What is Ex Parte Young?

The 1908 case held that state officials could be sued in federal court to prevent them from enforcing unconstitutional laws.


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What is Ex Parte Young, much-discussed in the Texas abortion case?

Nov. 1, 2021, 12:27 p.m. ET

Nov. 1, 2021, 12:27 p.m. ET

Justice Rufus W. Peckham wrote the majority opinion in Ex Parte Young.Credit… Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

As the Supreme Court struggled on Monday with whether it could or should block Texas courts from hearing lawsuits by private citizens against abortion providers under the state’s novel anti-abortion law, a 1908 case called Ex Parte Young kept coming up.

That case involved a dispute over a Minnesota law on railroad rates and a federal lawsuit against the state’s attorney general, Edward Young. The Supreme Court held that state officials could be sued in federal court to prevent them from trying to enforce unconstitutional laws.

However, the court’s majority decision, written by Justice Rufus W. Peckham, said that this mechanism could not be used to “restrain the state court from acting in any case brought before it either of a civil or criminal nature.”

He added: “An injunction by a federal court against a state court would violate the whole scheme of this government, and it does not follow that, because an individual may be enjoined from doing certain things, a court may be similarly enjoined.”

The twist raised by the Texas anti-abortion case is that state officials are forbidden to enforce the law, which conflicts with the Supreme Court’s current abortion rights rulings. Instead, the law is enforced by private citizens’ filing lawsuits against abortion providers, or against people who assist them or women seeking abortions.

The plaintiffs — the Justice Department and abortion providers in Texas — have sought to address that twist by seeking an injunction barring state courts from hearing such cases.

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