The 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.
The case, June Medical Services v. Russo, was a challenge to a Louisiana law that required abortion providers have admitting privileges with a nearby hospital - an agreement between a doctor and a hospital that allows a patient to go that hospital if they need urgent care. Roberts Jr. joined with liberals in supporting the outcome.
The Supreme Court struck down a similar Texas requirement in 2016 when conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the four liberal justices to defend abortion rights, but Kennedy retired in 2018 and Republican President Donald Trump replaced him with conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, with the court moving further to the right. Women who lived outside the state's major cities would be forced to travel hundreds of miles to find an open clinic.
The Louisiana case was seen as a rerun of the Texas case, but with a changed Supreme Court. At issue was whether the justices would adhere to their precedent or cast it aside on the grounds that it interfered with the state's authority to regulate abortion.
In an ironic turn, Roberts concurred with the Louisiana decision due to the precedent established by the Texas decision - which he dissented from.
"The legal doctrine of stare decisis requires us, absent special circumstances, to treat like cases alike". The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons. "Therefore Louisiana's law can not stand under our precedent", he said.
Roberts had dissented in the Texas case, voting to uphold the law. But he says he switched his position to honor the precedent.
Early past year, Roberts joined with the four liberal members of the court to grant that request and keep the law on hold. All those laws on hold. A District Court had rejected the Louisiana law because of that precedent, but a court of appeals ruled otherwise.
Abortion rights lawyers called the rule a sham and a deceptive scheme created to shut down already embattled abortion clinics.
Proponents of the laws said that they made the procedures safer; opponents said that the procedure is already safe, and that it's just an additional and unnecessary burden meant to run abortion clinics out of town. Admitting privileges can be hard for abortion providers to obtain as hospitals do not want to be associated with them due to the stigma and as abortion is a statistically safe procedure, requiring extremely limited numbers of patients to have to go to hospitals for care. They also pointed out that many hospitals in the region are religiously-affiliated or conservative and don't allow abortions to take place in their facilities, which severely limits the number of doctors who can carry out the procedure.
The Court found that that "the law offers no significant health benefit" and that it will "make it impossible for abortion providers to obtain conforming privileges for reasons that have nothing to do with the State's asserted interests in promoting women's health and safety". "Act 620 is unconstitutional", Breyer wrote in conclusion on the June Medical opinion.