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Oral arguments before SCOTUS on HB2

From Texas Monthly:

Right there with them

Right there with them

It’s been a circuitous journey for HB2, the omnibus abortion bill the Texas Legislature passed 2013. Suits have been filed, the law has been overturned, appeals have been made. A collection of Texas abortion clinics, led by Whole Woman’s Health, filed the most debated lawsuit, which is aimed the broader provisions of the bill: Specifically, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt challenges the constitutionality of HB2’s requirement that doctors performing abortions in Texas have admitting privileges at hospitals and also the requirement that each clinic meet the standards of an ambulatory surgical center.

Although the case had a similar courtroom path to previous suits against the law—including being overturned at the district level—Whole Woman’s Health vs. Hellerstedt went even further. The Supreme Court stepped in almost immediately to issue an injunction against HB2 going into effect until the high court had the chance to hear it on appeal.

That happened Wednesday.

New York-based attorney Stephanie Toti, representing Whole Woman’s Health (and joined by U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli), made her arguments against HB2 before the eight-members of the court; representing Texas and Hellerstedt, our state’s Solicitor General Scott Keller defended the law.

There are a few key issues to be determined by the court. The first is if Whole Woman’s Health vs. Hellerstedt is the appropriate case to be raising these arguments, or if another case, Planned Parenthood vs. Abbott, should have addressed them. Also related to that facet of the case is if the window for examining the law has since closed because that suit didn’t appeal to the Supreme Court. The second issue—and the one that received the majority of the focus Wednesday—is on the question of the “undue burden” on Texans seeking abortions. In the last major abortion case the court heard, 1992’s Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, the court found that states could impose restrictions on abortion if the restrictions didn’t pose an undue burden on the rights of the person who seeks an abortion. But that ruling didn’t specify a definition for “undue burden,” so attorneys on both sides attempted to make claims that the phrase does—or doesn’t—refer to HB2.

[…]

The pressure stayed on Keller throughout the duration of his argument, with Sotomayor and Kagan looking past “undue burden” to get to the ultimate question surrounding the bill since it was being debated in Austin: Namely, is this about increasing standards of care, as some proponents of the bill have argued, or is it about restricting access, as the law’s opponents have claimed? (It’s worth noting that some of the bill’s supporters in the legislature—from former Lt. Governor Dewhurst to Sen. Eddie Lucio—have expressed more openly that they passed the bill out of an interest in opposing abortion.)

This came to a head near the close of oral arguments. Kagan hit on several points about the state’s interest in raising standards of care: She’d asked, for example, about whether the state had the right to require all health care providers to meet the standard of the best hospital in the country (citing Massachusetts General), to which Keller responded that the state did have that right, so long as it didn’t create an undue burden on people seeking treatment. Breyer and Sotomayor noted that the rate of complications in colonoscopies are higher than in abortions, but facilities that offer colonoscopies don’t face the same regulations that abortion clinics do under HB2. (The word “colonoscopy” was said a surprisingly high number of times for a Supreme Court hearing about abortion.)

But near the end of Keller’s argument, Kagan cut to the chase. She noted that she understood that Keller’s argument was that the law allows Texas to impose regulations on abortion clinics that it doesn’t apply to other procedures—but she wanted to know why it picked abortion.

“You said that as the law is now, under your interpretation of it, Texas is allowed to set much, much higher medical standards, whether it has to do with the personnel or procedures or the facilities themselves, higher medical standards, including much higher medical standards for abortion facilities than for facilities that do any other kind of medical work, even much more risky medical work. And you said that that was your understanding of the law; am I right?” Kagan asked Keller, “And I guess I just want to know: why would Texas do that?”

In all, it was an aggressive series of questions from the court’s liberal justices—but the fact that the four liberal justices would find a lot to dislike in HB2 isn’t exactly news. In the wake of Antonin Scalia’s death, the question became much more about what could be expected of the four remaining judges on the bench.

From Think Progress:

Prior to Wednesday’s oral argument and Scalia’s death, however, it was an open question whether this law would actually “withstand judicial obstacles.” The question on most Court-watchers’ mind was which Justice Kennedy would show up to hear this case. On the one hand, Kennedy finds abortion icky — just read some of the gruesome descriptions of a particular abortion procedure in Kennedy’s opinion in Gonzales v. Carhart to get a sense of just how icky he regards it. On the other hand, Kennedy is unwilling to kill Roe outright. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Kennedy coauthored an opinion that limited abortion rights, but which also purported to retain “the essential holding ofRoe v. Wade.” So the question on many Court-watchers minds before oral argument was whether Icky Kennedy or Casey Kennedy would show up to work today.

Icky Kennedy stayed at home. Though Kennedy did ask some tough questions about a procedural issue in this case, he largely remained silent as the liberal justices tore into Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller. And he asked a few questions on the merits that were critical of Keller’s arguments.

The liberal justices treated Texas’ arguments in much the same way that Holly Holm treated Ronda Rousey’s head. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that it makes no sense to require clinics to comply with expensive requirements applied to surgical facilities if those clinics perform no surgeries. Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor noted that Texas imposed these heavy burdens on abortion clinics, but did not impose them on facilities that perform riskier procedures. Colonoscopies, according to Breyer, are 28 times more likely to result in a complication than an abortion, but they do not need to be performed in an ambulatory surgical center.

