Eight nonprofits that help pregnant Texans arrange and pay for out-of-state abortions were in an Austin courtroom Tuesday to ask a federal judge to protect them from state laws that could bring heavy fines and jail time.
The testimony, however, was quickly overshadowed by a fight over whether state Attorney General Ken Paxton could be compelled to testify in the case after lawyers for the abortion advocates claimed Paxton fled his McKinney home Monday morning in an apparent attempt to avoid receiving two subpoenas to appear in court.
According to an affidavit filed Monday evening, a process server was met at the door by Paxton's wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, who said Ken Paxton was unavailable. While the process server waited outside, a black SUV pulled up to the driveway. Ken Paxton walked to the car but turned around and ran back into his garage when the server called out his name, according to the affidavit, which was first reported by the Texas Tribune.
A short time later, Angela Paxton got into a second vehicle, leaving the rear door open and starting its engine, after which Ken Paxton ran from the house to the truck.
"I approached the truck, and loudly called him by his name and stated that I had court documents for him. Mr. Paxton ignored me and kept heading for the truck," process server Ernesto Martin Herrera said in the affidavit. "I stated that I was serving him with legal documents and was leaving them on the ground where he could get them."
Ken Paxton, who is seeking a third term in the Nov. 8 election, did not pick up the documents, and both vehicles left, the affidavit said, adding: "Service was completed at 9:50 am."
Before the hearing began at 10:30 a.m., however, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman granted the state's motion to quash the subpoenas.
Lawyers for the abortion funds asked the judge to reconsider his ruling, saying during the hearing that only Ken Paxton could discuss what he meant by threats to ensure that nonprofits face criminal and civil prosecution if they help Texans schedule or pay for an abortion in states where the procedure remains legal.
In response, a lawyer for Paxton argued that knowing the attorney general's intent was not relevant to what he said about enforcing state law.
Pitman ended the discussion by saying he would defer ruling on whether to reinstate the subpoenas, but the judge wondered aloud whether abortion funds and providers would benefit from hearing about how Paxton planned to handle complaints about Texans involved in out-of-state abortions.
Paxton says he felt threatened
Paxton said Tuesday that he felt threatened by the process server, who he said was acting erratically, adding that conservative leaders across the country have faced threats to their safety with little attention from the media.
"This made-up controversy around serving me a subpoena is nothing more than a shameless stunt from my political opponents," he said in a written statement. "Here are the facts: a strange man came onto my property at home, yelled unintelligibly, and charged toward me."
According to the affidavit, the process server identified himself to Angela Paxton and handed over his business card at the front door.
Rochelle Garza, Ken Paxton's Democratic opponent in the general election, pounced on the development.
"Texans already knew about Ken Paxton’s corruption, but now we know about his cowardice and utter contempt for basic legal processes," Garza said. "Unlike Paxton, I’m running to uphold the rule of law, not run away from it."
Abortion funds make free speech argument
During Tuesday's hearing, leaders of several abortion funds said they stopped helping Texans schedule and pay travel and other costs for out-of-state abortions after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that there is no constitutional right to abortion and Paxton issued a directive saying Texas laws criminalizing abortion, which had never been removed from the Penal Code, could be immediately enforced.
Violating Texas abortion laws could bring a sentence of up to life in prison and a civil fine of at least $100,000, among other penalties.
The abortion funds and nonprofits filed suit Aug. 23 arguing that Texas laws banning abortion do not trump free speech guarantees that protect "expressive conduct," including providing money and other logistical help to pregnant Texans, nor can they be used to block travel to states where abortions are legal.
"The right to travel is a fundamental constitutional right of all citizens of the United States," the funds argued in their lawsuit, filed Aug. 23.
The lawsuit included Dr. Ghazaleh Moayedi, an abortion provider who wants to resume traveling to out-of-state abortion clinics and provide telehealth care for patients outside her location in Texas.
Lawyers for the state argued that the abortion funds are not barred from exercising their First Amendment rights to discuss abortion and advocate for change.
But officials for the abortion funds testified that they were restricted in the information they could provide and struggled to determine what information violated Texas law against aiding an abortion or furnishing the means of getting an abortion.
Pitman gave no indication about when he'd issue a ruling but said he wanted to give lawyers from both sides an opportunity to make final points in briefs to be filed in the near future. The judge told the lawyers to work out a reasonable deadline for submission.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Ken Paxton runs from subpoena attempt, abortion advocates say