Texas' near-total abortion ban is temporarily blocked by a federal judge, spurring the state to quickly appeal
By Reese Oxner
A federal judge temporarily blocked Texas' near-total abortion ban Wednesday as part of a lawsuit the Biden administration launched against the state over its new law that bars abortions as early as six weeks of pregnancy.
But it's unclear how U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman's order may affect access to abortions in the state—or if it will at all. The state of Texas quickly filed a notice of appeal and will almost definitely seek an emergency stay of Pitman's order in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is known as perhaps the nation's most conservative appellate court.
In a press release, the ACLU of Texas pointed to the uncertainty on how Wednesday's order and the state's appeal will affect procedures in the state.
"Though the court's ruling offers a sigh of relief, the threat of Texas' abortion ban still looms over the state as cases continue to move through the courts. We already know the politicians behind this law will stop at nothing until they've banned abortion entirely," Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project said in a statement. "This fight is far from over, and we're ready to do everything we can to make sure every person can get the abortion care they need regardless of where they live or how much they make."
Until Pitman's order, Texas' new law successfully flouted the constitutional right to have an abortion before fetal viability established by Roe v. Wade in 1973 and subsequent rulings. That's because it leaves enforcement of the new restrictions not to state officials but instead to private citizens filing lawsuits through the civil court system.
The order from Pitman—a 2014 Obama nominee—forbids state court judges and court clerks from accepting lawsuits that the law allows. Pitman ordered the state to publish his order on all "public-facing court websites with a visible, easy-to-understand instruction to the public that S.B. 8 lawsuits will not be accepted by Texas courts."
He called the case "exceptional" and ordered that the state and "any other persons or entities acting on its behalf" be blocked from enforcing the statute. He acknowledged that his order could be appealed in another court and added: "this Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right."
After Senate Bill 8 went into effect Sept. 1, it forced all major abortion clinics to stop offering abortions after an embryo's cardiac activity is detected, which can happen before many people know they're pregnant. Some providers have stopped offering the procedure altogether out of fear of litigation.
The law is constructed in such a way that people who violate the law, even while it is being temporarily blocked, could be liable to litigation if the law's enforcement were to be reinstated and any existing suits could continue.
It capped conservative lawmakers' decades-long war to block access to the procedure and Texas' fast appeal to the 5th Circuit was expected.
"The court will likely put the trial court judgment on hold," Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, said in an email. "Clinics that perform abortions now risk facing liability if the Fifth Circuit stays the ruling."
Planned Parenthood released a statement after Pitman's order but did not say whether its clinics would resume offering abortion procedures.
"While this fight is far from over, we are hopeful that the court's order blocking S.B. 8 will allow Texas abortion providers to resume services as soon as possible. Planned Parenthood providers across the country have reported serving Texas patients, who are heartbroken and furious that they've needed to leave home for essential health care—often at great expense," Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America said in a statement. "Planned Parenthood will continue fighting this ban in court, until we are certain that Texans' ability to access abortion is protected."
Texas Right to Life, a prominent anti-abortion organization, has said that if Pitman's order is reversed, it would consider filing lawsuits against providers or doctors who perform abortions outlawed under SB 8.
"Any abortions that are committed after September 1, 2021—there is a four-year statute of limitations that somebody can retroactively sue for those abortions — so we are going to be vigilant," said Kim Schwartz, the organization's media and communication director.
Schwartz said the organization fully expects the 5th Circuit to step in and reverse Pitman's order. The 5th Circuit has already paused court proceedings in another lawsuit Pitman is overseeing that was lodged by abortion providers over the state's law. The U.S. Supreme Court also eventually could be asked to step in on this case.
Pitman gave a scathing response to Texas' request that the court allow it to seek an appeal prior to blocking the law's enforcement.
"The State has forfeited the right to any such accommodation by pursuing an unprecedented and aggressive scheme to deprive its citizens of a significant and well-established constitutional right," Pitman wrote in his order. "From the moment S.B. 8 went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution."
Despite the threat of retroactive lawsuits, the Center for Reproductive Rights said the clinics and doctors it represents "hope to resume full abortion services as soon as they are able." The organization acknowledged that the order is temporary and expected the state would appeal — but called the ruling a "critical first step."
"For 36 days, patients have been living in a state of panic, not knowing where or when they'd be able to get abortion care," Nancy Northup, president & CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement Wednesday. "The cruelty of this law is endless."
Whole Woman's Health said it was making plans "as soon as possible" to resume abortions outlawed under Texas' law.
"This is AMAZING. It's the justice we have been seeking for weeks," Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman's Health, said in a statement.
The Department of Justice sued Texas on Sept. 9 and alleged the law was deliberately constructed to flout constitutional rights by making it difficult to challenge in court. But the state responded that just because the law is difficult to challenge judicially doesn't mean it should be overturned.
