(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court will hear its first abortion case with a new conservative majority, agreeing to rule on a Louisiana law that requires doctors who perform the procedure to get admitting privileges at a local hospital.
The law is similar to a Texas measure the court struck down in 2016, before Justice Brett Kavanaugh replaced the now retired-Justice Anthony Kennedy. The court’s new composition means it could overturn the 2016 ruling, or at least limit its impact to the particular circumstances of Texas.
The case promises to provide the clearest picture yet of whether Chief Justice John Roberts and the reconstituted court will move quickly to roll back abortion rights. The court is likely to rule in 2019, months before the presidential election.
Opponents say the law would leave Louisiana with only one clinic, in New Orleans, and just one abortion doctor to serve the roughly 10,000 women who seek to end a pregnancy every year in the state. A divided federal appeals court rejected those claims and upheld the law.
Roberts in February joined the four Democratic-appointed justices to put the law on hold while the court considered whether to hear an appeal. Although that stay order might suggest that Roberts has questions about the appeals court ruling, he provided no explanation.
The 2016 Supreme Court decision striking down the Texas law appeared at the time to be the biggest abortion-rights victory in a generation. With Roberts in dissent, Kennedy joined the liberals in a 5-3 decision that also voided requirements that clinics meet hospital-like surgical standards.
‘Sat on Their Hands’
The Supreme Court said the Texas law “provides few, if any, health benefits for women, poses a substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions, and “constitutes an ‘undue burden’ on their constitutional right to do so.”
Louisiana’s law, enacted in 2014, requires doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles (48 kilometers) of the abortion facility. The measure was in effect for a brief period in 2016.
In upholding the measure on a 2-1 vote, a New Orleans-based appeals court said the law itself wasn’t forcing any clinics to close. The panel blamed doctors for not making good-faith efforts to get the required privileges.
“The vast majority largely sat on their hands, assuming that they would not qualify,” Judge Jerry Smith wrote for the majority.
A Shreveport clinic and two unidentified doctors told the Supreme Court in their appeal that the lower court simply disagreed with the 2016 decision.
“It is not the prerogative of lower courts to reform this court’s precedent by watering down or distinguishing its holdings to the point of irrelevancy,” the appeal argued.
Louisiana officials urged the Supreme Court to reject the appeal, saying the case had few implications beyond the state’s particular circumstances. But the state also said the justices should consider overruling the 2016 ruling if they conclude that’s necessary to uphold the Louisiana law.
The state said its law was “based on a lengthy history of abortion clinic safety violations reflecting the clinics’ indifference to doctor qualifications and the threat that indifference poses to women.”
Democrats said during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing they were concerned he could vote to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion nationwide. He didn’t rule on the abortion issue as an appellate judge, and he declined during his hearings to say whether Roe was correctly decided or whether he’d vote to uphold it as a justice.
The cases are June Medical Services v. Gee, 18-1323, and Gee v. June Medical Services, 18-1460.
To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org, Laurie Asséo, Ros Krasny
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.