In a 5-4 ruling issued yesterday with Chief Justice Roberts casting the swing vote, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law that required physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within thirty miles of the abortion clinic.

This case stems from a lawsuit filed in Federal District Court by five abortion clinics and four abortion providers challenging Louisiana's Act 620 before it was to take effect in September 2014 (the court later consolidated their lawsuit with a similar action brought by two other clinics and two other abortion providers). Louisiana's Act 620 required “any doctor who performs abortions to hold ‘active admitting privileges at a hospital . . . located not further than thirty miles from the location at which the abortion is performed or induced,' and define[d] ‘active admitting privileges' as being ‘a member in good standing' of the hospital's ‘medical staff . . . with the ability to admit a patient and to provide diagnostic and surgical services to such patient.'”

The plaintiffs alleged that “Act 620 was unconstitutional because (among other things) it imposed an undue burden on the right of their patients to obtain an abortion.” The plaintiffs sought a temporary restraining order, followed by a preliminary injunction that would prevent the law from taking effect. The District Court declined to stay the effective date of Act 620, but the court temporarily prohibited the state from enforcing its penalties and directed the plaintiff doctors to continue seeking conforming privileges while keeping the court updated on their progress.

Following a 6-day bench trial, in January 2016, the District Court declared Act 620 unconstitutional on its face and permanently prohibited its enforcement. In issuing this decision, the District Court found that “admitting privileges serve no ‘“relevant credentialing function”' because physicians may be denied privileges ‘for reasons unrelated to competency.'” Moreover, the court found that enforcing Act 620 would “‘result in a drastic reduction in the number and geographic distribution of abortion providers, reducing the number of clinics to one, or at most two, and leaving only one, or at most two, physicians providing abortions in the entire state . . . .'” The state appealed the District Court's decision. The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's judgment, disagreeing with nearly every one of the District Court's findings. 

Finding the case “nearly identical” with a case where the Court had struck down a similar Texas law, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and upheld the District Court's factual and legal findings, including “its determination that Louisiana's law poses a ‘substantial obstacle' to women seeking an abortion; its determination that the law offers no significant health-related benefits; and its determination that the law consequently imposes an ‘undue burden' on a woman's constitutional right to choose to have an abortion.” Finally, the Court agreed that “Act 620 violates the Constitution.”

It is noteworthy that Chief Justice Roberts, who cast the deciding vote in this case, did not sign on to the Court's lead opinion. Instead, he wrote a separate concurring opinion in which he emphasizes his reliance upon the legal doctrine of “stare decisis,” which requires courts to approach cases with similar scenarios and facts in the same manner (i.e., follow legal precedent), as the basis for his concurrence with the Court's decision. Specifically, he states as follows: “[s]tare decisis instructs us to treat like cases alike. The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law. The Louisiana law burdens women seeking previability abortions to the same extent as the Texas law, according to factual findings that are not clearly erroneous.”

Originally published 01 July, 2020

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