by Katherine Beck Johnson
July 1, 2020
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated ruling in June Medical Services v. Russo, the first major abortion case the Court has taken up since President Trump appointed Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. The Court’s ruling struck down Louisiana’s law requiring abortionists to have hospital admitting privileges. While Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were both in the dissent, Justice Roberts proved to be the disappointing fifth vote that struck down the common-sense law.
Louisiana’s admitting privileges law was in the best interest of women. If something were to go awry during an abortion, the abortionist would be able to get the woman admitted to the hospital and explain to her doctors precisely what had occurred. If the abortionist does not have admitting privileges, the woman might be forced to call an ambulance and explain what had happened herself—a heavy burden to place on the woman, and quite impossible if she is unconscious. Requiring admitting privileges is a common-sense regulation that applies to every other outpatient surgical center in Louisiana. Nevertheless, liberal justices and Justice Roberts were unwilling to uphold the requirement when applied to abortion clinics.
In a previously decided case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Texas’s admitting privileges law and a few other abortion regulations had been at issue. The Court held that Texas’ law created an undue burden. Justice Kennedy provided the decisive fifth vote that struck down the pro-life and pro-woman law. Justice Roberts dissented.
Whole Woman’s was a poorly decided case that needed to be overturned. The Court had the chance to overturn it in June Medical with Justice Kennedy off the Court and two new Republican-appointed justices. Instead, once again, the Court struck down a law aimed at saving unborn lives and protecting women’s health.
Justice Roberts dissented in Whole Woman’s, yet he voted with the liberal justices in June Medical to strike down Louisiana’s admitting privileges law. Interestingly, in his concurrence, Justice Roberts said that he still agrees that Whole Woman’s Health was wrongly decided, yet said he is bound by stare decisis to uphold the law. Stare decisis is a legal principle that means you decide a case bound by precedent, regardless of whether the precedent is correct. Roberts claims that “for precedent to mean anything, the doctrine must give way only to a rationale that goes beyond whether the case was decided correctly.” Yet, Roberts has not felt bound by stare decisis in plenty of his other opinions, including Citizens United v. FEC. When it comes to abortion, however, Justice Roberts suddenly feels his hands are tied. Regardless, if a legal precedent is wrong, he and the Supreme Court should do the right thing and overturn it. With women and children’s lives on the line, Justice Roberts chose to adhere to a precedent he acknowledges is wrong.
Justice Roberts’ adherence to stare decisis is problematic for the future of abortion law at the Supreme Court. If Justice Roberts thought adhering to a five-year-old precedent of knocking down hospital admitting privileges is so embedded in our country’s jurisprudence to deserve stare decisis, he almost certainly views Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood as deserving of stare decisis, even if he disagrees with the opinions. This indicates that while judicial nominees are extremely important, they can be unreliable. It is no longer enough for the pro-life movement to depend on Republican-appointed justices and hope they will do the right thing on abortion.
Women and children lost at the Supreme Court on Monday. The abortion industry won. Once again, abortionists proved that rules don’t apply to them; they are exempt from laws. Despite this disappointing loss, the pro-life movement should not lose hope or remain discouraged. The fight for civil rights will continue—with or without Justice Roberts on our side.