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Texas Court Committee Agrees How To Interpret Part of State Judicial Bypass Law

Texas Court Committee Agrees How To Interpret Part of State Judicial Bypass Law

October 20, 2015 — The Texas Supreme Court Advisory Committee at a meeting Friday unanimously agreed on how to interpret a provision in an antiabortion-rights law (HB 3994) targeting minors seeking abortion care, the Texas Observer reports.

According to the Texas Observer, the committee is tasked with developing rules for courts to consider when applying the new law (Garcia-Ditta, Texas Observer, 10/17).

Background

The law, which Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed in June, imposes additional restrictions on minors seeking a court's permission to receive abortion care instead of obtaining parental consent for the procedure.

Minors seeking judicial bypass must prove at least one of three grounds: that they are well-informed and mature enough to obtain an abortion without parental notification; that it is not in their best interest to notify their parents of the procedure; or that notifying their parents would cause emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

The new law requires minors to apply for bypass in their county of residence, an adjacent county if their home county has fewer than 10,000 residents or in the county in which they plan to have the procedure. In addition, the law increases the burden of proof that minors face when claiming that obtaining parental consent for abortion would lead to emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Previously, judges were required to rule on such petitions within two days, at which time the request was considered approved absent a judge's ruling. Under the new law, a judge is required to rule on a minor's request within five days. The law does not provide any guidance on whether a request is granted or denied if a judge does not issue a ruling in that timeframe.

The law also requires physicians to assume pregnant women are minors and request they show proof of identification. However, physicians are allowed to provide abortion care without a woman providing an ID. In such cases, physicians are required to provide a report to the state on the abortion.

The law allows for civil penalties of up to $10,000 for any individual found to have "intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or with gross negligence" violated the measure (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/15).

Committee Meeting Details

On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court Advisory Committee -- comprised of 46 judges and lawyers -- unanimously agreed that if a judge does not rule within the law's five-day deadline for a minor's bypass application, the state Supreme Court or a regional presiding judge would appoint a new judge.

However, the advisory committee did not decide on how best to preserve a minor's anonymity while meeting the law's requirements. Advocacy groups have said the minors' anonymity could be endangered by the provision requiring minors to file the bypass application in their county of residence.

According to the Observer, some committee members proposed keeping minors' names off all legal forms and official court records. Others pointed out that doing so would make it difficult to ensure the law's other requirements were being met, such as prohibitions on a minor filing for bypass in another court after having an initial bypass application rejected. Meanwhile, Ana Estevez, a district judge in Amarillo, Texas, noted that another provision requiring that minors who petition must appear in court ultimately removes a minor's anonymity regardless of the information included in court documents.

Advocacy Group Praises Five-Day Deadline Decision

Tina Hester, executive director of Jane's Due Process, a Texas organization that offers legal representation to minors, called the decision to appoint a new judge if the presiding judge fails to rule within five days "critical." She explained that limited timeframes for legal abortion and fewer open clinics in the state, which lead to increased delays before an abortion, necessitate the prompt appointment of a new judge.

She said, "This at least gives (minors) some assurance that they will have their day in court."

According to Jane's Due Process, about 200 minors apply for the bypass annually (Texas Observer, 10/17).