The Volokh Conspiracy

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Supreme Court

The Firearms Policy Coalition Targets S.B. 8 on the Merits

An amicus brief in Whole Women's Health v. Jackson warns of how S.B. 8's structure could be used to target other constitutional rights.


In a bit of strange-bedfellows briefing, Erik Jaffe has filed a merits brief for the Firearms Policy Coalition in Whole Women's Heath v. Jackson on the side of the petitioners. As with the FPC's amicus brief supporting certiorari, this brief warns that barring pre-enforcement litigation against S.B. 8 could threaten other constitutional rights, as other states might enact similarly structured laws to that limit gun possession, political speech, or other constitutional rights.

From the beginning of the merits brief:

This case in its current posture is not about any debate over the existence or scope of any constitutional right to abortion. Indeed, Amicus takes no position on such questions, which are before this Court in other cases. Rather, this case is about how far a State may go in deterring the exercise of any and all individual constitutional rights, as such rights are determined by this Court's cases. Texas's novel scheme for infringing upon and chilling the exercise of the right to abortion under this Court's Roe and Casey decisions, if allowed to stand, could and would just as easily be applied to other constitutional rights. That result is wholly anathema to our constitutional scheme, regardless what one thinks of abortion or, indeed, of any other hotly debated constitutional right, such as the right to keep and bear arms.

1. Laws that deter or chill the exercise of constitutional rights violate those rights. Such deterrence or chill constitutes a present harm for which litigants can seek present redress without having to absorb the tremendous costs and risks of putting their heads on the proverbial chopping block by violating those laws and hoping for eventual vindication. Even where the risk derives from prospective litigation initiated by private parties invoking state law, such risks are still the product of state action in adopting and implementing the law. Whether the relevant state actors are the "deputized" potential plaintiffs and/or the court officials and jurists that wield the power of government at every stage of the litigation process, the chilling of protected conduct is the consequence of invoking state power to such ends, wholly apart from the outcome in any particular case. Indeed, the Texas law is designed precisely to have that effect, biasing the playing field in a manner that likely violates due process, the right to petition, and various other provisions of the Constitution wholly apart from its restriction on abortion. In such circumstances, there should be no serious barrier to enjoining any and all state actors or agents who facilitate or play a role in such a farce.

2. If Texas's scheme for postponing or evading federal judicial review is successful here, it will undoubtedly serve as a model for deterring and suppressing the exercise of numerous constitutional rights. New York is already experimenting with private enforcement of anti-gun laws and will no doubt gladly incorporate the lessons of this case to insulate its future efforts to suppress the right to keep and bear arms. Other States will not be far behind. Indeed, a private bounty scheme could easily be modified to target persons who marry someone of the "wrong" sex or color, criticize the government, refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated, make negligent or harmless false statements on public issues, or engage in any other protected but disfavored conduct. And, if Texas's avoidance of pre-enforcement review succeeds, there is no reason to think the deterring penalties couldn't be made even more draconian. The precedent this law sets as a model for deterring the exercise of any and all rights amply illustrates why it is impermissible.

3. There are a variety of paths for allowing a preenforcement challenge to proceed in this case. The simplest path is the one suggested by petitioners – a suit against those state employees and officials most instrumental in giving force and effect to the threat Texas levels against the exercise or facilitation of federal constitutional rights. Any concerns with ripeness are misplaced given that the imminent threat of litigation, even if not the specific litigants, is palpable and already having an immediate deterrent effect. That litigants have yet to exercise their delegated authority to sue under this scheme makes no more difference than if a prosecutor had yet exercised his or her authority to bring charges under a facially unconstitutional statute.

Alternatively, this Court could recognize the option of a suit against a defendant class of all persons empowered to act under the Texas law. If Texas is going to delegate the government function of enforcing the law to its residents, then those residents should also be subject to collective suit as the agents or functional contractors of the State. Finally, if this Court views any of its precedents as a barrier to suit here, the solution is simple: expand the court-created work-around in Ex parte Young or just overrule Hans v. Louisiana to allow direct suit by a State's citizens against a State that "make[s] or enforce[s]" laws violating the privileges or immunities of those within their State. Such cases strayed from the text, structure, and logic of the Constitution and their errors should not be compounded by driving the train of misdirected precedent off the cliff proposed by Texas.

It's an aggressive brief, but one that makes some important points.