This post just leapt over several others because the case was just announced.
The Louisiana Unsafe Abortion Protection Act, enacted in 2014, requires physicians performing abortions in Louisiana to have the right to admit patients to a hospital within thirty miles of the place where the abortion is performed. The law is virtually identical (as today’s opinion points out) to a Texas law that the Court held in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt was unconstitutional four years ago by a vote of 5-3. In a vote that will have conservative bloggers’ heads exploding like fireworks, Chief Justice John Roberts, who had been among the dissenters in the Texas case, joined the four liberals in ruling that the Louisiana law is also unconstitutional, while saying that he still believes that the Texas case was wrongly decided.
I won’t comment on the dissents—-there are several—because I haven’t read them yet. (But I would bet my head that Justices Alito and Thomas essentially recycled their previous objections to Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. ) However, I wrote at length about the Texas case in 2016, and upon reviewing it, I see nothing substantially different from what I would conclude about today’s decision. in both cases, it seems clear that the state was using a pretextual safety measure to restrict abortions as much as possible. Then I wrote,
The question is, what’s a reasonable obstacle? Any regulation imposed on a constitutional right must not create “a substantial obstacle” and must be reasonably related to “a legitimate state interest.” The Supreme Court uses the language and logic of case precedents, which are its previous examinations of these issues and the balancing they require. One such case, though I did not find it mentioned in the majority opinion or dissents in Hellerstedt, would be the voter ID decision of many years ago, in which a strong majority ruled that the state interest in preventing fraudulent voters and maintaining the integrity of the election process justified inconveniencing those who were subjected to the extra burden of obtaining appropriate identification. In recent years, this decision has been questioned because many believe the motive behind voter ID laws is not really to protect the franchise, but to keep likely Democratic voting blocs from the polls.
Is there a difference legally between a bill that is authored with the intent to restrict the right to vote of older, poorer, and darker citizens while claiming that its sole purpose is to make sure non-citizens don’t affect the results of elections, and an identical bill that is genuinely intended to safeguard the voting rolls, without any political motive at all? No, or at least there shouldn’t be. The Court’s job is to evaluate what the law does, not try to read the minds and hearts of those who wrote it. Justices only should try to do the latter when there is a debate over what the law says.
Ethically, however, there is a significant difference between a law using a public purpose as a sham to accomplish unethical ends, and a law with a legitimate purpose that has some negative side effects. Trying to restrict a citizen’s rights because one doesn’t respect those rights (or perhaps the citizen) is unethical.
Ann Althouse wrote just now, “This isn’t the slightest surprise to me.” Nor me. I couldn’t imagine how the Court would allow this statute to stand after striking down virtually the same law in Texas, accepting Louisiana’s weak distinction that Texas is a lot bigger than the Pelican State. What is a surprise is that the vote was only 5-4. I assumed it would be 6-3 at least. If the Texas case isn’t controlling precedent, I don’t know what precedent is.
That Chief Justice Roberts voting with the majority now after rejecting the majority decision four years ago is a signal that he believes in the principles of stare decisus and following precedent. That’s integrity, not, as the conservative commentators are already writing, “betrayal.”
The decision in June Medical Services v. Russo, like its Texas predecessor, was the only possible ethical result.