The Supreme Court’s usual processes were disrupted this term. The COVID-19 pandemic required audio hearings rather than in-person, and it resulted in a number of emergency legal appeals. As the Court began its regular sessions on October 5, 2020, there were only 8 justices—Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away and Amy Coney Barrett had not yet been confirmed by the Senate. The Court decided many important cases this term, including dealing with the delivery of drugs to induce abortions, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) moratorium on housing evictions, yet another case on the Affordable Care Act, state laws concerning pharmacy benefit managers, and the Hologic and Minerva endometrial ablation systems patents. After considering these cases, we also will briefly look at other cases of general interest.
Patient access to mifepristone
In May 2020, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) was the named plaintiff in a lawsuit against the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol that are used to induce medical abortions.1 The case was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of ACOG and others2,3 and raised the issue of patients’ access to these medications. The basic claim of the case was that during the pandemic, the FDA’s regulation of mifepristone was unconstitutional in that they imposed an undue burden on the decision of women to have an abortion.4 (Although misoprostol is a part of the medical abortion regimen, it is not subject to special regulation and was not part of the litigation.)
The FDA regulation of mifepristone, begun in 2000 but modified since then, includes 3 elements to assure safe use:
- prescribers must have special training or certification
- the drug can be dispensed to patients only in a hospital, clinic, or medical office under the supervision of a certified health care provider (known as the “in-person dispensing requirement” because retail pharmacy or mail distribution are prohibited)
- the health care provider must review a “patient agreement form” with the patient and have the patient sign the consent form in the provider’s presence.5
The pandemic made fulfilling these requirements substantially more burdensome and difficult. The question was whether the FDA was constitutionally required to modify its regulations during a pandemic to take account of the undue burden of the regulation created by the pandemic. That is, the question was not whether the FDA could have or should have chosen to make the modification, but whether it was required to do so.
In July 2020, a federal district court in Maryland held that the FDA regulation was an unconstitutional burden on the abortion rights of women during the pandemic and issued a preliminary injunction to stop the FDA from enforcing the in-person dispensing and signature rules. The district judge applied the injunction to Maryland, but also made it a nationwide injunction. (The issue of district court nationwide injunctions is considered in, “District court ‘nationwide injunctions’”).
The FDA asked the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the enforcement of the injunction, which the appeals court denied. The FDA then appealed to the Supreme Court, asking it to stay the injunction. In October 2020, the Court announced that it was holding the FDA’s request “in abeyance” to allow the district court to consider a motion by the FDA to dissolve or change the injunction. It gave the district court 40 days in which to act. That decision by the Court was in the “Shadow Docket” (see sidebar on page XX), so the exact vote of the Court in October is not clear, but 2 Justices (Alito and Thomas) dissented and would have stayed the injunction.6 Over the next 40 days, the district court did not withdraw its nationwide injunction.
Thus, on January 12, 2021, the case was again before the Supreme Court, which let the FDA’s regulations regarding mifepristone remain in place by lifting the district court’s injunction. Most of the justices supporting the stay did not write to explain their decision, although their dissent in the earlier cases may have served that purpose. (Maryland was permitting many kinds of activity that were more risky than visiting a clinic—indoor dining, with open hair salons, gyms, and casinos.)7 Chief Justice Roberts wrote a concurrence to indicate that, in his view, the issue was not whether the FDA’s regulations placed an undue burden on a right to an abortion generally, but that “My view is that courts owe significant deference” to the public health authorities (here meaning the FDA). Justices Sotomayor and Kagan dissented, saying that the issue was the undue burden on women, given the difficulties of the pandemic, particularly going to medical facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.8
The injunction, sought by ACOG and others, was issued by the district court and was in effect for several months before it was dissolved by the Supreme Court. Following the change in presidential administrations, in April 2021 the FDA announced that it was going to “exercise enforcement discretion with respect to the in-person dispensing requirement…during the COVID-19 public health emergency.”9
Continue to: The Texas abortion case...