Thursday, March 5, 2020
June Medical Argument Focuses on Application of the Undue Burden Standard After Whole Woman’s Health
(March 5, 2020) By Cynthia Soohoo
Despite calls from conservative lawmakers to overturn Roe v. Wade, yesterday’s Supreme Court argument in June Medical Services v. Russo focused narrowly on how the Court should apply its 2016 holding in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt rather than on whether the Court should overrule or overhaul the undue burden standard. And despite Louisiana’s last minute assertion that the physician plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the case, only Justice Alito seemed interested in taking on the third party standing. All eyes were on Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, the two newest members of the Court. Gorsuch did not ask a single question. Both Roberts and Kavanaugh focused on how the Court should apply Whole Woman’s Health to future cases.
A few minutes into the argument, Justice Alito asked Julie Rikelman, counsel for June Medical, several questions on third-party standing. Louisiana’s Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill also led off with third party standing, but the other justices did not substantively engage with the issue. Alito vehemently disagreed with Rikelman’s position that Louisiana waived the standing argument, but through questioning Justice Ginsburg underscored that if the Court were to consider standing at this point it would prejudice plaintiffs who might have added a non-doctor plaintiff if Louisiana had raised the issue sooner. Justice Breyer also expressed some frustration that the Court was being asked to consider standing, noting there have been at least 8 cases in which the Court has recognized third party standing going back over 40 years. He questioned when it was appropriate to reconsider established precedent, asking are we to “go back to Marbury v. Madison.”
The bulk of the argument focused on how Whole Woman’s Health’s holding (that a Texas law requiring doctors providing abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the procedure constituted an undue burden on abortion) applied to other admitting privilege cases. In June Medical, the 5th Circuit reversed a district court decision holding that a virtually identical law imposed an undue burden. Justice Roberts asked counsel whether courts reviewing admitting privileges still needed to conduct a state by state factual inquiry into whether the laws constitute an undue burden after Whole Woman’s Health.
Rikelman maintained that when courts review an admitting privilege law, they should apply Whole Woman’s Health’s finding that such laws do not provide any health benefit. Then, turning to the other part of the undue burden test, courts should consider the burdens placed on abortion access on a case by case basis. She emphasized that in June Medical, the district court found that the law imposed significant burdens. Justice Kavanaugh seemed interested in how the benefits and the burdens should be weighed, posing a hypothetical about whether an admitting privilege law would be unconstitutional even if it did not impose any burdens on abortion provision.
Rikelman expressed some skepticism that an admitting privilege requirement would not impose any burden on abortion provision and noted that such a law was not before the Court. She emphasized that admitting privilege laws are always likely to pose an undue burden because they create barriers without any benefits.
In response to similar questions, Murrill argued that Whole Woman’s Health's reasoning would not be controlling on the benefit side of the undue burden test where the state can show a greater benefit based on its regulatory structure.
The rest of the argument focused on whether Louisiana could establish that its law imposed greater benefits or lesser burdens than the Texas law. Louisiana’s main argument on the benefit side was that the admitting privilege law serves a credentialing function. During this line of questioning, like 2016 Whole Woman’s Health argument, the female justices asked several questions reflecting a familiarity with abortion and reproductive health procedures that made it difficult for Murrill to make unsupported assertions about a health benefit. Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor repeatedly noted that law’s 30 mile requirement made no sense if Louisiana’s purpose was to improve care for the treatment of complications from medical abortions. Ginsburg emphasized the low complication rate for abortion procedures and Louisiana’s failure to impose a similar requirement on doctors who perform DNCs to manage miscarriages. Justice Kagan stated that in Whole Woman’s Health, the Court held that an admitting privilege requirement could not serve a credentialing function if privileges are denied for reasons other than quality of care. She, Ginsburg and Sotomayor noted that admitting privileges are often denied based on factors, such as the number of admissions a doctor makes to a hospital, which reflect hospitals’ commercial interests rather than doctors’ competency.
On the burden side, Murrill and Principal Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall argued that the admitting privilege law did not cause the burden on abortion care because the doctors could have tried harder to get admitting privileges. Wall asserted that it was not in the plaintiff doctors’ interest to try hard to get privileges, and Murrill went further, suggesting that the doctors “sabotaged” their own applications. There was substantial back and forth between counsel and justices about what individual “John Doe” doctors could have done. Rikelman emphasized that many of the hospitals bylaws had provisions that disqualified the doctors because of insufficient hospital admissions, the doctors had applied to the hospitals where they had the best chance of being admitted, and the district court found that all but one of the doctors were unable to get privileges for reasons that had nothing to do with competency. Despite the disqualifying provisions and the district court’s findings, Wall took the position that the doctors should have applied to the full range of hospitals.
While Gorsuch’s silence makes it difficult to assess his views, questioning from the other justices (besides Alito) suggested that a majority of justices wished to focus on the very narrow question of how lower courts should apply Whole Woman’s Health to admitting privilege laws rather than to revisit the Court's abortion jurisprudence. Given the consistent onslaught of new and different types of laws restricting abortion each year such a narrow focus may be unsatisfying for those looking to the Court for more guidance, but it may be the most the Court is willing to do at this point.