Friday, January 6, 2023
The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the state's ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy violated the state constitution's right to privacy.
In doing so, the court broke with the historical approach that the Supreme Court used last summer in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, when it overturned Roe v. Wade. The Court in Dobbs used only history before and leading up to the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment didn't protect a right to abortion, whereas the South Carolina Supreme Court also considered the place of women in political society at the time of the adoption of the provision at issue and events that have "transpired since the amendment was adopted."
The court based the ruling on Article I, Section 10, of the South Carolina Constitution, which says: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures and unreasonable invasions of privacy shall not be violated." The provision sounds like the Fourth Amendment, with the addition of a specific right to privacy. But the court rejected a reading that would've limited the privacy part to government searches and seizures; it said that the privacy part wouldn't be doing any work if it were so limited, and that it therefore must grant a more general right to privacy.
The court also rejected a reading of the provision that depended on what the provision's framers thought at the time of adoption in the mid-1960s, given that women weren't included in the framing committee and given that the state "had neither permitted women to serve on juries in this state nor ratified the Nineteenth Amendment."
The court then wrote that "[w]e cannot relegate our role of declaring whether a legislative act is constitutional by blinding ourselves to everything that has transpired since the amendment was adopted." It said the Court specifically "declined to do so in the context of 'separate but equal' education in Brown v. Board of Education, then quoted this passage:
[W]e cannot turn the clock back to 1868 when the Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896 when Plessy v. Ferguson was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation. Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws.
The approach is a notable break from the Supreme Court's historical approach in Dobbs, when it considered history only before and leading up to the Fourteenth Amendment, and certainly not "everything that has transpired since the amendment was adopted." The South Carolina Supreme Court put a fine point on this break by noting that the Court itself didn't limit its historical assessment to pre-Fourteenth Amendment history in other unenumerated-fundamental-rights cases like Loving, Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.
Friday, June 24, 2022
The extraordinary ruling rolls back nearly 50 years of a fundamental right, and quite plainly lays the groundwork for overturning other fundamental rights.
The ruling allows and invites States to regulate abortion any way they wish, including criminalizing the procedure from the point of conception, with no life or health exception for the woman, and no exceptions for rape or incest. (The opinion doesn't compel this; it just allows and invites it.) Expect to see myriad regulations in about half the States (many of which have "trigger" laws that will regulate abortion as soon as the Court overturns Roe, that is, today), and a number of other States moving explicitly to protect abortion (some have already done so in one way or another).
Justice Alito wrote for the Court, joined by Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. He wrote that Roe was wrong when it was decided, and should be overturned.
Justice Thomas concurred, arguing that there's no such thing as substantive due process, and that the Court should reconsider all its substantive-due-process cases, including Griswold (right to contraception), Lawrence (right of two consenting adults to engage in private sexual conduct), and Obergefell (right to marry, including for same-sex couples).
Justice Kavanaugh concurred, arguing that the ruling only says that the Constitution is silent on abortion, and that the ruling kicks the issue to the States.
Chief Justice Roberts concurred in the result, arguing that while the viability line "never made any sense," the Court should nevertheless affirm the right to abortion to "extend far enough to ensure a reasonable opportunity to choose," but no further.
Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan.
Tuesday, May 3, 2022
Here's the draft obtained by Politico, apparently authored and circulated by Justice Alito. Here's the upshot:
We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely--the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That provision has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but any such right must be "deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition" and "implicit in the concept of ordered liberty."
The right to abortion does not fall within this category. Until the latter part of the 20th century, such a right was entirely unknown in American law. Indeed, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, three quarters of the States made abortion a crime at all stages of pregnancy. The abortion right is also critically different from any other right that this Court has held to fall within the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of "liberty." Roe's defenders characterize the abortion right as similar to the rights recognized in past decisions involving matters such as intimate sexual relations, contraception, and marriage, but abortion is fundamentally different, as both Roe and Casey acknowledged, because it destroys what those decisions called "fetal life" and what the law now before us describes as an "unborn human being."
Stare decisis, the doctrine on which Casey's controlling opinion was based, does not compel unending adherence to Roe's abuse of judicial authority. Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division.
It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people's representatives. . . . .
Justice Alito wrote that the ruling doesn't call into question other recognized fundamental rights in cases cited in Roe and Casey. But the ruling could lay the groundwork for overturning more recent cases like Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell--which, in the language of the opinion, recognize the "right to engage in private, consensual sexual acts" and the "right to marry a person of the same sex," respectively--if the Court ever reassess whether those rights are "deeply rooted" and "implicit in the concept of ordered liberty."
The opinion engages with some of the historical arguments in favor of Roe. But it doesn't engage with this one, by David Gans at the Constitutional Accountability Center. Check it out.
Wednesday, December 1, 2021
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, the case testing Mississippi's ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy . . . and Roe v. Wade itself. Here's my argument preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
In 2018, Mississippi enacted the Gestational Age Act. The Act prohibits doctors from performing an abortion on a woman who is more than 15 weeks pregnant. (In determining the length of a pregnancy, the clock starts running at a woman’s last menstrual period, or “LMP.” As a result, the parties sometimes say that the Act bans abortions after “15 weeks LMP.”)
The Act contains two exceptions. The first one allows doctors to perform an abortion on a woman more than 15 weeks pregnant in the case of a “medical emergency.” The Act defines a “medical emergency” as a situation where, because of a woman’s physical condition or illness, a doctor must perform an abortion in order to save the woman’s life or to prevent “a serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.”
The second exception allows doctors to perform an abortion on a woman more than 15 weeks pregnant in the case of a “severe fetal abnormality.” The Act defines a “severe fetal abnormality” as “a life-threatening physical condition that, in reasonable medical judgment, regardless of the provision of live-saving medical treatment, is incompatible with life outside the womb.”
A doctor who “intentionally or knowingly” violates the Act is subject to license suspension or revocation.
On the same day that the Act took effect, Jackson Women’s Health Organization (JWHO) and one of its doctors sued. JWHO is the only abortion provider in Mississippi; it performs abortions up to the 16th week of a woman’s pregnancy. JWHO argued that the Act violated the fundamental right to abortion under Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), and sought an injunction against its enforcement.
The district court granted a permanent injunction, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. This appeal followed.
For almost 50 years, since Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has recognized that a woman has a fundamental right to an abortion. For almost 30 years, since Casey, the Court has said that a state can regulate abortion before a fetus is viable outside the womb only insofar as the state regulation does not create an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to an abortion. After viability, a state may ban abortion entirely, but the state still has to provide an exception for the life or health of the woman.
Mississippi’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy runs headlong into this framework, or at least tests its limits. That’s because fetal viability occurs around 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy, and an outright ban before that time (at 15 weeks of pregnancy) plainly creates an “undue burden,” at least for some women.
Mississippi takes on this framework directly and argues that the Constitution does not protect a woman’s right to abortion. It claims that Roe and Casey “are grievously wrong, unworkable, damaging, and outmoded,” and that the Court should overrule them. The state says that because the Constitution does not protect a right to abortion, the Court should scrutinize its Act under mere “rational basis review,” the low-level, deferential standard that the Court uses to analyze state regulations of economic matters and interests that are not fundamental. Under this standard, Mississippi asserts that the Court should uphold its ban, because the ban is rationally related to the state’s interests in “protecting unborn life, women’s health, and the medical profession’s integrity.”
