In an historic re-affirmation of precedent, the United States Supreme Court held that Louisiana’s admitting privileges law for abortion providers was unconstitutional today.
In this case, captioned June Medical Services LLC v. Russo, the justices were split 5-4, with Chief Justice Roberts siding with the majority.
The impact of this decision for Louisiana is that the three remaining abortion clinics in the state may remain open. Had the court ruled in favor of the State of Louisiana, they would have decimated abortion access – leaving only one abortion facility open for 1,000,000 Louisianians of reproductive age.
The issue of law was whether Act 620 constitutes an “undue burden” on a pregnant person’s constitutional right to have an abortion.
The “undue burden” test was devised in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which followed the famous Roe v. Wade decision, to be more deferential to states that decided to limit abortion access.
Under, Casey, states are free to regulate abortion access, as long as the particular law is not a substantial burden on the right to have an abortion.
Admitting privileges laws, which are regarded as a form of Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers (“TRAP laws”), have the effect of shutting down abortion clinics by imposing hefty regulations on providers.
Despite being a lawyer familiar with constitutional law, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards signed the admitting privileges bill into law, citing his personal opposition to abortion.
Act 620 required abortion providers in Louisiana to keep and maintain active admitting privileges with a local hospital within 30 miles of the abortion facility. This essentially means that the doctor had to be a member “in good standing” of hospital staff elsewhere.
As the Court notes, this law was passed in the immediate aftermath of Texas’s admitting privileges law, which led to over half of the state’s abortion clinics closing in 2014. A few weeks before Act 620 took effect, a federal district court judge issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the law from taking effect.
In June of 2015, the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana held a full trial, and in January of 2016 it found Act 620 to be “unconstitutional on its face.” The court held that the admitting privileges were unnecessary.
In particular, the district court found that because “[A]bortion in Louisiana has been extremely safe, with particularly low rates of serious complications,” the new law would provide no benefits to women’s health while reducing access by as much as 70 percent.
The State of Louisiana appealed the decision. While the injunction of Act 620 remained in place pending the appeal, the Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision was issued by the Supreme Court. In that case, the Court heard evidence of abortion providers in Texas who were denied admitting privileges not due to incompetence but simply because they do not maintain a separate, active OB/GYN practice.
The Court also noted that even if abortion providers were able to obtain admitting privileges, they would have strict requirements to maintain those privileges, requiring a number of hours of in-hospital care. Additionally, hospitals are often actively hostile to doctors who provide abortions, and deny their privileges on an ideological basis alone.
Because the Texas law constituted a substantial obstacle to the right to access abortion with no actual safety benefits, the Supreme Court found it to be unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court struck down this Texas law, which was “almost word-for-word identical” to this law, holding that the undue burden standard “requires courts to independently review the legislative findings upon which an abortion-related statute rests” and to weigh those findings against access to abortion.
Despite this clear precedent, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a clear display of judicial activism, defied the Supreme Court and found that the Louisiana admitting privileges law was somehow less burdensome than the Texas law.
Today’s Supreme Court decision is a rebuke of the ideological activism by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and their open hostility to precedent they find personally disagreeable.
“After today’s decision, we can breathe a sigh of relief,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, President of Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “The Supreme Court sent a clear message to politicians across the country: Stop trying to take away access to safe, legal abortion.”
The New Orleans Abortion Fund Executive Director Steffani Bangel said this about the decision:
“As we celebrate today’s Supreme Court decision, do not mistake our
celebration for acceptance of the status quo. Because the truth is:
anti-abortion politicians have eroded the legal right to abortion for
decades, and while the right remains, access to abortion is scarcer
than ever. We are fighting for compassion and dignity, not only
legality. And our fight doesn’t end here – in November, Louisiana
voters will make a decision on a constitutional amendment that would
ban the right to abortion in our state. We are done settling for
crumbs and status quo wins—the people of Louisiana deserve more. We
deserve policies that protect, defend, and expand our access to this
critical healthcare, and we will not stop fighting for access.”
You can read the June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo decision, in full, here.