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Texas Supreme Court OKs state child abuse inquiries into the families of trans kids

Demonstrators gather on the steps to the State Capitol to speak against transgender-related legislation bills being considered in the Texas Senate and Texas House in May 2021 in Austin, Texas.
Eric Gay
/
AP
Demonstrators gather on the steps to the State Capitol to speak against transgender-related legislation bills being considered in the Texas Senate and Texas House in May 2021 in Austin, Texas.

Updated May 13, 2022 at 1:58 PM ET

In a unanimous ruling on a controversial issue, the Texas Supreme Court on Friday has cleared the way for the state child welfare agency to resume investigating parents and doctors who provide gender-affirming care for trans youth — actions that Gov. Greg Abbott has equated to child abuse.

It's a blow to Texas families with transgender children, some of whom are departing the state or considering moves because of the threat of these investigations.

The ruling overturns a lower court's injunction from March 11, barring state officials from pursuing Abbott's Feb. 22. directive that instructed the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate "any reported instances" of a range of treatments and procedures, including the administration of hormones and puberty-blocking drugs.

The parents of a transgender teen sued to stop the investigations, and in early March, District Judge Amy Clark Meachum issued a temporary order halting an investigation into the parents of the 16-year-old girl. Meachum later issued another order at the statewide level, temporarily blocking all such investigations stemming from Abbott's directive.

A Texas appeals court later upheld that injunction, but today's action by the state's highest court has lifted Meachum's statewide order.

Both sides say the other is overstepping

In the district court's ruling, Meachum said there was a "substantial likelihood" that the plaintiffs would win their case, and called Abbott's directive to investigate the families "beyond the scope of his authority and unconstitutional."

But with both sides accusing the other of overreaching, the state supreme court delivered a ruling Friday with mixed results. It denied the state's request to dismiss the family's lawsuit outright, for instance. The injunction will remain in place that blocks that family from being investigated. But it also said the appeals court had overstepped its authority by issuing a statewide order.

The far-reaching injunction was automatically superseded when the state filed an interlocutory appeal. But appeals court judges then reinstated the statewide injunction, saying they wanted to "maintain the status quo and preserve the rights of all parties," as member station KERA reported.

The supreme court said that while Abbot and Paxton are within their rights to air their views, the child welfare agency is "not compelled by law to follow them."

As for the lower court's action, the high court said, "Just as the Governor lacks authority to issue a binding 'directive' to DFPS, the court of appeals lacks authority to afford statewide relief to nonparties."

Here's how the court summarized the current situation:

  • The court of appeals order only protects the plaintiffs, not everyone in their situation;
  • Both Abbott's directive and an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton are "nonbinding";
  • Family and Protective Services has "the same discretion to investigate reports of child abuse that it had before" Abbott and Paxton issued those documents.
  • The merits of the plaintiffs' claims and other matters, the supreme court said, remain to be determined in district court.

    Rights groups praise the decision to keep the case alive

    The initial lawsuit was filed on the plaintiffs' behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Lambda Legal. Both of those organizations are now embracing the elements of the high court's ruling that went their way.

    "Denying healthcare to trans kids is life-threatening," the ACLU of Texas said. It added, "Multiple court rulings have now made clear that enforcement of this policy causes harm to youth and their families."

    In a joint statement posted by Lambda Legal, the advocacy groups called the decision "a win for our clients and the rule of law." The supreme court made it clear, they said, that "DFPS is not required to follow the governor's directive or the attorney general's non-binding opinion" on medical care for transgender youth.

    Both Abbott and Paxton are facing reelection votes this November. In response to the court's ruling, Paxton tweeted that he had secured "a win for families against the gender ideology of doctors" and others.

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