But even if the Court declines to overturn Roe and Casey and continues to recognize the fundamental right to abortion, the state argues that the Court should reject Casey’s viability benchmark. The state says that the “viability rule has no constitutional basis, it harms state interests, and it produces other severe negative consequences.”
Mississippi offers two alternatives to the viability line: the Court could rule that the Act survives any level of scrutiny (including the most rigid “strict scrutiny”) and put off a determination of what specific level of review applies; or the Court could “clarify the undue-burden standard” and hold that the Act does not create an undue burden. Under this latter option, Mississippi asserts that the Court could interpret the undue-burden standard to mean that a state could prohibit pre-viability abortions if the state restriction does not erect a substantial obstacle to “a significant number of women” seeking abortions. Under this approach to the undue-burden standard, Mississippi contends that its Act does not create an undue burden, because JWHO only performs abortions up to sixteen weeks of pregnancy, and “so the Act reduces by only one week the time in which abortions are available in Mississippi.”
JWHO counters first that the Court should not overturn Roe and Casey. JWHO says that the Court in Casey already considered all the arguments that Mississippi makes for overturning Roe—and rejected them. As a result, it claims that “Casey is precedent on top of precedent,” and that the case for retaining Roe and Casey has only grown stronger in the nearly 30 years since Casey, and the Court’s repeated reaffirmations of the fundamental right to pre-viability abortion.
Moreover, JWHO asserts that there is no reason to revisit Roe and Casey or the viability benchmark. JWHO says that a woman today still has “the personal autonomy and bodily integrity interests that underpin” the fundamental right to abortion, and that the viability line protects those interests “in a principled and workable way.” JWHO also contends that nothing has changed in the fundamental liberty interest that Roe and Casey protect. It says that if anything, “the years since Casey have only reinforced the importance of access to legal abortion for gender equality.” For all these reasons, JWHO contends that there is no reason to revisit Roe and Casey or the viability benchmark.
JWHO argues that Mississippi’s proffered alternatives to the viability benchmark are unworkable, and only “confirm that the Court was right in Casey to retain the viability line.” It says that lower courts could not administer any standard other than the “undue burden” standard “against the inevitable cascade of state abortion bans that would follow if the Court” changes the standard. And it claims that the state’s version of the “undue burden” standard would, as a practical matter, eviscerate Roe and Casey.
(The government weighs in to support JWHO and makes substantially similar arguments.)
Dobbs is almost certainly the most important case this Term, and probably the most important case in the last several Terms, or even decades. That’s because it puts front and center a nearly 50-year-old precedent that is a principal focal point in constitutional law and politics. Political conservatives have fought for decades to gain a majority on the Court that is willing to overturn Roe v. Wade, while political progressives have fought to preserve it. At the same time, Roe v. Wade has served as an organizing principle in national, state, and even local politics for both the right and the left.
That said, Roe really is a super-precedent. The Court has reaffirmed it time and again, and flatly rejected strong calls to overturn it, including in Casey, where the Court laboriously considered, and rejected, all the arguments against it. In fact, the Court reaffirmed the Casey framework twice in the last five years, first in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstadt, 136 S. Ct. 2292 (2016), and just last year in June Medical v. Russo. 140 S. Ct. 2103 (2020). Those cases were close, to be sure, but the rulings still stand.
But with Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s replacement of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (and Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s earlier replacement of Justice Anthony Kennedy), the Court today has six justices who would almost certainly rule that the Constitution does not protect a fundamental right to abortion. Still, that doesn’t ensure that the Court will rule that the Constitution does not protect a fundamental right to abortion. That’s because two or more of those six may vote to uphold Roe and Casey under principles of stare decisis, even if they disagree with Roe and Casey on the merits. (Chief Justice John Roberts already telegraphed some support for stare decisis in this context when he famously voted to overturn Louisiana’s abortion restrictions in June Medical based on the Court’s ruling in a similar case in Hellerstadt—even though he dissented in Hellerstadt. It’s not obvious that his approach to stare decisis in June Medical will carry over to Roe and Casey, however.)
If so, Mississippi is ready with its two alternatives. These would allow the Court to validate the fundamental right to abortion but abandon the undue-burden test, the viability line, or both. The Court could nominally affirm Roe and maybe even Casey, while in reality taking large chunks out of them. Given the Court’s incremental approach to overturning other long-standing precedents, this is a real possibility.
One final note. The Court already this Term heard oral arguments in two other critical abortion cases, U.S. v. Texas and Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson, both arising out of Texas’s unprecedented restriction on abortion. Those cases are obviously related to this one insofar as they address a state’s restriction on the fundamental right to abortion. But the core issue in those cases is procedural, not (necessarily) substantive—whether the plaintiffs can sue to stop Texas from implementing the law.
Sunday, October 31, 2021
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in the Texas abortion cases. Here's my oral argument preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Can federal courts hear challenges by private plaintiffs or the federal government to halt the enforcement of a law that authorizes private citizens to sue doctors for providing an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy?
Case at a Glance
Texas’s S.B. 8 prohibits a doctor from performing an abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, in plain violation of settled Supreme Court precedents. At the same time, the law is designed to foreclose traditional channels of judicial review and effectively prevent federal courts from hearing challenges to it. S.B. 8 does this by authorizing private plaintiffs (and not state officials) to enforce its ban by suing doctors who provide an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy for civil damages. Taken together, S.B. 8’s abortion ban and its outsourced enforcement have achieved their objective: abortions have effectively stopped in Texas. And the federal appeals courts, citing procedural hurdles, have so far declined to intervene.
S.B. 8 is a flat violation of a woman’s fundamental right to an abortion under Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Ordinarily, such a law would be subject to federal judicial review. But S.B. 8’s enforcement mechanism—private lawsuits against abortion providers—is specifically designed to thwart federal judicial review. These cases test whether abortion-rights advocates and doctors or the federal government can nevertheless sue in federal court to stop the law.
Can abortion-rights advocates and abortion doctors or the federal government sue in federal court to halt enforcement of Texas’s S.B. 8?
Texas’s S.B. 8 is an unusual, even unprecedented, act. On its face, S.B. 8 prohibits a physician from knowingly performing an abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, usually around six weeks into a pregnancy, before most women even know that they are pregnant. It contains no exceptions for rape or incest. And it provides only a limited and ill-defined exception for a “medical emergency.”
On its face, that’s a flat violation of a woman’s fundamental right to an abortion. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), establish that government can regulate abortion before a fetus is viable (that is, before it is able to survive outside the womb), usually around 22 to 24 weeks into the pregnancy, so long as the regulation does not create an “undue burden” on a woman’s access to abortion. S.B. 8’s ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy plainly constitutes an undue burden on a woman’s access to abortion before viability. In other words, S.B. 8 plainly violates Roe and Casey.
But that’s not why S.B. 8 is unusual. Indeed, a host of states have enacted abortion bans that plainly constitute an undue burden on a woman’s access to abortion before viability. They have enacted such laws for the stated purpose of challenging Roe v. Wade itself, and persuading the Court to overturn the case. In fact, the Court will consider such a law next month, when it hears oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Woman’s Health Organization, a case testing Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. S.B. 8’s plain violation of Roe and Casey doesn’t make the law unusual; it makes it a sign of our times.
So here’s why S.B. 8 is unusual, even unprecedented: it outsources enforcement. In particular, S.B. 8 specifically prohibits state officials from enforcing the ban, which is the usual way that states enforce their laws, and instead authorizes “any person” to sue an abortion provider who provides an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. It also authorizes “any person” to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion, or even intends to aid or abet an abortion, after six weeks of pregnancy. (S.B. 8 prohibits a plaintiff from suing the woman herself, however.) A plaintiff in these suits need not have any connection to the abortion, or even any connection to Texas. They can get injunctive relief, stopping the defendant from further violating S.B. 8. They can also recover a minimum of $10,000 for each abortion, plus costs and attorney’s fees. That alone creates a strong financial incentive for doctors to stop performing abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
But there’s more. S.B. 8 prohibits a defendant in these actions from claiming that they believed that S.B. 8 was unconstitutional. (In other words, S.B. 8 purports to stop potential defendants from raising this argument as a defense in an S.B. 8 lawsuit.) And it restricts (although it apparently does not fully prohibit) a defendant from arguing that S.B. 8 creates an undue burden on a woman’s right to abortion. S.B. 8 also prohibits a court from awarding attorney’s fees or court costs to a defendant, even if the defendant prevails. As a result, a prevailing defendant—even against an obviously spurious lawsuit—must cover all costs and attorney’s fees to defend the action. That creates a strong financial incentive for doctors to stop performing all abortions.
Finally, yet more. S.B. 8’s venue rules allow plaintiffs to strategically file their cases in Texas courts that are most amendable to their claims, and to block a defendant’s attempt to transfer to another court. Moreover, S.B. 8’s issue- and claims-preclusion provisions seemingly allow an endless line of plaintiffs to sue an abortion provider, or anyone who aids or abets an abortion, even for the same abortion. (At the same time, another provision of the act says that “a court may not award relief . . . if a defendant demonstrates that the defendant previously paid the full amount of statutory damages . . . in a previous action for that particular abortion . . . .” Taken together, the provisions seem to allow a variety of plaintiffs to sue a defendant for the same abortion, but restrict the court in awarding relief if a defendant has already paid in an earlier case.)
In short, Texas designed S.B. 8 to violate a woman’s fundamental right to abortion under Roe and Casey; effectively to halt abortions in the state; and specifically, to thwart judicial review. That’s not commentary; it’s exactly what Texas legislators said when they enacted the law.
Anticipating these results, Whole Woman’s Health, along with Texas abortion providers and individuals and organizations that support abortion patients, sued to stop S.B. 8 before it went into effect, on September 1, 2021. The plaintiffs sued several state officials, including state court clerks and judges, and a private person, on the ground that they would enforce S.B. 8.
The district court denied a motion to dismiss the case. The Fifth Circuit stayed the district court proceedings and rejected the plaintiffs’ motion for an injunction pending appeal. On emergency appeal, the Supreme Court then declined to grant an injunction against S.B. 8 or to vacate the Fifth Circuit’s stay pending appeal. The Court said that federal courts have the power to enjoin individuals, not laws. It also suggested that the plaintiffs sued the wrong defendants, because “it is unclear whether the named defendants in this lawsuit can or will seek to enforce the Texas law . . . .” (Four justices sharply dissented.) The ruling meant that S.B. 8 went into effect on September 1.
Soon after the Court declined to intervene, the federal government sued Texas itself (and not individuals), arguing that S.B. 8 was unconstitutional. The district court granted the government’s motion for a preliminary injunction, but the Fifth Circuit stayed the injunction pending appeal.
The Supreme Court then agreed to hear both cases and expedited the briefing and arguments. Each case raises the questions whether the federal courts can hear the plaintiffs’ challenges to S.B. 8, and whether they can halt enforcement by the defendants.
At their most fundamental level, both cases test whether the federal courts can hear the plaintiffs’ challenges and enjoin the enforcement of S.B. 8. That’s a contested question, because Texas, by outsourcing S.B. 8’s enforcement to private plaintiffs, diluted and dispersed the enforcement responsibility, making it hard to identify actual defendants before anybody files an S.B. 8 lawsuit. And because S.B. 8’s financial incentives all but prohibit doctors from performing any abortion in the first place, S.B. 8 ensures that there will be few, if any, S.B. 8 lawsuits where a doctor could challenge S.B. 8 after enforcement. (In any event, S.B. 8 limits how doctors can raise challenges in those lawsuits.)
Despite S.B. 8’s design to thwart federal judicial review, the plaintiffs in both cases contend that the federal courts can hear their cases; and because of S.B. 8’s design to thwart judicial review, the plaintiffs argue that the federal courts must hear their cases. Texas, for its part, contends that S.B. 8 technically allows judicial review through S.B. 8 cases themselves—and not in through these federal court cases—even though S.B. 8 itself limits or effectively eliminates that option.
The two cases raise separate but overlapping arguments. (Texas filed a single brief covering both cases.) Because there are some differences, however, we summarize the arguments in the cases separately. Let’s start with Whole Woman’s Health, then we’ll examine United States v. Texas.
Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson
The plaintiffs argue first that their claim “fit[s] neatly” with 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the federal statute that authorizes a civil lawsuit against individuals acting under the authority of state law for violating constitutional rights. They argue that Section 1983 specifically authorizes suits against “judicial officers” acting in their “judicial capacity.” They contend that the “text and purpose” of Section 1983 allows their suit to go forward against the state officials, including the judges, and the private defendant.
The plaintiffs argue next that their suit for injunctive relief against state officers is valid under Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908). The Court in that case held that a plaintiff can sue a state official for prospective injunctive relief, notwithstanding the state’s general immunity from suits for monetary damages under state sovereign immunity and the Eleventh Amendment. The plaintiffs assert that the court clerks, judges, and state officials who are defendants in this action all play roles, to one degree or another, in S.B. 8’s enforcement, and therefore fall within the Ex Parte Young doctrine. Moreover, the plaintiffs write that “where, as here, a law hamstrings state courts’ ability to provide defendants a fair opportunity to vindicate their rights—all while deputizing millions of private citizens to sue—equity requires that federal courts step in and prevent irreparable constitutional injury.”
Third, the plaintiffs argue that they have standing to sue. They contend that the threat of enforcement of S.B. 8 creates an injury (the lack of access to abortion, as illustrated by the actual injury women suffered after the Court declined to halt S.B. 8’s implementation, and the resumption of abortions during the period of injunction in United States v. Texas); that the defendants, to one degree or another, caused that injury; and that an injunction against the defendants would redress the injury, because it would ensure that women again have access to abortion in Texas. The plaintiffs also say that the defendants’ vigorous defense of S.B. 8 in the courts ensures a “sharp presentation” of the “complex and novel” questions.
Finally, the plaintiffs argue that the Court should uphold the district court injunction in order to “protect federal supremacy from the imminent threat posed by S.B. 8 and copycat bills already under consideration by States seeing what Texas has achieved thus far—enactment of a law that baldly defies this Court’s precedent yet is insulated from effective judicial review.” The plaintiffs contend that if S.B. 8 stands, nothing prohibits states from similarly insulating other state laws that blatantly violate constitutional rights from judicial review simply by outsourcing enforcement, exactly as Texas did here.
In response, Texas argues that the plaintiffs lack standing, and that state sovereign immunity bars their suit. Texas says that state executive officials do not have authority to enforce S.B. 8. As a result, the state says that the plaintiffs lack standing to sue those officials, because their actions cannot cause the plaintiffs any injuries, and any judicial relief would not redress the plaintiffs’ injuries. For the same reason, Texas argues that those officials simply do not fall within Ex Parte Young’s exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity. Texas claims that state judges are neutral adjudicators, not adverse parties (or “judicial enforcers” of S.B. 8), and that they are bound to apply both S.B. 8 and Casey. Given this, Texas concludes that the plaintiffs lack standing, because the plaintiffs’ requested relief—an injunction instructing them to apply Casey—would not redress their alleged harm.
Penny Clarkston, the district clerk of Smith County, Texas, filed her own brief. Mark Lee Dickson, “a pastor and anti-abortion activist,” filed his own brief. They made substantially similar arguments.
United States v. Texas
The government argues first that it has authority to sue Texas in equity to protect its interests. The government says that it can sue in equity to prevent Texas from thwarting judicial review under federal law. It claims that it does not sue merely to enforce its citizens’ constitutional rights, but also to prevent Texas’s “unprecedented attack on the supremacy of the Constitution as interpreted by this Court”—a “distinct sovereign interest” that forms the basis of its suit in equity. The government contends that it also has an interest in preventing S.B. 8 from interfering with its own programs that “require federal employees and contractors to arrange, facilitate, or pay for abortions in some circumstances,” and holding federal employees and contractors liable “for carrying out their federal duties.”
The government argues next that the federal courts have the power to grant relief in favor of the government and against Texas. The government claims that under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, an injunction against Texas can also bind state officers and agents and “other persons who are in active concert or participation” with the state or its officers. According to the government, this means that an injunction can bind plaintiffs who bring S.B. 8 suits, court clerks who accept those suits, judges who hear the cases, and other state officials who would enforce any judgments. The government acknowledges that some of this relief may be unusual. But so is S.B. 8. “And having chosen an unprecedented scheme in a deliberate effort to thwart ordinary judicial review, Texas should not be heard to complain when the federal courts exercise remedial authorities that are usually unnecessary.”
Finally, the government argues that the federal courts can grant declaratory relief (declaring that S.B. 8 is invalid), because the government’s power to bring this case in equity “also allows it to seek a declaratory judgment.” The government asserts that declaratory relief would arm abortion providers with a defense in S.B. 8 suits against them, providing “another reason why those suits must be dismissed.” But in any event, the government claims that declaratory relief is no substitute for injunctive relief. That’s the only way “[t]o halt the irreparable injury arising from Texas’s defiance of this Court’s precedent and systematic denial of constitutional rights within the State’s borders . . . .”
Texas counters that the government lacks standing for the same reasons why the Whole Woman’s Health plaintiffs lack standing, but more. Texas says that it does not cause the government harm “by the mere existence of an allegedly unconstitutional state law that may affect private parties.” The state says that the government’s suit amounts to a request for an “advisory opinion” from the Court, and that Court lacks authority under Article III of the Constitution to issue such an opinion. Texas claims that the district court was wrong to hold that the government could “skirt its obligation to show its own cognizable injury” by drawing on the government’s interest in protecting U.S. citizens under federal supremacy principles. The state says that the Supreme Clause does not grant the government a right to sue to protect U.S. citizens; instead, the government, like private parties, must allege that it suffered a harm to itself.
Texas argues next that the government lacks a statutory or equitable basis for requesting an injunction. The state says that the “numerous statutory mechanism” for enforcing constitutional rights do not authorize the government to sue to vindicate U.S. citizens’ substantive-due-process rights. And it says that equitable principles do not authorize the government to sue to vindicate U.S. citizens’ rights just because the state denied those citizens the ability to enforce their own rights. Texas asserts that if the plaintiffs in Whole Woman’s Health want to protect their rights, they can do so as state-court defendants in S.B. 8 civil actions. The government lacks authority to bring this action to enforce their rights for them.
Third, Texas argues that S.B. 8 does not violate the Constitution. The state claims that it has incorporated Casey’s “undue burden” test into S.B. 8 by allowing an abortion doctor to use “undue burden” as a defense in an S.B. 8 action. The state writes that under S.B. 8, “Texas may not impose liability in cases where doing so would cause an undue burden on a woman seeking an abortion—but neither private parties nor the Department of Justice can compel Texas to support abortion beyond that obligatory floor.” Texas says that this comports with Casey, and does not conflict with federal programs in violation of federal supremacy. “Far from discriminating against the federal government, SB 8 is subject to a state-law presumption that it will not apply to the federal government.”
Finally, Texas argues that the district court’s injunction against “the State” amounts to an impermissible injunction against a law, not a person. That’s because none of the state executive defendants can enforce S.B. 8; federal courts cannot enjoin state courts to apply state and federal law (state courts already do that); and private actors are not “state actors” just because they bring an S.B. 8 suit against other private parties.
Three private citizens—Jeff Tuley, Erick Graham, and Mistie Sharp—filed a separate brief as intervenors, making substantially similar arguments. They claim that they intended to bring S.B. 8 suits only against abortion providers for abortions not covered by Casey, and so also argue that the government cannot sue to halt their S.B. 8 suits “over conduct that is unprotected by the Constitution.”
Everybody agrees that S.B. 8 is singular and unprecedented. It plainly violates a woman’s fundamental right to abortion, and, by outsourcing enforcement to private plaintiffs, it thwarts traditional channels of judicial review. For Whole Woman’s Health and the government (and a host of others), this is the problem. For Texas (and a host of others), this is the point.
Whether problem or point, S.B. 8 had its predictable and intended results: It effectively halted abortions in Texas. Texas women who seek an abortion today must travel to neighboring states or other locations where they can still get an abortion. (And they have, flooding abortion providers in neighboring states.) Or, if they cannot afford the time away from work or family or the expense of travel (as is so often the case), or if their health prevents travel, they must go without a doctor-provided abortion.
Time is obviously of the essence, in two ways. On the front end, many or most women don’t even discover their pregnancy until after the sixth week, when S.B. 8 bans abortion. As a result, by the time they know they’re pregnant, many or most women effectively cannot now obtain an abortion in Texas. On the back end, even under Roe and Casey, states can ban abortion entirely after viability, when a fetus can survive outside the womb. As a result, Texas women who seek a doctor-provided abortion must find an out-of-state alternative before about 22 or 24 weeks of pregnancy. All this leaves a narrow window for pregnant women in Texas to exercise their fundamental right to abortion. And, again, that window is only available to Texas women who can travel out of state.
All this is at issue in the case. If the Court rules that federal courts cannot hear the plaintiffs’ cases and halt enforcement of H.B. 8, abortion will remain effectively unavailable in Texas. (There’s a chance that the Court could also decide whether Roe and Casey remain good law. But given that the Court is slated to hear a direct challenge to Roe this Term (oral arguments come just next month), this seems unlikely.)
That’s not a remote possibility. The Court already declined to halt S.B. 8 in Whole Woman’s Health, over the sharp dissents of four justices. (Chief Justice John Roberts joined Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan in various dissents.) One or more of the justices who voted with the majority in that ruling would have to change sides, or find a distinction that persuades them that the courts can hear the government’s case, even if not Whole Woman’s Health’s case.
Such a ruling could have a profound impact on the right to abortion, even if the Court declines to overturn Roe and Casey. Several other states are already considering laws like Texas’s and will quickly enact those copycat laws if the Court rules against the plaintiffs. This could effectively eliminate abortions in those states, just as S.B. 8 effectively eliminated abortions in Texas.
More, such a ruling could have profound impacts well outside the area of abortion rights. As the plaintiffs and several amici point out, if Texas can engineer a law to ban abortion and effectively evade judicial review, then any state can engineer a law to ban any fundamental right and effectively evade judicial review. And there’s no daylight between a woman’s fundamental right to an abortion and any other fundamental right favored by folks with different political stripes. If you have any doubt, check out the amicus curiae brief of the Firearms Policy Coalition in the Whole Woman’s Health case, for example.
Finally, the Court’s rulings in these cases, and in Dobbs, the Mississippi case up next month, could have significant effects on the 2022 mid-term elections. If the Court strikes these state laws, its ruling could mobilize abortion opponents at the polls. If it upholds them, the rulings could mobilize abortion-rights advocates.
All this is to say that these cases are easily among the most important on the Court’s 2021-22 docket so far.
Friday, October 22, 2021
The Supreme Court today declined to halt the Texas abortion ban, S.B. 8, but expedited appeals by abortion providers and the Biden administration in two separate orders today.
Today's actions by the Court mean that Texas's law stays in place while the appeals proceed at the Supreme Court. The Court set a super-fast briefing schedule and slated oral argument in both cases for November 1.
In the Biden administration appeal, the Court limited the case to whether the United States can sue Texas, state court judges, state court clerks, other state officials, and private parties to prohibit S.B. 8 from being enforced. Justice Sotomayor dissented, arguing that the Court's failure to halt the law pending appeal effectively means that women can't get abortions in Texas. (We posted on the Biden administration appeal most recently here.)
In the doctors' appeal, the Court will decide both whether the doctors can sue state judges, state officials, and private individuals, and, if so, whether S.B. 8 is unconstitutional.
(Remember that the Court will hear yet another case testing a state's abortion ban--Mississippi's ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. That case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, puts Roe and Casey front and center. Still, there may be room in the case for the Court to uphold the law without flat-out overruling Roe. Oral argument in Dobbs is set for December 1.)
Tuesday, October 19, 2021
The federal government yesterday asked the Supreme Court to reinstate a lower court injunction against Texas's S.B. 8, the state law that effectively shut down nearly all abortions in the state. The move came after the Fifth Circuit stayed the district court's injunction pending appeal.
This'll be the second trip that S.B. 8 makes to the high court. Recall that the Court in an earlier pre-enforcement lawsuit allowed S.B. 8 to go into effect. The Court ruled that the plaintiffs in that earlier case sued the wrong defendants, state judicial officers and private individuals who said that they'd enforce S.B. 8.
The federal government's suit is tailored to navigate that procedural problem in the earlier case and put the issue of S.B. 8's constitutionality squarely before the Court.
In order to do this, the federal government sued Texas itself (not its officers or judges, and no private individuals). The government argues that it can do this in order "to vindicate two distinct sovereign interests":
First, to the extent S.B. 8 interferes with the federal government's own activities, it is preempted and violates the doctrine of intergovernmental immunity. Second, S.B. 8 is an affront to the United States' sovereign interests in maintaining the supremacy of federal law and ensuring that the traditional mechanisms of judicial review endorsed by Congress and this Court remain available to challenge unconstitutional state laws. The United States has authority to seek equitable relief to vindicate both interests.
(That first interest goes to government obligations to assist certain individuals, like those incarcerated in federal prison, in getting an abortion. If the government honors that obligation for incarcerated women in Texas, it can be subject to civil suit under S.B. 8 in Texas courts. According to the government, this means that S.B. 8 is preempted by those federal obligations, and that S.B. 8, in allowing suits against the United States, violates the government's immunity.)
As a result, the government argues that its suit avoids the wrong-defendant problem in the earlier suit. After all, Texas itself created the mechanism that outsourced enforcement of S.B. 8 to private parties, and so Texas itself must be accountable in court.
The government asked the Court to vacate the Fifth Circuit's stay, or to grant cert. before judgment and set the case for argument this Term.
Thursday, September 2, 2021
The Supreme Court allowed Texas's SB8, the highly unusual and severely restrictive anti-abortion law that is specifically designed to evade judicial scrutiny, to go into effect. The Court issued a ruling last night that explained its decision. The text of SB8 is here.
The Court's ruling specifically says that it's not a decision on the constitutionality of Texas's law. Instead, the majority writes that there are too many questions about the technical aspects of the case (given the highly unusual way the law works), and suggests that it's the wrong case, at the wrong time, against the wrong parties.
But as a practical matter the ruling halts abortions in the state where a physician detects a fetal heartbeat (that is, about 85 percent of all abortions) unless and until a plaintiff can bring a successful challenge. And it all but foretells the demise of Roe v. Wade. (Even if the Court doesn't ultimately overturn Roe, this case gives states a roadmap for enacting legislation that eviscerates it.)
All this without full briefing and argument, on the "shadow docket."
The case, Whole Women's Health v. Jackson, tests the constitutionality of Texas's SB8. SB8 requires abortion providers to test for a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion, and prohibits persons from performing an abortion when they detect a fetal heartbeat. It also prohibits "aiding and abetting" (including funding, even through insurance) of a post-fetal-heartbeat abortion. (Fetal heartbeat usually occurs around six weeks. That's well before the point of viability, and even before many women know they're pregnant. All that's to say that the restriction plainly violates Roe and Casey (and every other post-Roe ruling of the Court that prohibits a state from banning abortion pre-viability).)
But there's a twist. SB8 specifically prohibits state officers from enforcing the law. Instead, it authorizing private individuals to file private suits in state court against any person who provides an abortion in violation of the law. Upon a successful suit, the law requires state courts to enjoin a defendant from providing future abortions in violation of the law, and authorizes at least $10,000 in damages against a person who provides an abortion in violation of the law . . . for each abortion.
The law forbids state courts from awarding costs and attorney fees to successful defendants (which means that they must bear their own costs, even against frivolous and unsuccessful claims). It also says that a defendant cannot defend an action unless the Supreme Court rules that a defendant has third-party standing to assert the right to abortion on behalf of its patients (which it currently has, but that could change), upon a showing that the law imposes an undue burden on the right to abortion (the Casey standard that exists now, but also could (and is likely to) change).
All this means that private individuals, not the state, enforce the law. And at a very high cost. So high, in fact, that abortion providers have stopped providing post-heartbeat abortions, merely out of fear of incurring the costs of defending private lawsuits, even if those end up overturned.
It also means that the law is tricky to test, except as a defense to a private lawsuit (which, again, comes at a prohibitively high cost to abortion providers), and even then not at all a sure thing.
That's all by design. The Texas legislature specifically designed SB8 to effectively halt post-heartbeat abortions in the state and to evade federal judicial review.
And yesterday's opinion shows that it worked. Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett wrote that there were too many questions about the federal court's ability to hear the case by an abortion provider against a private citizen and a state judge who might enforce the law through a private lawsuit. The Court said that it's not clear that the judge will enforce the law in a way "that might permit our intervention," that the Court can issue an injunction against a state judge to halt enforcement of the law, and that the private-citizen defendant will seek to enforce the law by filing a civil action against the plaintiff. The Court's answer: let the law go into effect until a plaintiff can successfully challenge it. (Again, it's not at all clear that a plaintiff could ever challenge it, given the highly unusual way the law works.)
Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan each dissented, and joined each other, except that Chief Justice Roberts didn't join the dissents of the other three. Chief Justice Roberts "would grant preliminary relief to preserve the status quo ante." Justice Breyer argued that "[t]he very bringing into effect of Texas's law may well threaten the applicants with imminent and serious harm" sufficient to allow the Court to grant relief. Justice Sotomayor argued that the Court "silently acquiesced in a State's enactment of a law that flouts nearly 50 years of federal precedent." "Because the Court's failure to act rewards tactics designed to avoid judicial review and inflicts significant harm on the applicants and on women seeking abortions in Texas, I dissent." Justice Kagan argued that the Court improperly took this extraordinary step without full briefing and argument, on the shadow docket.
Thursday, August 19, 2021
The full Fifth Circuit upheld Texas's ban on a common second-trimester, previability abortion procedure, ruling that the law didn't create an undue burden on a woman's right to abortion. The law and ruling limit the way doctors can perform a "dilation and evacuation" abortion in Texas: they cannot use forceps to separate, terminate, and remove the fetus (what the state calls a "live dismemberment" procedure); instead they can only use a suction technique to remove a fetus, or cause "fetal death" (through digoxin injections) prior to removing the fetus with forceps.
The ruling also deepens a circuit split over the Court's controlling opinion--and the operative test for abortion restrictions--in June Medical.
The case, Whole Woman's Health v. Paxton, tests Texas's restriction on the common D&E procedure for second-semester, previability abortions. Doctors who perform these abortion use one of three principal methods: (1) they use a suction method alone to terminate, separate, and remove a fetus; (2) they use suction and forceps together to terminate, separate, and remove a fetus; or (3) they use "fetal-death" techniques (like digoxin injections) to terminate the fetus before removing it with forceps. The Texas law bans the use of the second technique, except in cases of a "medical emergency."
The court ruled--contrary to the district court--that the law wasn't facially unconstitutional. In short, it held that the ban didn't create an undue burden on a woman's right to abortion, because the law allowed doctors to perform abortions using the suction method alone, or by causing "fetal death" prior to fetal evacuation.
Along the way, the court held that Chief Justice Roberts's opinion in June Medical was the Court's controlling opinion (under the Marks) rule, and so it didn't have to balance the burdens of the law against the state's asserted benefits of the law; instead, it examined only whether the law created an undue burden. (The balancing test used by the plurality in June Medical tends to work in favor of a woman's right to abortion, especially where, as here and in June Medical, the state asserts only weak (or no) benefits from the restriction. Chief Justice Roberts's approach tends to work against a woman's right to abortion in those situations, because it ignores the state's relatively weak benefits, or its lack of benefits altogether.) The court's ruling on this score aligns it with the Eighth and Sixth Circuits, but puts it at odds with the Seventh and Eleventh Circuits.
Five judges dissented. Three of the dissenters argued that the case was controlled by Stenberg v. Carhart (2000), where the Court overturned a state restriction that operated just like Texas's law. Moreover, these three said that the suction method and the "fetal-death" method both created undue burdens on a woman's right to abortion, because both procedures created additional risks, and that those risks outweighed the state's asserted benefits of the law. (The dissenters applied the balancing test (not Chief Justice Roberts's approach) from June Medical.)
Two other dissenters argued that the court should've simply remanded the case after clarifying that Chief Justice Roberts's approach would control, and clarifying the court's views on the Supreme Court's abortion jurisprudence more generally.
Tuesday, May 18, 2021
The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging Mississippi's ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of medical emergencies or severe fetal abnormality. The case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, threatens the fundamental right to an abortion under Roe and Casey.
That's because with the addition of Justice Barrett (replacing Justice Ginsburg), there are now six solid votes against the fundamental right to an abortion. This counts Chief Justice Roberts, who only begrudgingly voted to overturn state restrictions on abortion last Term in June Medical. Chief Justice Roberts joined the four progressives in that case, but wrote separately to base his vote on stare decisis, and the Court's 2016 decision in Hellerstedt, a case with virtually identical facts. There's no guarantee that he'd vote to uphold or defer to Roe and Casey in the same way. Even if he did, though, there'd still be five likely votes to overturn Roe.
Still, the case gives the Court some room to sharply curtail the right to abortion without necessarily overturning Roe.
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
The full Sixth Circuit rejected a facial challenge to Ohio's law that bans doctors from performing an abortion with the knowledge that the woman's reason for abortion is that the fetus has Down syndrome. The ruling means that the law stays on the books, but may be subject to as-applied challenges when it goes into effect.
The case, Preterm-Cleveland v. McCloud, tested Ohio's law that prohibits doctors from performing abortions when the doctor knows that the woman seeks an abortion because the fetus has Down syndrome. The court said that the law "advances the State's legitimate interests" in
protecting: (1) the Down syndrome community from the stigma associated with the practice of Down-syndrome-selective abortions, (2) pregnant women and their families from coercion by doctors who advocate abortion of Down-syndrome-afflicated fetuses, and (3) the integrity and ethics of the medical profession by preventing doctors from becoming witting participants in Down-syndrome-selective abortions.
The court also said that the law doesn't have "the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion." Here, the court emphasized that the law only prohibits a doctor from performing an abortion when the doctors knows that the woman seeks an abortion because the fetus has Down syndrome. The court asked, and answered:
Would any woman who is otherwise set on having an abortion choose not to have that abortion (and instead have the baby) solely because she could not have the abortion performed by the specific doctor to whom she desires to reveal (or has revealed) that her reason for the abortion is that she does not want a child with Down syndrome? Taking the next step, would a significant number of such women do so? We think the answer to both questions is clearly no, but more importantly, the plaintiffs have certainly made no such showing.
