Supreme Court Justices Voice Clashing Views as They Weigh Louisiana Abortion Law

Statute requires doctors performing procedure to hold admitting privileges at a hospital no more than 30 miles away

Brent Kendall and  Jess Bravin

March 4, 2020 1:08 pm ET, Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—Supreme Court justices voiced clashing views about abortion restrictions in Louisiana in a case that could send signals about whether a more conservative high court will begin to narrow precedent on abortion rights.

During an hour-long oral argument Wednesday, the court considered a Louisiana law enacted in 2014 that requires doctors performing abortions to hold admitting privileges at a hospital no more than 30 miles away.

Challengers in the case, an abortion clinic and two physicians who provide abortions, argued the restrictions aren’t justified and provide no health or safety benefits. Instead, the rules are aimed at curbing abortion and impose an undue burden on women by leaving the state with just a single clinic, lawyer Julie Rikelman of the Center for Reproductive Rights told the court.

Louisiana says its legislature passed the restrictions to protect the health and safety of patients, to vet doctors and to bring abortion regulations in line with those for other outpatient procedures.

Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill said there was “abundant evidence” that the state law was needed to address safety concerns.

Many of the justices’ questions fell along ideological lines.

Justice Samuel Alito set the tone early on the conservative side, questioning why abortion providers even had standing to bring legal claims based on alleged burdens faced by patients.

When Ms. Rikelman insisted the plaintiffs had proper legal standing, Justice Alito said, “Well, that’s amazing.” If an abortion provider is seeking to avoid a restriction it considers onerous but that the state intended to increase patient safety, then there is a conflict of interest if the provider is the one to bring the legal challenge, he said.

On the other side was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said Louisiana waited too long to argue that the lawsuit wasn’t proper, and that the state’s 30-mile requirement for hospital-admitting privileges made no sense. Justice Sonia Sotomayor made similar comments.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who is expected to be a crucial vote in the case, asked probing questions of both sides, including on how to apply a 2016 Supreme Court ruling that invalidated substantially similar abortion restrictions in Texas. He dissented in that 5-3 vote.

Chief Justice Roberts said the Texas ruling was based on detailed facts within that state, and he asked whether the same abortion restrictions might pass muster elsewhere if the facts on the ground showed them to be less burdensome on women.

But later in the argument, the chief justice referenced findings from the prior Supreme Court ruling that admitting privileges provided no health benefits at all.

Another closely watched questioner Wednesday was Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the court’s newest member and replacement for Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had been a key vote for preserving abortion rights.

Justice Kavanaugh questioned the challengers’ argument that an abortion law requiring admitting privileges would never be valid, and he asked what would happen if abortion providers were more easily able to obtain such privileges.

The case, June Medical Services v. Russo, is the first abortion matter the court has considered with addition of two President Trump appointees: Justices Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.

Justice Gorsuch didn’t speak during Wednesday’s argument.

A decision is expected by the end of June.

—Louise Radnofsky contributed to this article.