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The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have “admitting privileges” at a nearby hospital, a stipulation that could have forced all but one of the state’s abortion clinics to close.
The case, June Medical Services v. Russo, was decided by a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the court’s four liberal justices in the majority. The Louisiana law under consideration was almost identical to one that the court threw out in 2016 under the belief that it created an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions while providing no medical benefit.
One of the five votes to block the 2016 law was Anthony Kennedy, who has since been replaced by Brett Kavanaugh. Anti-abortion groups had hoped that change would lead to a different outcome in the new case. But Roberts, who has voted to uphold the Texas law four years ago, surprised many legal experts by ruling against a similar law this time around.
Why there’s debate
The decision was a clear win for proponents of abortion rights and a blow to the anti-abortion movement, though there is significant debate in both camps about what it may signal about how the court might rule on the issue in the future.
On one hand, the case runs counter to a belief held by many legal scholars that a Supreme Court featuring President Trump’s two appointments, Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, would roll back abortion rights at the first opportunity. Roberts’s vote signals that he may join his liberal colleagues to preserve Roe v. Wade if a more direct challenge to the 1973 landmark abortion rights law came before the court.
Others see reason to believe the case could be a precursor for the court to let other abortion restrictions stand in future cases. In voting to strike down the Louisiana law, Roberts
wrote that he believed the case in 2016 was wrongly decided, but he was bound by the precedent it set. This may be a signal that he’s primed to swing his vote the other way in future cases that don’t have a direct parallel in recent history.
The ruling is part of a string of recent cases that have brought the Supreme Court back into the center of political debate ahead of November's presidential election. Two of the oldest justices on the court are liberals, meaning a second term for Trump could give him the opportunity to appoint another justice that changes the balance of the court in a way that makes a repeal of Roe v. Wade more likely.
More than a dozen states have passed laws that seek to undercut the “undue burden” standard the Supreme Court established in 1992. The court could take up one of these cases when it reconvenes next year.
The case is a much smaller win for abortion rights than it appears to be
“I think people are going to read this as a win for abortion rights to a much greater extent than it is. Roberts’s opinion was unambiguously skeptical of abortion rights. … If there is some way to convince Roberts that he can save face and still undo abortion rights, he will probably take it.” — Legal expert Mary Ziegler to the New Yorker
Landmark abortion decisions could still be overturned
“So the right to an abortion survives another day, but Roberts’s opinion is less an endorsement of the right than it is a warning that litigants should not overreach. The chief justice is unwilling to overrule a very recent precedent simply because one of his colleagues retired. But that does not mean that he will preserve Roe or [the undue burden standard] when a litigant asks him to overrule those decisions outright.” — Ian Millhiser, Vox
Roberts was swayed against his principles by politics
“The Court’s June Medical Services ruling is not about the law. It is about politics, as these late-June decisions often are. ...The Left and the media-Democrat complex would go into meltdown if the Court were to approve significant restrictions on abortion democratically enacted by elected officials. Regardless of what the correct constitutional analysis may be, Roberts is not going to allow himself or the institution under his leadership to be subjected to such condemnation.” — Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review
The decision is actually a step backwards for abortion rights
“Roberts’ concurrence is classic Roberts — cloak a major blow to the left in what appears to be a small victory for it.” — Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
The decision bolsters Trump’s case for reelection
“The ruling will only further the push by social conservatives to re-elect Mr. Trump so he might have a third opportunity to nominate a justice in time to rule on more significant abortion cases working their way up to the Supreme Court.” — Sabrina Tavernise and Elizabeth Dias, New York Times
The decision could hurt Trump’s standing with conservative voters
“Monday’s ruling may bolster Trump’s conservative critics, who argue that he is not worth supporting despite the fact that he has appointed conservatives to the federal bench at a historic rate. These critics argue that while Trump may deliver the occasional conservative victory, his character is so flawed and his presidency is so unpopular that the wins are likely ephemeral.” — Jon Ward, Yahoo News
The case highlights how critical control of the Supreme Court is
“John Roberts and other conservatives on the court were supposed to stand to thwart the kind of imaginative, expansive readings of the Constitution which would create new rights that had not been imagined by the framers. But that's what the left has wanted, sought, and often gotten in recent decades.” — Brit Hume, Fox News
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters