A state district court judge hears over a dozen challenges to Texas’ abortion law Wednesday

Several dozen people showed up at the Capitol to protest Texas' controversial anti-abortion law on Sept. 11, 2021. (Michael Gonzalez/The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez/The Texas Tribune)

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A state district judge on Wednesday morning heard arguments from abortion rights groups challenging Texas’ restrictive abortion law in what seems to be the first court hearing to specifically tackle the statute’s constitutionality.

David Peeples, a retired state magistrate judge, presided over the eight-hour hearing. He didn't make a ruling Wednesday but is expected to make one soon after he receives additional filings from both the abortion rights groups and Texas Right to Life, a prominent anti-abortion organization and a defendant in the suits.

Peeples is considering over a dozen cases filed in state court challenging Senate Bill 8, which effectively bans abortions after about six weeks. These lawsuits — filed by Planned Parenthood, doctors, social workers, abortion fund organizations, practical support networks and lawyers — were consolidated by Texas’ multidistrict litigation panel to be heard together.

Attorneys for the 14 cases argued that the law is unconstitutional. Planned Parenthood sought an order blocking the law, while plaintiffs in the 13 other suits asked the judge to issue declaratory judgment of the constitutionality of the law, a legal maneuver used to resolve legal uncertainty in a certain case.

“In short, SB8’s enforcement mechanism, created to subvert one constitutional right, violates the Texas and United States Constitutions,” wrote attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the 13 other suits.

The suits target Texas Right to Life, which helped draft Texas’ law and has vowed to sue violators, even though the group has not filed suits against anyone as of yet.

Texas Rights to Life argued that the plaintiffs can't prove they've been injured by the law, and even if they did, the court has no jurisdiction to issue an order blocking the law. Furthermore, since it hasn't actually filed any suits against people who have violated Texas' abortion law, the organization argued it isn't a proper defendant in the case. Its attorneys also argued the abortion rights groups were asking for an overly broad declaration to block cases that might hypothetically be filed.

The lawsuits are the latest challenge against the controversial abortion law. While other courts have already had hearings on the law, this appears to be the first to hold discussions over its overall constitutionality. It's unclear what the outcome of the hearing will be or what weight it could hold overall.

“Today is the first day since SB 8 went into effect that the people of Texas will be heard on this law,” Anna Rupani, Fund Texas Choice executive director, said during a Wednesday press conference before the hearing. “All you’ve seen so far in courts has been on procedure.”

Rupani said the law especially affects low-income people and people of color by putting financial and geographical barriers in the way they seek care.

Texas Right to Life, in an October statement on its website, said it believes these lawsuits will not affect the overall way the law is enforced in the state.

“These lawsuits do nothing towards preventing the Texas Heartbeat Act from being enforced against other individuals and groups within the abortion industry, should they violate the law,” the organization said.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in two other cases challenging the abortion law, is also expected to rule soon on whether to allow the challenges to proceed. During those hearings, the majority of justices expressed concerns with the way the Texas law is enforced. The statute forbids state or law officials from enforcing it, instead relying on private citizens to sue those who violate it.

Wednesday's hearing can be viewed live on this YouTube channel.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.