitutional freedoms by recently freed slaves.

“I don’t think anyone can cite a clear precedent saying yes, the government clearly can prosecute in this context or no, they clearly cannot prosecute in this context,” Chandler said. “What’s happening here – bringing a lawsuit in a recognizable court – doesn’t fit into that tradition of what these federal laws are.”

Garland released a statement earlier this week saying the Justice Department was “urgently” exploring “all options to challenge Texas SB8 to protect the constitutional rights of women and others, including access to abortion”.

It came after President Joe Biden said he was launching a “whole of government effort,” calling on the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice to see what steps they can take “to isolate women and The impact of Texas’ bizarre scheme of outsourcing the application to private parties.

In the meantime, Garland said, the department would continue to “protect those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services” under federal law that prohibits the use or threat of force to restrain anyone. to seek out such services.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House will vote on a bill to “enshrine reproductive health care for all women in law” when it returns to DC later this month.

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