Friday, June 14, 2019
D.C. Circuit Finds Federal Policy Barring Abortion for Unaccompanied Immigrant Minors Unconstitutional
In its opinion in Jane Doe v. Azar, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the trial court's injunction against the federal government's 2017 policy banning abortion access for any unaccompanied immigrant minor in federal custody. As the per curiam opinion for the majority explained:
The claim of one minor in this case brings the policy’s breadth and operation into stark relief. She had been raped in her country of origin. After her arrival here and her placement in government custody, she learned she was pregnant as a result of the rape. She repeatedly asked to obtain a pre-viability abortion, to no avail. She remained in government custody as an unaccompanied minor because there was no suitable sponsor to whom she could be released. Nor was there any viable prospect of her returning to her country of origin: indeed, she eventually received a grant of asylum (and lawful status here) due to her well-founded fear of persecution in her country of origin. Still, the government sought to compel this minor to carry her rape-induced pregnancy to term.
She is one of the named plaintiffs who brought this challenge to the government’s policy on behalf of a class of pregnant unaccompanied minors. The district court granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs, and the government now appeals. We initially agree with the district court that the case is not moot, and we find no abuse of discretion in the court’s certification of a plaintiffs’ class consisting of pregnant unaccompanied minors in the government’s custody. On the merits, we sustain the district court’s preliminary injunction in principal part.
The bulk of the per curiam majority's opinion is devoted to the class action certification and mootness issues. The government contended that because the named representatives had obtained abortions, their claims were moot, and rendered them inadequate class representatives (both because of the mootness and because not all pregnant minors would choose abortions). The government further contended that other requirements for class certification were not met and that the class should be narrowed so that joinder of individual plaintiffs seeking an abortion would be possible. The majority found the district court did not abuse its discretion in certifying the class.
On the merits of the constitutional claim, the majority stated it was clear that there is a constitutional right to access abortion adjudicated under the undue burden standard and that it extends to minors, although there can be a parental consent requirement if there is a judicial bypass provision. The federal government agreed that a state could not simply ban a minor's access to abortion, but how then, the opinion asked, can the federal government defend the abortion ban policy of the ORR, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a program in the Department of Health and Human Services, bears responsibility for the “care and placement” of unaccompanied immigrant minors (known as UACs, "Unaccompanied Alien Children")? The government offered three arguments, each of the which the majority rejected.
* "First, the government contends that permitting unaccompanied minors in its custody to access pre-viability abortions requires it to “facilitate” abortions, which the government says it is not obligated to do." The court, however, noted that the problem was not the government not wanting to remove barriers not of its own creation (such as poverty), but here the government creates the conditions itself: "an unaccompanied minor’s abortion hinges on ORR’s drafting and executing approval documents only because ORR itself has conditioned abortion access on its execution of approval documents." Further, the court ruled that what the government deems the “facilitation” that it wants to steer clear of giving to an unaccompanied minor, "is something it willingly gives to all others in federal custody."
* Second, the government asserts that unaccompanied minors may voluntarily depart the country and that the ban thus does not impose any cognizable burden. But, the court noted that"voluntary departure" is not freely available, but is at government discretion, and actually operates as a "second government veto." Moreover, even if the government were to grant a voluntary departure upon request, there is no indication of how long that process might take, and requires the minor to abandon all other requests for relief.
* Third, the government argues that, because many unaccompanied minors are released to sponsors, banning abortions while in ORR custody does not impose an undue burden. The court found that the sponsorship argument was "ultimately no more persuasive than its voluntary-departure one. Those arguments share important parallels. In both, the central idea is that an unaccompanied minor may find herself no longer in ORR custody—either because she voluntarily departs the country or because she is released to a sponsor—in which event she would be free to access an abortion without the burden of ORR’s policy."
Thus, the majority found that the ORR policy violated the Fifth Amendment right to due process and affirmed the district court's injunction against its enforcement.
The court remanded another portion of the district court's injunction, however, on the basis that the ORR policies involved were not necessarily clear. At issue were any policies that required disclosure of pregnancy or abortion access. This issue was at times conflated with the access to abortion issue, and the court remanded so that the district court could "give a more fulsome account of its findings and conclusions in that regard."
In a dissenting opinion, Senior Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman devoted most of his opinion to the class certification issue, but on the merits relied heavily on the dissenting opinion of then-judge and now-Justice Kavanaugh in Garza v. Hargan (2017), concluding that the majority is "endorsing abortion on demand – at least as far as the federal Government is concerned." Thus, the stage is set for the federal government's petition for certiorari.