By empowering anyone in the nation to file lawsuits against a provider or person who aids someone in getting an abortion and by barring state enforcement, SB 8 makes it difficult to name the correct defendants in the lawsuits that would block enforcement of the law.
The U.S. House passed a reproductive rights bill late last month that would nullify Texas' controversial near-total abortion ban by codifying the right to an abortion into federal law. However, the legislation appears unlikely to pass in the Senate and therefore is unlikely to become law.
"Tonight's ruling is an important step forward toward restoring the constitutional rights of women across the state of Texas," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. "The fight has only just begun, both in Texas and in many states across this country where women's rights are currently under attack. That's why the President supports codifying Roe v. Wade, why he has directed a whole-of-government response to S.B. 8."
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court decided to not block the law in a late-night 5-4 vote on the day it went into effect. The court cited procedural difficulties and tossed that legal case back to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where it currently sits. But justices stressed that the court was not ruling on the statute's constitutionality, namely not overruling Roe v. Wade, which helped established a constitutional right to an abortion.
The Department of Justice's case is one of many lawsuits filed in an effort to block the enforcement of Texas' abortion law.
"Today's ruling enjoining the Texas law is a victory for women in Texas and for the rule of law. It is the foremost responsibility of the Department of Justice to defend the Constitution," U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement. "We will continue to protect constitutional rights against all who would seek to undermine them."
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It's been a few weeks since a viral TikTok revealed poor working conditions at the Montopolis Dollar Tree in southeast Austin, and employee Maggie Lopez is still feeling its effects.
Lopez was filmed working alone at the location May 1 in a since-deleted video that saw 2.9 million views and over 450,000 likes.
In the video, stacked boxes littered the floor, shelves were left unstocked and a leaky, broken air conditioning unit welcomed customers into the understaffed storefront.
@trishmartinez32#x_bazan06#fyp#fypシ#tiktok#friends#like#comment#4upage#4u#share#viralvideo#trending#wow#4upageシ♬ original sound - Patricia Martinez
Lopez, who now works at the dollar store's Springdale location, says she was left with the aftermath of a 90-hour workweek, lost wages and a mystery illness after the store closed a few days later.
"Nobody ever told me... that there was no air conditioning. They didn't tell me there was danger of getting robbed," Lopez told Austonia. "Nobody said anything... they didn't care."
The location didn't shut its doors because of the TikTok exposure: instead, an AC unit specialist doing routine maintenance found employees working in extreme heat and said it was too hot for employees to continue working.
"To operate a business, you have to have your temperature within a certain parameter," Ikaika, the specialist who didn't disclose his full name to protect his job, told Austonia. "As soon as you walk in, you start sweating... it's not good at all."
Lopez said working in 90+ degree heat became the norm in her two months at the location as air conditioning units remained broken for months before the closure. She added some employees, including her former manager and several customers, passed out in the store due to the heat. But she said company leadership remained unresponsive.
Lopez said she sent her district manager, Veronica Oyervides, screenshots of 90+ degree temperatures inside the store. (Maggie Lopez)
Four days after the air conditioning repairman told employees they should no longer keep working at the store, Lopez said her district manager, Veronica Oyervides, was asking her to come back in to prep the location for reopening. Lopez worked May 8 in the shuttered store prepping it for a reopening, which has yet to happen. Oyervides has declined to comment.
Ever since she started working in the deteriorating Dollar Tree, Lopez said she often wakes up with nosebleeds. She said she's constantly thirsty, her hands shake, and she's experiencing headaches and mood swings—symptoms she believes are due to long-term exposure to mold.
Former assistant manager Linnea Bradley told Austonia she has been hospitalized with symptoms linked to heat and stress after working at the store.
"We are sick and corporate does not give a shit," Lopez said. "What kind of damage did these stupid units do to our bodies?"
Lopez hasn't sought care for her symptoms. She says she makes $13.50 an hour and doesn't have health insurance.
Former employees have more complaints than just the heat: Lopez said that personal safety became a concern in the understaffed store. Catherine, a former employee who wished to only reveal her first name, said she's witnessed large-scale theft and instances of mismanagement in her months as a stocker at the location.
"They have no security, no cameras... they don't want you to have anything in writing," Catherine told Austonia. "It's just complete chaos."
Catherine said that she and other hourly employees were given zero hours for weeks on end as managers, who work on salary, were left to run the store alone from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day. She said some managers became so desperate they were hiring homeless people to help stock shelves in exchange for a drink and a bite to eat.
While Catherine (top, middle) often had zero-hour weekly schedules, Martinez, who was paid on salary, worked back-to-back 90-hour workweeks. (Catherine) (Claire Partain)
"They actually did have people willing to work, they just refused to give them hours," Catherine said. "I'm not understanding whether Dollar Tree wants to go under... are they doing this as a tax break?"
