Supreme Court Wraps Up Term With Far-Reaching Decision On Abortion

Jun 28, 2016
Originally published on June 28, 2016 12:19 pm
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The U.S. Supreme Court has wrapped up its term with a far-reaching decision on abortion. By a 5-3 vote, the court struck down a Texas law enacted in the name of protecting women's health and safety. The court said that, in reality, the law was an unconstitutional sham aimed at limiting women's access to abortion. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: It was the court's most sweeping abortion decision in nearly 25 years. And it put real teeth in the 1992 ruling that barred states or the federal government from putting what the court called an undue burden on a woman's right to have an abortion. Abortion rights advocate Amy Hagstrom Miller is president and CEO of Whole Women's Health (ph) clinics.

AMY HAGSTROM MILLER: It's the first time in, you know, a generation when we've had this kind of watershed opportunity and moment to say they've gone too far and we're going to turn the tides around.

TOTENBERG: Specifically, the court invalidated a Texas law that required abortion clinic doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and required clinics to be designed and equipped like many hospitals. The court said neither was necessary for the health and safety of women. Ultimately, half the clinics in the state closed, leaving women to drive hundreds of miles and wait weeks to get an abortion.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, said that the state had clearly targeted abortion providers, requiring them to meet standards not imposed on other surgical providers. He noted that doctors performing colonoscopies with 10 times the mortality risk of abortions can do them in their offices or clinics that are not similarly regulated. Cornell law professor Michael Dorf says the justices did break new ground.

MICHAEL DORF: This is the first time that they're saying, look, you say this is a health law. It really isn't.

TOTENBERG: Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett agrees.

RICHARD GARNETT: The version of the undue burden test that comes out of this, I do think, is significantly more demanding.

TOTENBERG: As always, the last day of opinions of the court was a dramatic one. In addition to the abortion decision, the court upheld the broad reach of a federal law that bars domestic violence offenders from owning guns. And in a third case, the court unanimously overturned the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell on corruption charges and made it more difficult to prosecute public officials for alleged wrongdoing.

The decisions capped a term marked by tragedy and political maneuvering - the unexpected death, last February, of Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative icon; and a standoff between President Obama and Senate Republicans, who refused to hold a hearing on the highly regarded nominee to replace Scalia. Although conservative justices were expected to win big victories this term as a result of Scalia's death, their only victory was a tie vote, which effectively killed the Obama immigration program. But a tie vote makes no law. And so, a future president could revive the Obama plan.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often casts the decisive vote in closely divided cases, was once again a key player. Confounding court observers, he wrote a strong decision in favor of affirmative action in higher education, the first time he's ever endorsed such a race-conscious program. And his was the pivotal vote in the abortion case, though, as the senior justice in the majority, he chose not to write the decision himself and assigned it to Breyer.

GARNETT: I felt like the last week has - might have had something like an end-of-an-era feel to it.

TOTENBERG: Notre Dame's professor Garnett, a conservative who clerked on the court, notes that it's been a half-century since a majority of the justices were Democratic appointees. He sees a likelihood that the next few court openings will be filled by a Democratic president, meaning the end of the Reagan-inspired conservative revolution on the court. Others, however, are not as pessimistic about conservative prospects. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.