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A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court has delivered a major defeat to abortion opponents. By a 5-to-4 vote, the court struck down a Louisiana law that was virtually identical to a Texas law, invalidated by the court four years ago. As NPR's Nina Totenberg reports, the fifth and decisive vote was cast by Chief Justice John Roberts.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Four years ago, the chief justice was among the dissenters when the court struck down a Texas law that required doctors performing clinic abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. But today he voted with the court's four liberal justices in striking down a nearly identical law in Louisiana. He wrote for himself alone, however, and said he was joining the liberals on the outcome because of the Doctrine of Stare Decisis, which is the legal term for standing by the court's precedents. It instructs us to treat like cases alike, he said. And the Louisiana law burdens women seeking pre-viability abortions to the same extent as the Texas law did four years ago.
The value of following precedent, he added, is that it promotes the evenhanded, predictable and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial principles and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process. While precedent is not an inexorable demand, he said, simple disagreement with a previous decision is not enough to justify reversing course. In this case, not only is the Louisiana law at issue virtually identical to the one struck down four years ago, but the district court judge who held an extensive trial in the case found that if the law were to go into effect, at minimum, two of the three abortion clinics in the state would be forced to close, women would have to wait longer and drive further for abortions and only one doctor would likely be left to fill the demand for 10,000 women seeking abortions in the state each year. Abortion providers and defenders were, to say the least, relieved. Here's Kathaleen Pittman, administrator of the Hope Medical Group that runs a clinic in Shreveport, La.
KATHALEEN PITTMAN: To say we're elated hardly begins to come close to what we are feeling. I'm celebrating today, but I'm still worried about our future.
TOTENBERG: And Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, echoed that sentiment.
NANCY NORTHUP: While we are taking the Supreme Court cases one victory at a time, we are under no illusions that the fight is over with this case. You know, it's whack-a-mole over and over again.
TOTENBERG: And Leah Litman, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, cautioned that Roberts' decision sets out a standard different from the one adopted by the court in the past.
LEAH LITMAN: The chief justice's reasoning was actually quite permissive in what it would allow states to do to restrict abortion.
TOTENBERG: That said, however, the decision does appear to rule out state laws that, for instance, ban abortions at six, eight, 12 weeks or any other time prior to fetal viability. Even James Bopp, general counsel for Americans United for Life, sees those bans as dead in the water.
JAMES BOPP: I've been saying for 10 years that those approaches are doomed to failure.
TOTENBERG: Though Bopp was disappointed in the Roberts opinion, he saw some hope.
BOPP: He gave us half a loaf.
TOTENBERG: He sees the Roberts opinion as enabling states to mandate ultrasounds for those seeking an abortion, as well as allowing states to ban abortions for certain reasons, for instance, because of fetal disability or sex. And he sees the decision as sending a message to anti-abortion voters.
BOPP: It tells the pro-life movement the President Trump fulfills his promises with his appointment of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh and that we need Trump reelected in order to make future appointments.
TOTENBERG: Political groups on the right and left were making that very point today. Were one of the liberal justices to retire - and two of them are over 80 - another Trump appointment to the high court could make Roberts' vote irrelevant. Given that mathematical reality, today's decision is likely to play a significant role in the upcoming election. Polling data has consistently shown a hefty majority of the public approves the right to abortion. But while Americans held similar views in 2016, exit polling at that time showed Trump was able to turn out more of his vote based on his stated goal of naming conservative and anti-abortion justices to the court.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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