Other Austin Dollar Tree locations have reported similar issues. Former manager Jonathan Martinez, who says he was supposed to work 45 hours a week, says he was racking up 90+ hour workweeks and sleeping in the store as he shouldered both the Montopolis and William Cannon locations while his newborn baby was in the ICU in March.
Martinez kept extra clothes in this office after working seven-day weeks at two Dollar Tree locations. (Claire Partain)
Martinez said he slept on boxes as he juggled the job and visiting his newborn in the ICU. (Claire Partain)
Martinez said he slept on boxes as he juggled the job and visiting his newborn in the ICU. (Claire Partain)
"As long as the store stays open, there are corporate people getting bonuses," Martinez, who quit last week after receiving a $100 annual bonus, told Austonia. "Six months ago, when corporate people had a shitload of bonuses, that's when they upped the price (of everything in the store from $1 to $1.25)."
In the six months since Dollar Tree hiked its prices to $1.25, it's gained plenty of mostly negative national attention. In February, the Food and Drug Administration shut down an Arkansas distribution plant due to a massive rodent infestation, and several lawsuits have ensued. The company has also come under fire for selling allegedly expired over-the-counter medicine and its worker shortage at locations across the country.
One employee, who still works for Dollar Tree and wished to remain anonymous, said that they've seen or heard that many area locations are near their breaking point.
"I've seen the good, the bad, the bad to worse," they said. "And it's always a rinse repeat kind of thing... How many more (stores) will go? And what about the employees?"
"Every time I would tell (Oyervides) 'I'm just going to close, I can't stand it anymore,' she would say, 'No, no, no,'" Lopez said. "And I'd be so upset because why? They have my paycheck. It's just been mortifying... the most horrible year of my life."
Dollar Tree's regional director did not respond to requests for comment from Austonia.
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A group of environmentalists and other activist groups are calling on the city to withhold permits Tesla has requested, including for a battery cathode facility by the company’s headquarters near the Colorado River.
In a letter to Mayor Steve Adler and the rest of council, the groups say the manufacturing process will require a substantial amount of water and chemicals, and that as a result, a hazardous waste stream will form.
“Where will the toxic waste end up? How will Austin ensure that it doesn’t pollute the water?” the letter asks.
The groups, which include East Austin group PODER, the Texas Anti-Poverty Project, Hornsby Bend Alliance and others, demand that the city wait on permit approval until the company makes commitments to engage the community and protect the environment.
While building its own batteries could mean a significant reduction in production costs for the automaker, the groups say materials and processes involved in battery production have dangers. They pointed to Piedmont Lithium, a supplier for the facility, saying caution should be taken with battery production products to “avoid contamination of surface, ground and sewerage waters."
Last year, PODER launched an initiative known as the Colorado River Conservancy to protect the character of the river corridor. Paul DiFiore, manager of the initiative, talked about its aims to put protections in place for the riverfront neighborhoods. "That was the goal that Tesla maybe brought that to another level of urgency," DiFiore told Austonia.
The company has faced controversy with its environmental action before. Earlier this year, the company was fined $275,000 by the Environmental Protection Agency for high priority violations of pollution regulations at its Fremont, California plant.
The letter from environmental groups comes just as Tesla was booted from the E.S.G. index, which ranks companies for how they follow environmental, social and governance principles.
Yesterday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk pushed back against the index, calling it a “clear case of wacktivism.”
Exxon is rated top ten best in world for environment, social & governance (ESG) by S&P 500, while Tesla didn\u2019t make the list!\n\nESG is a scam. It has been weaponized by phony social justice warriors.— Elon Musk (@Elon Musk) 1652890157
Along with action on the cathode facility’s permits, the groups are also calling for collaborative work to remedy inequities in water access.
The letter describes how Tesla receives service from Austin Water, though the gigafactory is outside the boundaries of the service area. That’s because the Public Utility Commission granted Tesla a release from South West Water’s service, allowing them to instead turn to Austin Water for service.
Meanwhile, others in the surrounding area, like those in the Garden Valley neighborhood, rely on Aqua Texas Inc.—which has rates more than double that of Austin Water—for retail service. The neighborhood can receive wholesale service from Austin Water, however.
The groups point to this, along with other developments at the gigafactory—clearing large swaths of trees, filling in ponds and pouring acres of concrete for the factory—as a reason to enforce standards requiring companies to operate with social and environmental responsibility.
“If we do not raise the bar for the increasing number of corporations who wish to relocate to Austin or expand their presence, we risk losing precisely that which attracts people to live here in the first place: the clean, beautiful environment that is the foundation of our collective quality of life,” the letter states.
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