[…]

Kennedy was almost completely silent during these one-sided exchanges, although he did chime in with a few questions while Keller was at the podium. At one point, he suggested that Keller’s arguments lead to the conclusion that Texas’s law creates an “undue burden” on the right to obtain an abortion, a conclusion that, under Casey, would require the Court to strike the law down. At another point, Kennedy expressed concern that the law caused many women who would otherwise have medication abortions to instead receive surgical abortions, a shift that “may not be medically wise.”

So that’s the good news for Team Choice. If this case is decided on the merits, it appears very likely that Kennedy will vote to strike down the Texas law.

The bad news is that it is far from clear that the Court will reach the merits. For complicated reasons related to the fact that the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical centers requirements were implemented on different schedules, the lower courts in this case ruled on a facial challenge to the first provision before fully considering the second one. Whole Woman’s Health came to the Supreme Court as an appeal from the second decision, and Texas argues that the plaintiffs are effectively precluded from pressing their facial challenge to the admitting privileges requirement at this stage of the litigation. Without diving into the very arcane nuances of this argument, it’s worth noting that this is a serious enough procedural complication that Justice Ginsburg raised it shortly after the lawyer for the plaintiffs’ took the podium.

During the Court’s discussion of this procedural issue, Kennedy raised the possibility of sending this case back down to the trial court so that it can engage in additional fact-finding that will help the justices sort through this issue. Should the Supreme Court ultimately go this route, it could delay final resolution of the case for as long as a couple of years. That’s not death to the abortion clinics in Texas, so long as the Texas law is stayed pending resolution of the case, but the possibility of more litigation undoubtedly hit abortion advocates with a thud as they contemplated two more years of fighting and uncertainty.

From SCOTUSBlog:

But when the argument turned from the reason for closures to a question of the capacity of any remaining clinics to handle the tens of thousands of abortions that women in the state seek every year, the case shifted abruptly. It was Kennedy who raised the possibility that the case be sent back to lower courts to allow lawyers to put in evidence about that capacity question.

Several things immediately seemed important about that suggestion.

First, it would allow the Court to avoid a decision about the validity of either part of the Texas law, if it should turn out that, at Friday’s planned discussion of the case in a private Conference, the initial vote came out split four to four (the late Justice Antonin Scalia was a fervent foe of abortions). Returning the case for gathering of new evidence would avoid that outcome — indeed, any immediate outcome — and thus would avoid the even division that settles nothing and always disappoints the Court. It might even put off the case until the current vacancy on the bench is filled with a new Justice.

Second, of equal or perhaps even greater importance, there may have been a logical basis for that suggestion and it could have been in Kennedy’s mind. If he had any inclination to uphold either or both of the provisions, Kennedy would understand that this would probably lead to a four-to-four tie. But taking that position would mean he had done so without knowing whether the capacity of the remaining clinics — nine or ten at most — would be enough to handle all abortions that would be sought in the state (recently, between 60,000 and 75,000 a year)? Thus Kennedy might hesitate even more to push the Court into a tie vote.

Third, Kennedy’s hesitation on taking a stand on the merits of the law seemed even more likely because of a question he asked later in the argument. He pressed the lawyer for Texas, state Solicitor General Scott A. Keller, on whether the enforcement of the two provisions would actually lead more women to have more abortions through surgery, by forcing them to wait, with more risk than having an earlier abortion through the use of drugs that induce termination of pregnancy (“medical abortion”).

Kennedy cited data that the number of drug-induced abortions had increased nationally, but the number in Texas was down, and he commented that “this may not be medically wise.” The abortion clinics and doctors who are challenging the Texas laws have made that prospect a part of their argument that the two provisions impose an unconstitutional burden on Texas women’s constitutional right to seek an abortion, and Kennedy appeared to have taken that seriously.

Returning the case to lower courts to get more evidence on the incidence of later abortions might be one way to deal with that prospect, but so would striking down the law — by a five-to-three vote — because of the negative consequences of inducing more mid-term abortions. Since Roe v. Wade, the Court (including Kennedy since he joined the bench) has always been more comfortable with earlier abortions, partly because they are safer but also because of a concern for protecting the developing life of the fetus. Kennedy was a key part of the Court’s compromise ruling in 1992 (Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey) when the Court expressed new support for state power to protect potential life, an interest that was said to increase the longer a pregnancy continues.

The Justices will cast at least a preliminary vote on the case when they assemble on Friday morning for a private Conference. If the case is going to be sent back to lower courts, or if the Court essentially gives up and casts a four-to-four vote, those outcomes might be announced quite soon, perhaps as early as next Monday. There is, of course, the possibility that more discussion would be necessary to sort out where the Court wants to go.

So basically, there’s a case for optimism, with the possibility of the law being struck down, and the possibility of it being sent back to the lower court for more hearings, while the injunction presumably stays in place. If the latter happens, then the issue could be revisited after a new justice is appointed, hopefully by President Clinton or Sanders. We may know quickly if that is going to happen, or we may not. Keep your fingers crossed. The WaPo, SCOTUSBlog, the Trib, and the Observer have more.

UPDATE: Still more, from Dahlia Lithwick, Alexa Garcia-Ditta, Genevieve Cato, and Jessica Mason Pieklo.

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  1. […] ThinkProgress admits that one can over-read meaning into these situations, but coming off the way oral arguments for the HB2 case went, it’s hard not to feel a teeny bit of optimism. Not too much – […]