Monday, June 29, 2020
Today the Supreme Court issued its decision in June Medical Services L.L.C. v. Russo. By a 5-4 vote, the Court strikes down Louisiana’s admitting-privileges law (Act 620) as imposing an undue burden on women seeking an abortion. The five-Justice majority comes from Justice Breyer’s opinion, which is joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, and Chief Justice Roberts’ concurring opinion. Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh dissent—each of them authoring dissenting opinions.
In addition to the substantive constitutional issues regarding access to abortion, the case implicates some interesting civil procedure and federal courts issues: standing, standards of review, and stare decisis.
The standing issue is whether the plaintiffs, who were abortion providers and clinics, could challenge the Louisiana law as infringing their patients’ rights. Justice Breyer’s opinion concludes that Louisiana waived its standing argument:
The State’s argument rests on the rule that a party cannot ordinarily “‘rest his claim to relief on the legal rights or interests of third parties.’” Kowalski v. Tesmer, 543 U. S. 125, 129 (2004) (quoting Warth v. Seldin, 422 U. S. 490, 499 (1975)). This rule is “prudential.” 543 U. S., at 128–129. It does not involve the Constitution’s “case-or-controversy requirement.” Id., at 129; see Craig v. Boren, 429 U. S. 190, 193 (1976); Singleton v. Wulff, 428 U. S. 106, 112 (1976). And so, we have explained, it can be forfeited or waived. See Craig, 429 U. S., at 193–194.
Louisiana had argued in the lower courts that “there was ‘no question that the physicians had standing to contest’ Act 620.” This was an “unmistakable concession,” according to Justice Breyer. He adds that “even if the State had merely forfeited its objection by failing to raise it at any point over the last five years, we would not now undo all that has come before on that basis.” He explains:
What we said some 45 years ago in Craig applies equally today: “[A] decision by us to forgo consideration of the constitutional merits”—after “the parties have sought or at least have never resisted an authoritative constitutional determination” in the courts below—“in order to await the initiation of a new challenge to the statute by injured third parties would be impermissibly to foster repetitive and time-consuming litigation under the guise of caution and prudence.” 429 U. S., at 193–194 (quotation altered).
Justice Breyer also questions whether Louisiana’s standing argument would be persuasive in any event, noting that “[w]e have long permitted abortion providers to invoke the rights of their actual or potential patients in challenges to abortion-related regulations.”
Chief Justice Roberts concurs in Justice Breyer’s standing analysis: “For the reasons the plurality explains, ante, at 11–16, I agree that the abortion providers in this case have standing to assert the constitutional rights of their patients.”
2. Standard of Appellate Review
Another procedural issue is the standard of appellate review regarding the district court’s findings. Justice Breyer’s opinion notes:
We start from the premise that a district court’s findings of fact, “whether based on oral or other evidence, must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and the reviewing court must give due regard to the trial court’s opportunity to judge the witnesses’ credibility.” Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 52(a)(6). In “‘applying [this] standard to the findings of a district court sitting without a jury, appellate courts must constantly have in mind that their function is not to decide factual issues de novo.’” Anderson v. Bessemer City, 470 U. S. 564, 573 (1985) (quoting Zenith Radio Corp. v. Hazeltine Research, Inc., 395 U. S. 100, 123 (1969)).
And the opinion concludes:
We conclude, in light of the record, that the District Court’s significant factual findings—both as to burdens and as to benefits—have ample evidentiary support. None is “clearly erroneous.” Given the facts found, we must also uphold the District Court’s related factual and legal determinations. These include its determination that Louisiana’s law poses a “substantial obstacle” to women seeking an abortion; its determination that the law offers no significant health-related benefits; and its determination that the law consequently imposes an “undue burden” on a woman’s constitutional right to choose to have an abortion. We also agree with its ultimate legal conclusion that, in light of these findings and our precedents, Act 620 violates the Constitution.
Chief Justice Roberts also emphasizes the deferential standard of review:
The question is not whether we would reach the same findings from the same record. These District Court findings “entail[ed] primarily . . . factual work” and therefore are “review[ed] only for clear error.” U. S. Bank N. A. v. Village at Lakeridge, LLC, 583 U. S. ___, ___, ___ (2018) (slip op., at 6, 9). Clear error review follows from a candid appraisal of the comparative advantages of trial courts and appellate courts.
3. Stare Decisis
And of course, the case presents important questions of stare decisis, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which struck down Texas’s admitting privileges requirement. Stare decisis is key to Chief Justice Roberts’ tie-breaking fifth vote in favor of the plaintiffs: “I joined the dissent in Whole Woman’s Health and continue to believe that the case was wrongly decided. The question today however is not whether Whole Woman’s Health was right or wrong, but whether to adhere to it in deciding the present case.” Roberts concludes:
Stare decisis instructs us to treat like cases alike. The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law. The Louisiana law burdens women seeking previability abortions to the same extent as the Texas law, according to factual findings that are not clearly erroneous. For that reason, I concur in the judgment of the Court that the Louisiana law is unconstitutional.