Wednesday, December 21, 2016
In its unanimous opinion in Burns v. Cline, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held state SB 1848, a law restricting abortion, unconstitutional.
SB 1848 had similar requirements as the challenged Texas bill HB2, which the United States Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt in June. Oklahoma’s bill, like Texas’ HB2, had an admitting privileges provision that required all abortion facilities, on any day an abortion was being administered, to have a doctor at the facility equipped with admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. Additionally, the bill had twelve other regulations on abortions providers, including standards for supplies, equipment, training, screenings, procedures (both pre and post op), and record keeping. Certain violations of these standards implicated felony and civil penalties.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court cited Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt extensively, explaining that every woman has a constitutionally protected right to terminate a pregnancy pre-viability, and that laws that impose an undue burden on that right are unconstitutional. The court also elucidated that a law seeking to protect women’s health while actually impeding on the right cannot withstand constitutional review.
The court relied on the plaintiff doctor, outlining Burns’ 41 years of private practice experience and the singular time he had to call an ambulance for a patient over the course of that tenure. The court also considered Burns’ application to 16 different hospitals for admitting privileges. Burns was either rejected because his medical specialty does not have recognized board certification, or because he was unable to meet a requirement of admitting at least 6 patients per year. The court noted that his exemplary record was the blockade to his access to the 6 in-patient requirement.
SB 1848 would have closed Burns’ clinic or subject him to civil penalties if it remained open. SB 1848 would have rendered Oklahoma with only one operable abortion provider for the entirety of the state. Because of this, the Oklahoma Supreme Court found this an unconstitutional undue burden under both Hellerstedt and Casey. The court rejected the state’s argument that this bill advanced women’s health under the reasoning from Hellerstedt. Of note was the court’s reference to the Oklahoma State Medical Association, as well as various expert testimony and data points laid out in Hellerstedt, that explained both the safety of an abortion and the lack of safety for patients should these bills withstand constitutional review.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court also rejected the bill under the Oklahoma Constitution single subject rule. SB 1848 created 12 unrelated provisions against abortion providers, imposing major penalties on providers should the regulation be unheeded. The state argued that because all of the regulations were in some way related to abortion, they were not averse to the single subject rule. The Supreme Court of Oklahoma rejected this reasoning, stating that the legislation’s multiple sections were not “germane, relative and cognate” to a common purpose.
The most obvious importance of this case is its strict adherence to the undue burden standard outlined in Hellerstedt. But importantly, the court's rationale regarding the state constitutional standards for omnibus bills is likely to have a heavy impact.
[with assistance from Juliet Critsimillos, CUNY School of Law]