ADVOCACY COLUMN

June Medical Services v. Russo: Understanding this high-stakes abortion case

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The main question in this case has been decided before, but with a different Supreme Court. The current court begins hearing arguments in early March, with a decision expected this summer.


 

References

On March 4, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will hear opening arguments for June Medical Services v. Russo. (Please note that this case was originally referred to as June Medical Services v. Gee. However, Secretary Rebekah Gee resigned from her position on January 31, 2020, and was replaced by Interim Secretary Stephen Russo.) The case will examine a Louisiana law (Louisiana Act 620, or LA 620), originally passed in 2014, that requires physicians to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of where they provide abortion services.1 When LA 620 was signed into law in 2014, 5 of Louisiana’s 6 abortion clinics would not have met the standards created by this legislation and would have been forced to close, potentially leaving the vast majority of women in Louisiana without access to an abortion provider, and disproportionately impacting poor and rural women. Prior to enactment of this law, physicians at these 5 clinics attempted to obtain admitting privileges, and all were denied. The denials occurred due to two main reasons—because the providers admitted too few patients each year to qualify for hospital privileges or simply because they provided abortion care.2 Shortly after this legislation was signed into law, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) challenged the law, citing the undue burden it created for patients attempting to access abortion care.

Prior case also considered question of hospital privileges for abortion providers

Interestingly, SCOTUS already has ruled on this very question. In 1992, the Court ruled in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey that it is unconstitutional for a state to create an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to abortion prior to fetal viability.3 And in 2016, when considering whether or not requiring abortion providers to obtain hospital privileges creates an undue burden in Whole Women’s Health (WWH) v. Hellerstedt, the Supreme Court’s answer was yes, it does. WWH, with legal aid from CRR, challenged Texas House Bill 2 (H.B. 2), which similar to LA 620, required abortion providers to have local admitting privileges. Based largely on the precedent set in Casey, SCOTUS ruled 5-3 in favor of WWH.

The Louisiana law currently in question was written and challenged in district court simultaneous to the Supreme Court’s review of WWH. The district court declared LA 620 invalid and permanently enjoined its enforcement, finding the law would “drastically burden women’s right to choose abortions.”4 However, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reviewed the case and overturned the district court decision, finding the lower court’s analysis erroneous and stating, “no clinics will likely be forced to close on account of [LA 620].” The Fifth Circuit panel ruled that, despite the precedent of WWH, LA 620 did not create an undue burden because of state-level differences in admitting privileges, demographics, and geography. They also found that only 30% of the 2 million women living in Louisiana would be impacted by the law, predominantly via longer wait times, and argued that this does not represent significant burden. The plaintiffs filed for an emergency stay with SCOTUS, who granted the stay pending a full hearing. On March 4, the Supreme Court will hear arguments to determine if the Fifth Circuit was correct in drawing a distinction between LA 620 and the SCOTUS verdict in WWH.

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