As to any accidental reveal, the court said that a woman would only have to go to a different doctor--one who didn't know of her purpose.
The court also declined to halt the law based on its lack of exception for the life or health of the woman. It said that the plaintiffs had to raise this claim in an as-applied challenge, not a facial one.
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
The Seventh Circuit ruled last week that Indiana's amended judicial bypass procedure violated the right to an abortion for minors. The court earlier ruled on the case (and struck the same amended bypass procedure), but the Supreme Court vacated that judgment and remanded the case in light of the Court's ruling last summer in June Medical. Last week, the Seventh Circuit came to the same result.
The case, Planned Parenthood v. Box, challenged Indiana's judicial bypass procedure. As amended, that procedure required a court to notify a minor's parents when the minor sought an abortion through judicial bypass of the state's parental-consent requirement, unless the judge finds that parental notification is not in the minor's best interest.
The district court originally ruled that the procedure created an undue burden on a minor's right to an abortion. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The appeals court applied the balancing test from Whole Women's Health, the 2016 Supreme Court case that struck Texas's admitting-privileges requirement. (Under the requirement, abortion doctors had to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the place where they performed abortions.) The Court in Whole Women's Health assessed whether the admitting-privileges requirement created an undue burden by balancing the burdens of the requirement on a woman's right to an abortion against the putative benefits of the requirement. It held that the requirement created substantial burdens, but no benefits. The Seventh Circuit similarly ruled that Indiana's judicial bypass procedure created substantial burdens, but no benefits. (The plaintiffs demonstrated that the procedure would create burdens on access, while the state failed to produce any evidence of benefits of the law.)
Then, last summer, the Supreme Court ruled in June Medical that Louisiana's admitting-privilege requirement (the same as Texas's requirement, struck in Whole Women's Health) also created an undue burden on a woman's right to an abortion. But the Court in June Medical split differently than in Whole Women's Health, because Justice Kavanaugh had replaced Justice Kennedy. (Justice Kennedy sided with the majority in Whole Women's Health, but Justice Kavanaugh sided with the dissent in June Medical.) In particular, Justice Breyer wrote for a four-justice plurality (including Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan) that Louisiana's law was unconstitutional for two reasons: stare decisis (because Louisiana's law was the same as Texas's law, struck in Whole Women's Health); and because the burdens of Louisiana's law outweighed the benefits, thus creating an undue burden under the Whole Women's Health balancing approach. Chief Justice Roberts concurred in the judgment based on stare decisis alone. But he also disagreed with the balancing approach. Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh wrote their own separate dissents.
The Court vacated the earlier Seventh Circuit ruling and remanded it for considering in light of June Medical. So the Seventh Circuit had to figure out whether June Medical changed the balancing test from Whole Women's Health that the Seventh Circuit had previously relied upon to strike Indiana's bypass procedure.
The Seventh Circuit last week ruled that June Medical did not change the balancing test. Under the Marks rule (which sorts out which opinion states the holding of the Court when, as in June Medical, there's no majority opinion), the court looked to Chief Justice Roberts's concurrence in June Medical as the "position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgment on the narrowest grounds." The Seventh Circuit held that Chief Justice Roberts's stare decisis rationale aligned with Justice Breyer's stare decisis rationale as the holding of the Court, and that the Court didn't otherwise alter or overrule the balancing approach in Whole Women's Health. (The court rejected the state's argument that Chief Justice Roberts's second rationale (that the balancing approach was wrong) aligned with the four dissenters' positions (also that the balancing approach was wrong) to create a majority that the balancing approach was wrong. The court explained that Chief Justice Roberts's second rationale (that the balancing approach was wrong) was dicta, and that under Marks the June Medical dissents (which also took issue with the balancing approach) don't count.)
The court said that because the balancing approach under Whole Women's Health was still the law, Indiana's bypass procedure still violated it.
Judge Kane dissented, arguing that under Marks Chief Justice Roberts's opinion in June Medical aligned with the plurality on a "substantial obstacle" test (without balancing, and not merely on stare decisis), and that Indiana's bypass procedure did not violate that "substantial obstacle" test.
Monday, June 29, 2020
In its highly anticipated opinion in June Medical Services v. Russo (formerly Gee), the United States Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit's controversial decision upholding Louisiana's abortion restrictions despite their similarity to the ones held unconstitutional in the Court's most recent abortion case, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt (2016).
Justice Breyer, who also wrote the Court's opinion in Whole Woman's Health, wrote the plurality opinion in June Medical, joined by Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan (None of the women Justices wrote separately, meaning that the abortion opinions in today's case are all by men).
Breyer's plurality opinion concluded that there is standing; recall that the United States argued that the physicians should not have standing to raise the constitutional rights of their patients despite this long standing practice. Breyer's plurality opinion carefully rehearses the findings of fact by the district court (which applied Whole Women's Health) and ultimately concluded that the "evidence on which the District Court relied in this case is even stronger and more detailed" than in Whole Woman's Health. The Fifth Circuit, Breyer's plurality opinion concluded, misapplied the correct standard of review of these findings: the appellate court should have applied the deferential clear-error standard.
Chief Justice Roberts, who dissented in Whole Woman's Health, concurred in June Medical on the basis of stare decisis:
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 . . . .
The legal doctrine of stare decisis requires us, absent special circumstances, to treat like cases alike. The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons. Therefore Louisiana’s law cannot stand under our precedents.
The Chief Justice's sixteen page concurring opinion, necessary to constitute the majority reversing the Fifth Circuit and upholding Whole Woman's Health is bound to be highly analyzed.
The dissenting opinions are somewhat fragmented. Thomas's dissenting opinion and Alito's dissenting opinion, joined by Gorsuch, and in part by Thomas and Kavanaugh, tracks ground familiar from Whole Woman's Health, with additional discussions of stare decisis. Gorsuch, who was not on the Court when Whole Woman's Health was decided in 2016, penned an opinion accusing the Court of having "lost" its way in a "highly politicized and contentious arena" by not paying due deference to the state legislature. Kavanaugh, who replaced Kennedy who had joined the majority in Whole Woman's Health, not only joined portions of Alito's dissent but wrote separately to stress his agreement with the portions of Alito's opinion that the case should be remanded, and in a footnote also stated that "the District Court on remand should also address the State’s new argument (raised for the first time in this Court) that these doctors and clinics lack third-party standing."
Wednesday, March 4, 2020
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.
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.
Friday, May 31, 2019
Responding to Justice Thomas's concurring opinion from a denial of certiorari in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana, legal commentator Imani Gandy (pictured) writes When It Comes to Birth Control and Eugenics, Clarence Thomas Gets It All Wrong.
Specifically, Gandy takes on the history of Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), who she states is not necessarily a present-day "infallible feminist hero" and certainly had the same abelist views that the Court credited in Buck v. Bell.
