Roberts Joins Liberals To Deliver Abortion Rights Victory

Roberts Joins Liberals To Deliver Abortion Rights Victory

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a Louisiana law that providers say will leave the state with just one abortion clinic, in a decision that may deescalate abortion disputes ahead of the 2020 election.

Justice Stephen Breyer delivered the decision for a 5-4 Court, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the liberals in the bottom line judgment. The ruling is the Court’s first abortion case with President Donald Trump’s two appointees on the bench.

The contested law, called Act 620, requires that any Louisiana abortion provider have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The law will not take effect following Monday’s decision.

The case is widely seen as an early tell for how the Supreme Court will approach abortion with a Roe-skeptic majority seemingly in place. Monday’s decision, which resembles a 2016 case involving a similar Texas law, is a defeat for pro-life activists who hoped Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement would prompt an immediate rupture with the Court’s pro-abortion jurisprudence. It also suggests that anti-abortion lawmakers around the country made a strategic misstep in quickly enacting new restrictions on the procedure, now contested in lower federal courts. Monday’s ruling follows a sweeping victory for LGBT rights on June 15, and comes as surveys show President Trump’s support slipping with evangelicals. 

Monday’s dispute closely resembles a 2016 Supreme Court case called Whole Women’s Health v. Hellederstedt. That case involved a Texas law which similarly required that providers obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within a 30-mile radius, among other requirements. Pro-choice groups said the law was a stealth-measure meant to shutter abortion clinics by imposing needless regulations. An eight-member Court struck down the Texas law 5-3, saying it imposed huge regulatory burdens on providers with comparatively few benefits for women.

The stakes are similar in Louisiana, according to pro-choice groups. There are just three abortion clinics in the state, which together terminate about 10,000 pregnancies each year. Providers at two of those clinics said they are unable to comply with Act 620’s requirements, which would leave just one clinic to service the entire state.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found reason to question that assertion. Writing for a three-judge panel that upheld Louisiana’s law 2-1, Judge Jerry Smith said many providers “largely sat on their hands, assuming that they would not qualify,” thus bolstering their legal challenge.

“There is insufficient evidence to conclude that, had the doctors put forth a good-faith effort to comply with Act 620, they would have been unable to obtain privileges,” Smith wrote. Any burdens the law creates, the panel said, are minimal.

The Trump administration supported the Louisiana law before the high court. Enforcement of Act 620 has been on hold since 2019, when a 5-4 Court halted enforcement while litigation continues.

The case is No. 18-1323 June Medical Services v. Russo.

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