WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics, reasserting a commitment to abortion rights over fierce opposition from dissenting conservative justices in the first big abortion case of the Trump era.
Chief Justice John Roberts and his four more liberal colleagues ruled that the law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals violates the abortion rights that the court set forth in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
The outcome is not the last word on the decades-long fight over abortion, with dozens of state-imposed restrictions winding their way through the courts. But the decision was a surprising defeat for abortion opponents, who thought that a new conservative majority with two of President Donald Trump’s appointees on board would start chipping away at abortion access.
The key vote belonged to Roberts, who had always voted against abortion rights before, including in a 2016 case in which the court struck down a Texas law that was virtually identical to the one in Louisiana.
But Roberts did not join the opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer for the other liberals in Monday’s decision, and his position left abortion-rights supporters more relieved than elated.
The chief justice explained that he continues to think the Texas case was wrongly decided but said he believes it’s important for the court to stand by its prior decisions.
“The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law,” Roberts wrote.
In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “Today a majority of the Court perpetuates its ill-founded abortion jurisprudence by enjoining a perfectly legitimate state law and doing so without jurisdiction.”
Trump’s two appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were in dissent, along with Justice Samuel Alito. The presence of the new justices is what fueled hopes among abortion opponents, and fears on the other side, that the Supreme Court would be more likely to uphold restrictions.
The ruling has no direct effect on Nebraska because the state has no similar law.
In 2015, then-State Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha introduced a bill that would have required any clinic doing five or more abortions per month to meet the tougher licensing standards of an ambulatory surgical center. Those standards would have included a requirement for the clinics to have a transfer agreement with a local hospital. The bill did not get out of committee.
Karen Bowling, executive director of Nebraska Family Alliance, which joined in a friend-of-the court brief supporting the Louisiana law, decried the court ruling.
“Instead of protecting mothers and their babies, the Court’s decision allows abortion clinics to skirt around common-sense health and safety regulations,” she said in a statement.
Scout Richters, ACLU of Nebraska’s legal and policy counsel, said the decision once again affirms that people have a right to abortion care without facing undue burdens to access that care.
“Like any deeply personal medical situation, decisions about abortion care belong to patients and their physicians — not politicians,” Richters said.
Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life said, “Today’s 5-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on a Louisiana law requiring abortion facilities to have hospital admitting privileges is an affront to unborn babies and their mothers.”
Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States, said, “Today’s victory is a huge win for safe, legal abortion, but our fight for access to sexual and reproductive health is far from over. ... We should take heart today but we must be under no illusion: Today’s decision was about precedent and there is no guarantee that current majority on the Supreme Court would protect abortion access if a different restrictive law came before them.”
Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global legal advocacy organization, said Monday’s decision by no means ends the struggle over abortion rights in legislatures and the courts. She said the court’s ruling could embolden states to pass more restrictive laws.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, said, “Today’s ruling is a bitter disappointment. It demonstrates once again the failure of the Supreme Court to allow the American people to protect the well-being of women from the tentacles of a brutal and profit-seeking abortion industry.”
A trial judge had said the law would not provide health benefits to women and would leave only one clinic open in Louisiana, in New Orleans. That would make it too hard for women to get an abortion, in violation of the Constitution, the judge ruled.
But the appeals court in New Orleans rejected the judge’s findings and upheld the law in 2018, doubting that any clinics would have to close and saying the doctors had not tried hard enough to establish relationships with local hospitals.
The clinics filed an emergency appeal at the Supreme Court, asking that the law be blocked while the justices evaluated the case. Roberts joined with the four liberal members of the court to grant that request and keep the law on hold.
Roberts’ vote was a bit of a surprise because he voted in the Texas case to uphold the clinic restrictions. It may have reflected his new role since Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement as the court’s swing justice, his concern about the court being perceived as a partisan institution and respect for a prior decision of the court, even one he disagreed with.
The regulations at issue in Louisiana are distinct from other state laws making their way through court challenges that would ban abortions early in a pregnancy. Those include bans on abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as 6 weeks, and the almost total ban passed in Alabama.
The case was the third in two weeks in which Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, joined the court’s liberals in the majority. One of those decisions preserved the legal protections and work authorization for 650,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. The other extended federal employment-discrimination protections to LGBT Americans.
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.