Supreme Court Strikes Down Louisiana Law That Limits Access to Abortion
USMatthew Vadum

A Louisiana law that requires abortionists to have hospital admitting privileges close to where the procedure takes place is unconstitutional, a splintered Supreme Court ruled 5-4 this morning.

The June 29 ruling in the case, June Medical Services LLC v. Russo, was a defeat for the Trump administration, which sided with Louisiana.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the plurality opinion, representing his views along with those of three other liberal justices. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote his own separate concurring opinion agreeing with the result. Four conservative justices dissented.

Enacted in 2014, Louisiana’s Act 620 required an abortion-providing medical doctor to have “active admitting privileges”—meaning the physician is a member of the hospital’s medical staff and has the ability to admit patients and provide diagnostic and surgical services—at a hospital within 30 miles of where an abortion is provided. Violations can be punished with imprisonment, fines, and license revocation.

Louisiana argued that this admitting-privileges law screens out incompetent physicians and promotes good health by making sure a patient who suffers complications can be promptly admitted to a nearby hospital. The statute was upheld 2–1 by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2018.

The Louisiana law “is almost word-for-word identical to Texas’ admitting-privileges law,” which the Supreme Court struck down 5-3 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a 2016 opinion, Breyer writes for the court in the new decision.

In the previous decision, the Supreme Court agreed with a trial court finding that the Texas statute “offers no significant health benefit,” and made 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,” Breyer writes.

This places “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking an abortion,” and without any health-related benefit, made the trial court conclude the law “imposes an undue burden and is therefore unconstitutional.”

Although an appeals court in the Louisiana case upheld Act 620, it found the trial court was mistaken on the facts. The Supreme Court disagrees and determines that those factual findings by the trial court were correct, Breyer writes.

“We have examined the extensive record carefully and conclude that it supports the District Court’s findings of fact. Those findings mirror those made in Whole Woman’s Health in every relevant respect and require the same result. We consequently hold that the Louisiana statute is unconstitutional.”

The Supreme Court decision could tee up partisan fights this election year, putting the abortion issue on the political front burner.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks in an abortion rights rally outside of the Supreme Court as the justices hear oral arguments in the June Medical Services v. Russo case in Washington on March 4, 2020. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

At a pro-abortion rights rally beside the courthouse steps while oral arguments were underway March 4, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) promised unspecified retribution against conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh should they vote to uphold the law under challenge.

“They’re taking away fundamental rights,” Schumer told the crowd. “I want to tell you, Gorsuch, I want to tell you, Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind! And you will pay the price! You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”

Chief Justice John Roberts released a statement later that day condemning Schumer’s remarks.

“Justices know that criticism comes with the territory, but threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous,” Roberts said.

“All Members of the Court will continue to do their job, without fear or favor, from whatever quarter.”