But the court said Gov. Greg Abbott did not have the authority to order such investigations, acknowledging they could cause “irreparable harm.”
HOUSTON — The Texas Supreme Court ruled on Friday that investigations of parents with transgender children for possible child abuse could continue, after an emergency appeal by state officials including Gov. Greg Abbott. The ruling reversed lower-court decisions that had temporarily halted the inquiries statewide.
But the court said neither Mr. Abbott nor the attorney general, Ken Paxton, had the authority to order such investigations, and it left in place a lower court order halting the investigation into the plaintiffs in the suit, a family and a doctor, acknowledging that the inquiry would cause “irreparable harm.”
It was not immediately clear whether the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services would continue its other investigations into medical treatments for transgender youth, such as puberty blockers and hormones, that have become a flash point for some conservatives and Republican elected officials. The ruling also indicated that were any inquiries to resume, families could seek to halt them in court.
Mr. Paxton praised the ruling as “a win for families against the gender ideology of doctors, big pharma, clinics.”
Advocates for transgender people saw a kind of split decision. “It could have been worse,” said Andrea Segovia, the policy director for the Transgender Education Network of Texas. But, she added, “all the preparations that we were doing in February and March — so that if there is a knock on your door, you know what steps to take — that’s all still relevant.”
The investigations began in February after Mr. Abbott ordered state officials to consider certain medically accepted treatments for transgender youth to be abuse, including hormones and puberty-suppressing drugs. The governor’s directive followed a legal opinion by Mr. Paxton saying that such treatments constituted child abuse.
In its 12-page ruling, the court said that the governor’s order had no force and did not “bind” the state’s protective services agency to conduct abuse investigations, so the agency could decide for itself how to proceed. An agency spokeswoman said it was reviewing the decision.
At the same time, the justices ruled that an appeals court had “abused its discretion” in issuing a statewide order against such investigations at this point in the legal process.
The ruling on Friday came in response to a legal challenge brought by the parents of a 16-year-old transgender girl. The family was among the first to be investigated by the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services under Mr. Abbott’s order. Several other investigations have since come to light.
In March, a district judge, Amy Clark Meachum in Travis County, ordered all such investigations to stop, pending a trial. She found that the governor’s order had been improperly adopted and violated the State Constitution. An appeals court allowed the district judge’s temporary injunction to remain in force.
Mr. Abbott and Mr. Paxton took the case to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that the investigations, on their own, were not an “injury” and that the district court had overstepped its authority in preventing them. All nine members of the state’s highest court are Republican; five were appointed by Mr. Abbott.
The court found that Mr. Abbott and Mr. Paxton could not in fact require certain kinds of investigations by the Department of Family and Protective Services, and that the agency had discretion over how it conducted its abuse inquiries. “Neither the governor nor the attorney general has statutory authority to directly control” the department’s investigatory decisions, wrote Justice Jimmy Blacklock, who was appointed by Mr. Abbott in 2018.
“Just as the governor lacks authority to issue a binding ‘directive’ to D.F.P.S., the court of appeals lacks authority to afford statewide relief to nonparties,” Justice Blacklock wrote.
Mr. Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs were encouraged by aspects of the ruling. “The court rejected the state’s arguments to get rid of the case entirely,” said Karen Loewy, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, which represented the plaintiffs along with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The court made clear, she said, that while statewide investigations by the protective services agency could resume, “any similar investigation” to the one into her clients “would cause the same irreparable harm” and that “the appropriate thing to do would be to exercise the discretion that they had before the governor got involved.”
The appeals court will now consider arguments from state officials and the plaintiffs over Judge Meachum’s decision. A trial, originally scheduled for July, is now on hold pending those arguments.
The governor’s directive and subsequent investigations have already had a significant effect on families and on medical providers, even during the statewide injunction. Large hospitals around Texas stopped providing hormone treatments as part of their care for transgender youth in response to the governor’s directive. Parents of transgender children across the state worried about becoming targets; some have taken steps to leave the state.
The Texas policy was the culmination of a broad national push by conservative groups to restrict medical treatment for transgender youth, known as gender-affirming care. That type of care has gained broad acceptance among medical groups and doctors in recent years.
Mr. Abbott’s directive came several months after bills to limit transgender medical care failed in the Texas Legislature last year. It immediately followed a nonbinding opinion in February from Mr. Paxton that certain medical treatments could be considered child abuse under existing Texas law.
The moves by Mr. Abbott and Mr. Paxton, both two-term incumbents, came just before primary elections in Texas, as each official faced bitter challenges from well-funded Republican opponents. Mr. Abbott emerged victorious; Mr. Paxton faces a runoff vote this month.
Mr. Abbott has said his actions were about protecting children. His campaign has described the issue as a political “winner” with Texas voters.
But dozens of major businesses, including household names like Johnson & Johnson, Google and Macy’s, have objected to the governor’s approach. In Indiana and Utah, Republican governors vetoed bills banning transgender athletes from participating in youth sports. “Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” Spencer Cox, the Utah governor, wrote.
For the family at the center of the Texas case, the decision to file a lawsuit came when state investigators began requesting medical records related to the daughter’s treatment. The family refused to provide them.
Instead, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Lambda Legal, the family went to state court in Austin to try to stop the investigation by the family protection department, where the mother of the 16-year-old works reviewing reports of abuse and neglect.
The only allegation against the family — named in court papers only as John, Jane and Mary Doe — was that their transgender daughter might have been provided with gender-affirming care, according to the suit. During a hearing on the injunction, the mother testified in a wig and glasses to shield her identity, and spoke of the emotional toll the investigation had taken on her family.
Also included as a plaintiff was a licensed psychologist in Houston, Dr. Megan Mooney, whose practice includes treating transgender patients. Dr. Mooney is required under Texas law to report suspected child abuse, as are teachers and others who work with children. She testified during the hearing that the governor’s order had created “outright panic” for those in her position.
Judge Meachum found that the governor’s directive forced Dr. Mooney to decide between criminal prosecution for not reporting abuse under the directive or potential civil liability for not following her own profession’s standards and ethics.