That means dueling advocates are homing in on themes of precedent and regard for the court in the public eye. They are focusing on respect for — or rejection of — past decisions involving the right to end a pregnancy and looking to see how far Roberts and his conservative majority are willing to go.
“It is far more dangerous to overrule a decision only because five members of a later court come to agree with earlier dissenters on a difficult legal question,” Breyer wrote. “The majority has surrendered to the temptation to overrule (Monday’s case) even though it is a well reasoned decision that has caused no serious practical problems in the four decades since we decided it. Today’s decision can only cause one to wonder which cases the court will overrule next.”
Breyer may have been sending a message to Roberts and his conservative colleagues.
“Everybody is, in some sense, in dialogue with Chief Justice Roberts,” said Travis J. Tu, of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, representing a Louisiana medical clinic in a case before the justices regarding whether abortion providers must have “admitting privileges” at local hospitals.
Beginning with his confirmation hearings in 2005, when he described any reversal of past Supreme Court rulings as “a jolt to the system,” Roberts has touted the value of precedent. At the same time, the Roberts Court has at times overturned long-standing precedent, most notably last session in a ruling that reversed a 1977 decision affecting organized labor and union fees.
The accelerating politics in statehouses reflects President Donald Trump’s opposition to abortion rights and pledge to appoint justices who oppose abortion rights. With the addition of the Georgia law signed this week, five states since Trump took office in 2017 have adopted bans on abortion when a fetal heartbeat could be detected, as early as six weeks.
These measures clash with Supreme Court precedent that forbids an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to end a pregnancy before viability, that is, when a fetus can live outside the mother. Lower court judges have ruled against such “heartbeat” measures in the past, and none is likely to take effect in the near future.
Still, lawyers representing abortion opponents hope to use the pattern to assert that many Americans do not regard Roe as truly settled, despite its nearly half-century status.
“Our society is moving away from acceptance and reliance on abortion,” said Kevin Theriot, a lawyer with the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been active in anti-abortion litigation nationwide. Referring to cases that may become “building blocks” for a direct attack on Roe, Theriot said, “All that we need is for the court to say things have changed.”
Yet, according to Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, as five states passed laws against abortion, four legislatures have adopted measures since 2017 shoring up abortion rights. The Guttmacher Institute, which was founded in 1968 and supports reproductive rights, tracks state abortion-related legislation.
While states rush in, the justices go slow
Roe v. Wade and the Casey case affirming it prohibit government from burdening a woman’s choice before viability, which may occur at about 24 weeks of pregnancy. (A full-term pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks.) The justices reinforced the Casey decision in a 2016 case from Texas. The crucial fifth vote was cast by now-retired Kennedy.
As the justices then invalidated a Texas mandate that doctors be affiliated with a nearby hospital through so-called admitting privileges, the court said the regulation provides few, if any, health benefits for women and erects “a substantial obstacle” to women who want abortions, leading to an “undue burden” on their constitutional right.
Since Kavanaugh’s arrival, the high court has so far avoided the abortion controversy. Appeals from Indiana and Alabama officials of state regulations invalidated in lower courts have been scheduled for action by the justices for months. But no public orders have been issued. The justices were scheduled on Thursday again to consider the Indiana law, and they could announce the fate of that case later this month.
Louisiana physician admitting privileges law
The Louisiana law, enacted in 2014 and similar to the Texas measure, would require physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where the abortion would be performed.
A US district court judge declared the Louisiana regulation unconstitutional, saying it would reduce the number of physicians available to perform abortions and close clinics, lead to longer waiting times and new health risks. The US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed, rejecting principles from the Whole Woman’s Health decision.
Tu and other lawyers representing June Medical Services have asked the justices to summarily reverse that 5th Circuit ruling, arguing that it flatly conflicts with the 2016 decision.
Heartened by that Roberts’ action, Tu in an April petition cited another move by Roberts in which the chief justice shifted his position when it appeared a lower court was flouting an earlier Supreme Court opinion.
Louisiana state officials have yet to file their brief urging the justices to intervene, but in their earlier argument urging the justices not to block the law from taking effect, state lawyers tried to distinguish their case from the Texas dispute. They asserted the 5th Circuit ruling was “fact-bound, well supported by the evidence, and faithful to this Court’s abortion cases, including Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.”
This story has been updated with Justice Breyer’s dissent from Monday.