Supreme Court rules Texas abortion law creates undue burden News
Supreme Court rules Texas abortion law creates undue burden

The US Supreme Court [official website] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-3 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt [SCOTUSblog materials] that a Texas law [HB2 text] imposing certain requirements on abortion clinics and doctors creates an undue burden on access to abortion, and is therefore unconstitutional. A collection of Texas abortion providers challenged provisions of HB2 requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital and requiring abortion clinics to conform to state standards for ambulatory surgical centers on the grounds that such requirements violated the Fourteenth Amendment [text] as interpreted by the Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey [text]. The US District Court for the Western District of Texas found for the plaintiffs, but the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official websites] largely reversed [opinion, PDF] the district court and allowed for enforcement of the statute state wide, with limited exceptions. On appeal of that ruling, the Supreme Court reversed, finding that the Fifth Circuit erred in its application of the Casey standard, with particular reference to the Fifth Circuit’s finding that “the district court erred by substituting its own judgment for that of the legislature” in part because “medical uncertainty underlying a statute is for resolution by legislatures, not the courts.” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority, finding that “when determining the constitutionality of laws regulating abortion procedures, [the Court] has placed considerable weight upon evidence and argument presented in judicial proceedings” and approved of the district court’s treatment of the standard.

For a district court to give significant weight to evidence in the judicial record in these circumstances is consistent with this Court’s case law. [The District Court] did not simply substitute its own judgment for that of the legislature. It considered the evidence in the record — including expert evidence, presented in stipulations, depositions, and testimony. It then weighed the asserted benefits against the burdens.

Reviewing the evidence submitted at trial, the Court found that neither the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgery requirements furthered the stated interest in protecting the health of abortion patients, and that both requirements posed “substantial obstacles to women seeking abortions.” Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion arguing that the decision “perpetuates the Court’s habit of applying different rules to different constitutional rights — especially the putative right to abortion.” Justice Samuel Alito also filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and by Thomas.

An additional issue concerned whether the case should have been precluded by an earlier suit filed challenging the HB2 restrictions on their face, rather than as applied through enforcement. These facial challenges, which included some but not all of the same plaintiffs, were denied [opinion] by the Fifth Circuit. Rather than appeal that ruling directly, some Texas abortion providers filed the as-applied suit that led to Monday’s ruling. Texas had argued that the earlier Fifth Circuit ruling had addressed the providers’ claims, and thus they were precluded from re-litigating the issues addressed in that suit. The Supreme Court found that the providers’ claims were not precluded because the as-applied challenged rested on the occurrence of facts that were merely the basis of conjecture in the facial challenge. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in November and heard oral arguments [JURIST reports] in March.