Texas lawmakers target law firms for aiding abortion access

Signage is seen outside of the law firm Sidley Austin at their legal offices in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • The Texas Freedom Caucus accused law firm Sidley Austin of being "complicit in illegal abortions" performed in the state
  • Sidley Austin is one of several large law firms offering to cover travel costs for employees seeking abortions
  • Letter says lawmakers will propose legislation to disbar lawyers, sanction law firms for facilitating abortions

(Reuters) - A group of Texas state legislators this week warned law firm Sidley Austin that it was courting legal action by promising to reimburse staff who travel to obtain an abortion and said proposed legislation is in the works to single out lawyers and law firms for violating anti-abortion statutes.

Sidley, an international firm with over 2,000 lawyers and offices in Dallas and Houston, was among several law firms that internally announced travel reimbursement policies after the U.S. Supreme Court last month reversed the constitutional right to abortion, leaving it up to states to regulate the procedure.

In a letter Thursday, the Texas Freedom Caucus – a coalition of 11 current Texas state legislators – told Sidley management committee chair Yvette Ostolaza that it believes the law firm “has been complicit in illegal abortions” performed in the state. The letter did not provide details on those claims or Sidley’s role.

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A Sidley spokesperson and the caucus did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the letter.

The caucus said Sidley may be in violation of a Texas law that permits civil lawsuits against those who “aid and abet” abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, typically during the sixth week of pregnancy.

“Litigation is already underway to uncover the identity of those who aided or abetted these and other illegal abortions,” the letter said.

The group asked Sidley to preserve and retain any records on abortions performed or induced in Texas after the fetal heartbeat law went into effect and after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, including records related to firm employees who may have helped pay for the procedures. Such retention requests can be a precursor to litigation.

Reuters could not confirm whether other law firms with Texas offices and policies to reimburse staff for abortion-related travel have received similar letters, and the caucus has not publicized any others. Vinson & Elkins, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and McDermott Will & Emery are among the law firms with a Texas presence that have adopted such a travel policy.

Several large U.S. companies announced similar travel policies after the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling last month. Reuters reported that such benefits could open companies up to lawsuits and potential criminal liability.

The Texas Freedom Caucus letter also said legislators are planning bills “that will impose additional civil and criminal sanctions on law firms that pay for abortions or abortion travel.”

That legislation, according to the letter, will require the state to disbar any Texas lawyer who helps someone obtain an abortion or violates any other state abortion statute.

The legislation would also permit private citizens to sue anyone who pays or reimburses someone for an abortion, the caucus said.

President Joe Biden on Friday signed an executive order to make it easier to access services to terminate pregnancies. Included in the order is a direction for the White House counsel office and Attorney General Merrick Garland to "convene a meeting" of lawyers, including those in private practice, to encourage legal representation for those seeking or offering abortion services.

Read more:

Large U.S. law firms begin to offer abortion travel benefits after Dobbs ruling

Legal clashes await U.S. companies covering workers' abortion costs

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Jacqueline Thomsen, based in Washington, D.C., covers legal news related to policy, the courts and the legal profession. Follow her on Twitter at @jacq_thomsen and email her at jacqueline.thomsen@thomsonreuters.com.