Justices of the United States Supreme Court appeared divided on Wednesday in a major abortion case, with Chief Justice John Roberts representing the potential decisive vote on a challenge to a Louisiana law that could make it more difficult for them women to get the procedure.
The court, with a Conservative majority of 5 to 4, heard arguments in an appeal from the Shreveport-based Hope Abortion-based Hope Medical Group, which sought to strike down the 2014 law. The measure requires that the Doctors who perform abortions have an arrangement that is sometimes difficult to obtain, called “admission privileges” in a hospital located less than 48 km from the clinic.
Liberal judges, including the three women in the court, appeared skeptical of this requirement. Conservative judges seemed more receptive.
Roberts and his colleague Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked questions that suggested that they – and perhaps other Conservative justices – did not think Louisiana law was automatically condemned by a 2016 Supreme Court precedent who had removed similar restrictions on Texas admissions privileges.
Roberts, regarded as the ideological center of the court, voted last year when judges on a 5-4 vote prevented Louisiana law from taking effect while litigation over its legality continued.
This vote put him in conflict with his position in the Texas case when Roberts was among the three dissenting judges who concluded that a requirement for admission of privileges did not represent an unacceptable “undue burden” on access abortion.
Roberts appeared to acknowledge in his questions that he might feel bound by the 2016 Court’s finding that admission privilege laws offer no benefit to the health of women. But his questions also indicated that he could deviate from the 2016 conclusion on the specific impact of the Texas law, which has led to several clinic closings, as the situation in Louisiana could be viewed differently.
According to lawyers for the clinic, two of the three Louisiana clinics performing abortions would be forced to close if the law is in force. Louisiana officials said no clinic would be forced to close.
“I understand the idea that the impact could be different in different places, but when it comes to the benefits of the law, it’s going to be the same in every state, right?” Asked Roberts.
Roberts said the 2016 decision requires the analysis to be “factual analysis that must take place state by state”.
Questions posed by Roberts and Kavanaugh could open the door for them to vote to uphold Louisiana law without specifically overthrowing the Texan precedent. Kavanaugh asked whether “in some states the admission of privilege laws could be constitutional, if they did not impose charges”.
Restrict State Laws
The case, whose decision is expected to be released in late June, will test the court’s willingness to maintain Republican-backed restrictions on abortion that are applied in many conservative states. The administration of President Donald Trump supported Louisiana in this affair.
Abortion remains one of the most conflicting problems in American society, with Christian conservatives – an important constituency for Trump – among those who oppose it the most.
Abortion advocates have argued that restrictions such as the admission of privileges are intended to limit access to abortion and not protect the health of women, as proponents say. When the Supreme Court in 1992 upheld the Roe v. Wade, it has banned laws that place an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.
Liberal judge Sonia Sotomayor said it was “a mystery to me” why a 30 mile limit was imposed if the intent of the law was to show that doctors were properly accredited. She asked why doctors couldn’t get credentials from more distant hospitals.
Her colleague Liberal judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg also questioned the 30-mile limit, noting that in most cases women who have complications from abortions would be at home after the procedure and not at the clinic. As a result, it would not be relevant for the doctor to have a relationship with a local hospital, she said.
Trump, who wanted to be re-elected on November 3, promised in the 2016 presidential race to appoint judges who would overturn the historic Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 that legalized abortion worldwide. The Louisiana case marked the first major abortion dispute to be heard in court since Trump appointed Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch as judges.
Gorsuch said nothing during the argument. Conservative judge Clarence Thomas, who rarely speaks during oral argument, also remained silent.
The most outspoken curator was Justice Samuel Alito, who wondered if the clinic and the doctors even had the legal capacity to meet the challenge because their interests were different from those of their patients. He suggested that women who request an abortion be complainants in such cases.
Conservative judge Anthony Kennedy, who retired in 2018, joined the four Liberal judges to defend abortion rights when the court overturned Texas law.
Baton Rouge US district judge John deGravelles cited the precedent for undue burden when he overturned Louisiana law in 2016. After Louisiana appealed, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals based in New -Orléans confirmed the law. (REUTERS)