But, on the subject of race, Gandy writes:
The framing of Thomas’ concurrence, however, suggests that she [Sanger] did want to reduce the Black population. This framing extends to his description of the Negro Project, which Sanger created in conjunction with some of the most prominent Black civil rights leaders of the time—Franklin Frazier, Walter White, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Mary McLeod Bethune, and W.E.B DuBois—in order to bring birth control to the South. Thomas writes as if her mere advocacy for birth control was in and of itself racial eugenics. And he virtually ignores that Black women in the South wanted birth control and had taken their reproduction into their own hands since the days of enslavement, when women would self-induce abortions or even kill their newborns in order to save them from a life of slavery.
Gandy's commentary also provides an interesting critique of Thomas's use of a Sanger quotation by providing larger context. Gandy writes: "What Thomas leaves out is the very next sentence that Sanger wrote . . ." and thus invites the reader to think more deeply about the history of birth control.
Predictably, Thomas's concurring opinion is provoking other commentaries, but Gandy's piece is among the most insightful.
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
In its brief opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit's conclusion that Indiana's "fetal remains" statute was unconstitutional and denied certiorari to the question of the whether the Seventh Circuit correctly found unconstitutional the limitation on abortion based on sex, race, or disability.
On the "fetal remains" issue, the Court's opinion stated that the Seventh Circuit's conclusion that a rational basis test was satisfied was incorrect. The Court stressed:
in challenging this provision, respondents have never argued that Indiana’s law imposes an undue burden on a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. This case, as litigated, therefore does not implicate our cases applying the undue burden test to abortion regulations.
Justice Ginsburg, in a brief opinion, dissented on this issue, stating that the judgment should not be summarily reversed when "application of the proper standard would likely yield restoration of the judgment." Thus, it can be expected that the statute will be quickly challenged on this basis.
On the denial of certiorari to the second issue, Justice Thomas's concurring opinion is notable. Thomas concludes that the Court's decision to allow the issue to "percolate" should not be mistaken for acceptance:
Enshrining a constitutional right to an abortion based solely on the race, sex, or disability of an unborn child, as Planned Parenthood advocates, would constitutionalize the views of the 20th-century eugenics movement. In other contexts, the Court has been zealous in vindicating the rights of people even potentially subjected to race, sex, and disability discrimination.
Thomas devotes most of his 20 page concurring opinion to discussing eugenics, singling out for analysis not only the Supreme Court's 1927 opinion in Buck v. Bell but also birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Thomas's concurrence focuses on abortion but certainly implicates birth control more broadly, and is sure to provoke commentary.
Friday, May 24, 2019
In an opinion in Jackson Women's Health Organization v. Dobbs, Judge Carlton Reeves has issued a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of Mississippi Senate Bill 2116 which "bans abortions in Mississippi after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is as early as 6 weeks lmp."
The opinion is only 8 pages and begins "Here we go again."
The parties had been before the court before and Judge Reeves previously enjoined a Mississippi law banning abortions at 15 weeks lmp. Judge Reeves in this opinion noted that the "State responded by passing an even more restrictive bill, S.B. 2116." Judge Reeves continued:
This Court previously found the 15-week ban to be an unconstitutional violation of substantive due process because the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that women have the right to choose an abortion prior to viability, and a fetus is not viable at 15 weeks lmp. If a fetus is not viable at 15 weeks lmp, it is not viable at 6 weeks lmp. The State conceded this point. The State also conceded at oral argument that this Court must follow Supreme Court precedent. Under Supreme Court precedent, plaintiffs are substantially likely to succeed on the merits of this claim.
[footnotes omitted]. Judge Reeves cited Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt (201), the Supreme Court's most recent ruling on abortion.
Monday, May 6, 2019
Here's the Trump Administration's new rule, rolled out in its final version last week, providing religious "conscience protections" for health-care providers who, because of their religious beliefs, decline to provide abortion-related services and training, sterilization, and assisted-suicide related services, among others. The rule provides that health-care institutions could lose federal funding if they fail to enforce the protections.
While the precise impact is now unknowable, the rule will likely affect access to these services and health-care access for the LBGTQ community.
Friday, April 26, 2019
In its extensive opinion in Hodes & Nauser v. Schmidt, the Supreme Court of Kansas held that the right to abortion in protected under its state constitution and regulations of the fundamental right should be subject to strict scrutiny.
The per curiam opinion is exceedingly clear that the opinion rests on independent state constitutional grounds and that it is interpreting §1 of the Kansas state Constitution, adopted in 1859: "All men are possessed of equal and inalienable natural rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The court specifically finds that this provision creates judicially enforceable "natural rights" such as the right to "personal autonomy" to make decisions regarding our bodies, health care, family formation, and family life, including a woman's right to decide whether to continue a pregnancy.
Having held that the right to an abortion is encompassed within the fundamental right bodily autonomy, the Kansas Supreme Court held that strict scrutiny should apply, which the court articulated as prohibited the state from restricting that right unless it can show it is doing so to further a compelling government interest and in a way that is narrowly tailored to that interest.
At issue in the case is Kansas S.B. 95, passed in 2015, now K.S.A. 65-6741 through 65-6749, which prohibits physicians from performing a specific abortion method referred to in medical terms as Dilation and Evacuation (D & E) except when "necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant woman" or to prevent a "substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman."
The trial court had issued a preliminary injunction, which the Kansas Supreme Court upheld, but remanded the case for a fuller evidentiary hearing applying strict scrutiny.
via & caption: Kansas Supreme Court
Seated left to right: Hon. Marla J. Luckert, Hon. Lawton R. Nuss, Chief Justice; Hon. Carol A. Beier.
Standing left to right: Hon. Dan Biles, Hon. Eric S. Rosen, Hon. Lee A. Johnson, and Hon. Caleb Stegall.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Dan Biles argued that the majority should be more explicit in articulating how strict scrutiny should be applied in the abortion context, suggesting what "our state test should look like using an evidence-based analytical model taken from Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt" (2016). Justice Biles provided a very detailed roadmap that would be attractive to the trial court. Justice Biles also placed the decision within developments in state constitutional law on abortion:
It is also worth mentioning our court has not gone rogue today. By my count, appellate courts in 17 states have addressed whether their state constitutions independently protect a pregnant woman's decisions regarding her pregnancy from unjustifiable government interference. Of those, 13 have plainly held they do. [citations omitted].
The sole dissenting Justice of the seven Justices of the Kansas Supreme Court (pictured above) was Justice Caleb Stegall, who relied on numerous dissenting opinions in both the United States Supreme Court and Kansas Supreme Court. He began his opinion by stating "This case is not only about abortion policy—the most divisive social issue of our day—it is more elementally about the structure of our republican form of government." In essence, he considers the majority to be taking an activist stance. The majority opinion does devote more than a little attention to refuting and engaging with the dissent's arguments.
Because the case cannot be reviewed by the United States Supreme Court (given that the state's highest court decided it on the independent ground of its state constitution, unless it is argued it infringes on another constitutional right), subsequent constitutional law issues will be concentrated on what happens in the trial court and what might happen in other states.
April 26, 2019 in Abortion, Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Family, Federalism, Fourteenth Amendment, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, Opinion Analysis, State Constitutional Law, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)