Wednesday, March 4, 2020
SCOTUS Hears Oral Arguments in June Medical Abortion Case
Will this be the case in which the Supreme Court decides to overrule the almost half-century precedent of Roe v. Wade (1973)?
The Court heard oral arguments in June Medical Services v. Russo (formerly Gee), but Roe v. Wade was not mentioned. Planned Parenthood of SE Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) was mentioned only once, but Justice Breyer in the context of standing of physicians. But the Court's most recent abortion case, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt (2016), which is factually difficult to distinguish from the June Medical, was often center-stage.
Julie Rikelman, arguing for June Medical, began by stating that the Louisiana statute at issue in the case is "identical" to the one the Court upheld in Whole Woman's Health four years prior. Yet her first sentence — "This case is about respect for the Court's precedent" — implicitly reached back further. Further, the precedent involved was not only on the merits, but also on the issue of third-party standing, which here is the ability of physicians to raise the constitutional rights of their patients. Such third party standing was accorded physicians in pre-Roe cases such as Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), involving contraception. It was also accorded the bar owner rather than the minor male (who had since turned 21), in Craig v. Boren (1976), involving an Oklahoma statute restricting 3.2 beer to males, a case with which Justice Ginsburg is more than a little familiar. Rikelman argued that Louisiana had waived any objections to third party standing by not raising it in the district court, and the fact of that waiver was vigorously disputed by Justice Alito. Alito also repeatedly raised the validity of the third party standing issue in circumstances in which the physicians and the patients interests were in conflict. Rikelman, and other Justices seemingly, repeated that there was no conflict.
On the merits, the question was whether "the inquiry under [Whole Woman's Health v.] Hellerstedt is a factual one that has to proceed state-by-state?," as Chief Justice Roberts phrased it. This question goes to the heart of whether Whole Woman's Health is binding precedent. Elizabeth Murrill, Solicitor General for the state of Louisiana, argued that because the Fifth Circuit focused on the credentialing aspect of admitting privileges, it was different from Whole Woman's Health. Chief Justice Roberts essentially asked her the same question he'd earlier asked Rikelman about state-by-state differences:
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Do you agree that the benefits inquiry under the law is going to be the same in every case, regardless of which state we're talking about? I mean, I understand the idea that the impact might be different in different places, but as far as the benefits of the law, that's going to be the same in each state, isn't it?
MURRILL: No. I don't think the benefit -- I mean, I think that a state could certainly show greater benefits, depending on what their regulatory structure is and what the facts are on the ground in that state. I think we absolutely could show that we -- that it serves a greater benefit.
In our situation, for example, we've demonstrated that the doctors don't do credentialing . . . .
Arguing for the United States, Jeffrey Wall, the Deputy Solicitor General, supported the state of Louisiana on the merits and also argued against third party standing. Justice Breyer posed the question of stare decisis:
And I think eight cases where you've given standing, I mean, we could go back and reexamine Marbury versus Madison, but really we have eight cases in the abortion area, we have several cases in other areas, and Whole Woman's Health picks that up. Casey picks that up. And you really want us to go back and reexamine this, let's go back and reexamine Marbury versus Madison.
And -- and you have good arguments. But why depart from what was pretty clear precedent?
Wall argued in response that in none of the previous standing cases had the Court considered whether there was a conflict between the patients and the doctors.
On rebuttal, Rikelman argued there was no such conflict now.
There are plenty of conflicts between the parties and the Justices.