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Supreme Court Upholds Precedent, Invalidating Louisiana Abortion Law

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 04: Demonstrators shout slogans and hold banners in an abortion rights rally outside of the Supreme Court as the justices hear oral arguments in the June Medical Services v. Russo case on March 4, 2020 in Washington, DC. The Louisiana abortion case is the first major abortion case to make it to the Supreme Court since Donald Trump became President. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

A narrow Supreme Court majority has struck down Louisiana's law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals - a significant victory for abortion rights. In the 5-4 decision, Chief Justice Roberts joined the four "liberal" justices on the court to invalidate the law.

Haven't We Heard This Story Before?

Yes, indeed, we have. Louisiana's admitting privileges law is almost identical to a Texas statute the court struck down in 2016. That ruling held that requiring admitting privileges was medically unnecessary and significantly limited access to abortion services.

But, abortion opponents hoped that changes to the composition of the court might lead this case to a different result.

As the Supreme Court observed in 2016, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures a person can receive today. And more importantly, if the Louisiana law took effect, only one doctor and one clinic - in the entire state - would be able to offer abortion services.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority in this term's case, relying heavily on Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt to invalidate Louisiana's statute. In the opinion, Justice Breyer points to findings that admitting privileges serve no "relevant credentialing function" and that often it comes down to a business decision by hospitals.

Chief Justice Opts to Uphold Precedent

Although Chief Justice Roberts dissented in the 2016 decision on admitting privileges, this time around, he prioritized upholding precedent. He acknowledged this in his separate concurrence, writing that he still believes the previous case was wrongly decided. But, he says, stare decisis requires the court, absent exceptional circumstances, to treat like cases alike:

"This principle is grounded in a basic humility that recognizes today's legal issues are often not so different from the questions of yesterday and that we are not the first ones to try and answer them."

Concluding that the Louisiana law imposed the same severe burden on access to abortion as the Texas law, the Chief Justice found that it could not stand.

Chief Justice John Roberts has turned out to be the swing vote to watch this term. Is he destined to become the new "Decider," in the vein of now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy? We'll certainly be keeping a close eye out in the coming weeks.

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