All eyes are on Roberts ahead of Supreme Court decision on abortion
Chief Justice John Roberts is under the microscope as the Supreme Court prepares to deliver its first major ruling on abortion rights in the Trump era, which will give the clearest indication yet of the will of the court to review the protections that were first granted in Roe v. Wade.
The deciding vote may lie with Roberts, and the case will test his role as the court’s new ideological center as well as his allegiance to past rulings.
A decision could be made as early as Monday, after a successful week in court. Roberts joined narrow majorities last week to extend civil rights protection to gay and transgender people and block the Trump administration’s plan to end a deportation shield for undocumented youth as part of the Deferred Action Policy for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
But the abortion rights case differs from others on one key point. While the LGBT and DACA disputes have asked judges to interpret the meaning of federal law, the Louisiana case asks judges to weigh their own past decisions on abortion.
Roberts’ image as an “institutionalist” judge bent on honoring past Supreme Court opinions, especially the most recent, is now at stake.
One decision in particular – the 2016 court decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt – weighs heavily on the Louisiana affair. It also raises the stakes for Roberts’ and the court’s reputation.
Hellerstedt court ruled 5-3 to repeal a Texas law that required doctors performing abortions be allowed to admit patients to a nearby hospital. Roberts spoke on technical grounds of the majority, which said Texas law was unconstitutional because its burden on a woman’s right to an abortion outweighed any medical benefit.
While Roberts’ vote was not decisive in the Texas dispute, he could hold the deciding vote in the Louisiana affair. Complicating matters is the fact that the Texas law that the court struck down in Hellerstedt is almost identical to the Louisiana law currently under review.
Roberts’ reputation would suffer if the court used the Louisiana case to overturn its 2016 Hellerstedt ruling, according to legal analysts.
“Roberts cares as much, if not more than anyone, in the public face and integrity of the court,” said Steven Schwinn, professor of law at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “He is keenly aware that if the court took dramatic action in the Louisiana case, like overthrowing Hellerstedt, it would be widely seen as a mere political decision.”
If the court made different rulings on the nearly identical abortion laws in Texas and Louisiana, many would attribute the discrepancy to the court’s right turn in recent years.
Retired Judge Anthony Kennedy, formerly the court deciding vote, joined the court’s four liberals to repeal the Texas admissions privilege law in the 2016 Hellerstedt ruling.
But Trump has tilted the court to the right since then, including replacing Kennedy with more conservative justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael Kavanaugh McConnell Starts New Fight in Supreme Court, Confusing Supportive Critics Gorsuch and Thomas Join Liberal Justices to Side with Defendant MORE. He also added a second curator, Justice Neil gorsuchNeil GorsuchSupreme Court confusing its partisan detractors Gorsuch and Thomas join liberal justices in siding with the criminal defendant., on the bench.
Due to changes in the ideological makeup of the court, the Louisiana case could be an indicator for the future of abortion protections in the Trump era. A decision to uphold Louisiana law could signal the court’s desire to restrict abortion rights that emerged in the landmark 1973 court decision in Roe v. Wade.
The Louisiana case stems from a constitutional challenge to a law passed in 2014 by the state’s Republican-led legislature that required physicians who perform abortions to hold “active admitting privileges” in a state. hospital located within 30 miles of their facility.
In practice, this meant that the doctors performing the abortion had to be members of the medical staff of the nearby hospital, have the authority to admit patients there, and be able to perform the relevant diagnoses and surgical procedures.
A federal district court ruled that Louisiana’s admissions privilege law was unconstitutional, saying it “would cripple women’s ability to have abortions in Louisiana.” The court ruled that the law provided “no significant health benefits” while imposing binding requirements on doctors that would force the closure of two of the state’s three abortion clinics.
Applying the Supreme Court’s guidelines in Hellerstedt, the district court said the law places an undue burden on the estimated 10,000 women who seek abortions in Louisiana each year.
But the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal overturned this decision. The appeals court said that under Hellerstedt’s benefits versus charges test, Louisiana law “does not impose a substantial burden on a large portion of women,” prompting the appeal to the court. supreme.
During oral argument in March, Roberts gave no clear signal as to whether the Louisiana settlement could suffer the same fate as the virtually identical Texas law that the court struck down four years ago.
But his questions seemed to focus on the extent to which the court is bound to follow the 2016 ruling in Hellerstedt or whether it could chart a new course by giving states more leeway to enact a wider variety of restrictions on it. abortion.
“Lawyer, do you agree that the Hellerstedt investigation is a factual investigation that needs to be done state by state? Roberts asked a lawyer representing Louisiana abortion clinics and the doctors who sued on behalf of their patients. “Could the results be different in different states? “
The case is June Medical Services LLC v. Russo.