Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Oral Argument in McCullen v. Coakley, the Clinic Buffer Zone Case
The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in McCullen v. Coakley regarding a First Amendment challenge to a Massachusetts statute creating a fixed thirty-five-foot buffer zone around the entrances, exits, and driveways of medical facilities, including abortion clinics. Recall that the First Circuit had rejected both a facial and as-applied challenge to the statute. While the statute is a "time, place, manner" statute similar to others that had been upheld, throughout the arguments it often seemed as if the statute was being more than strictly scrutinzed.
The oral arguments evidenced several definitional disagreements. A pronounced dispute was the characterization of the actors and actions covered by the statute. Throughout his argument on behalf of the petitioners, Mark Rienzi described the activity as "peaceful, consensual conversations" and as "counseling." When Jennifer Grace Miller, representing the state of Massachusetts opened her argument by characterizing the activities of the petitioners as "protest" or abortion, Justice Scalia quickly interrupted, accusing her of distortion. Instead, he insisted, the petitioners "want to talk to the women who are about to get abortions and try to talk them out of it." For Scalia, the case is a "counseling case, not a - - - not a protest case." Later in the argument, he came back to the point:
I -- I object to you calling these people protestors, which you've been doing here during the whole presentation. That is not how they present themselves. They do not say they want to make protests. They say they want to talk quietly to the women who are going into these facilities. Now how does that make them protestors?
This definitional disagreement arose a number of times, implicating the issue of whether the state had other, less restrictive, means to accomplish its goals. Justice Kennedy asked Ian Gershengorn, Deputy Solicitor General of the United States, supporting the state of Massachusetts, how many federal prosecutions there had been in Massachusetts, to which Gershengorn replied that the federal FACE Act is a "very different statute" aimed at "murder, arson, and chaining to doorways." Such definitional issues also implicated the activity being regulated by the statute as speech based on content or even viewpoint.
Importantly, the state action before the Court is a statute rather than an injunction, a point made apparent several times. The record before the Massachusetts legislature as well as analogies to other types of buffer zones - - - Justice Alito seemed especially preoccupied with labor - - - was an important focus. Justice Kagan raised protests around slaughterhouses by animal rights activists, noting to Mark Rienzi that it was raised in his brief for Petitioners, and saying that while he might have meant it to be "terrible," her reaction was that it might be sensible: "Just have everybody take a step back."
But how far back? The question of "why 35?" was explicitly asked by Justice Kagan of Jennifer Miller arguing for the state. Comparisons to the courtrrom space littered the arguments. Justice Ginsburg translated the distance into time, asking Mark Reinzi how long is one in the buffer zone. He replied, about "7 to 10 seconds":
JUSTICE GINSBURG: There's not much you're going to be able to do to have a conversation that will persuade people in 7 to 10 seconds.
MR. RIENZI: I respectfully disagree on that last point, Your Honor. The evidence in this record is that the -- the inability to speak with people close to the clinic has a dramatic effect on the Petitioners' ability to reach their audience. So if someone happens to be walking from the same side of the zone that you're standing on, you may have a shot.
Not surprisingly, Justice Thomas maintained his usual practice of foregoing verbalizing questions. More surprisingly, perhaps, Chief Justice Roberts did not ask any questions. His final "Thank you, counsel," provided no clues to his future deliberations on the case.