Abortion Access Precedent Confirmed: June v. Russo

2016: Supreme Court decision to strike down Texas abortion law

In 2016, I posted “Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt: Finally, Facts Matter,” applauding the U.S. Supreme Court for its decision to strike down a Texas law that required abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of their clinic, causing more than half the state’s abortion clinics to shut down.

On June 29, 2020, in June Medical Services v. Russo (June), the court struck down Louisiana’s near-identical attempt to erect barriers to abortion. Surprisingly, Chief Justice John Roberts joined Justices Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan to strike down this law, but Roberts did so mostly on the basis of the Texas case precedent, not on the merits of the case argued in Justice Breyer’s majority opinion.

2020: Supreme Court decision to strike down Louisiana abortion law

Roberts wrote a concurring opinion that ended with this paragraph:

“Stare decisis instructs us to treat like cases alike. The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law. The Louisiana law burdens women seeking previability abortions to the same extent as the Texas law, according to factual findings that are not clearly erroneous. For that reason, I concur in the judgment of the Court that the Louisiana law is unconstitutional.”

Roberts joined the majority not because he’s newly supportive of abortion rights, but because he felt bound by the precedent set in 2016. Attorneys for many other abortion cases wending their ways through district and appellate courts are asking the question: “What does this mean for our cases?” Answer: “You need to structure your arguments to convince the Chief Justice.” Continue reading

Reproductive Justice?

President Bill Clinton stands by as Ruth Bader Ginsburg is sworn in as associate Supreme Court Justice in 1993

President Bill Clinton stands by as Ruth Bader Ginsburg is sworn in as associate Supreme Court justice in 1993

When Justice Antonin Scalia died on February 13, 2016, it was the death of more than just one man. For the first time in 20 years, the fairly reliable conservative tilt of the Supreme Court vanished. Now there were four generally liberal justices, three remaining consistently conservative justices, and Anthony Kennedy, a moderate who, though usually conservative, could move to the left, especially on social issues, as we saw in his eloquent opinion in support of same-sex marriage. If Kennedy voted with the conservatives, it would result in a tie, not a 5-4 decision. In case of a tied vote on the Supreme Court, the lower court ruling holds, and if there are conflicting rulings in different circuits, we continue with different law in different parts of the country.

Or the court could order a rehearing of a case once a new justice is seated.


The makeup of the Supreme Court is a glaring example of how much is at stake in presidential elections.


The political wheels started turning immediately. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell almost immediately announced that Scalia’s seat should be filled after “the American people” weigh in during the presidential election — Republicans always seem to forget that the American people have already weighed in twice by making Barack Obama president. This categorical rejection of any Obama nominee, no matter who, is unprecedented. Scalia’s seat was apparently sacred, and could only fairly be filled by a Republican appointee. McConnell does not seem to consider that the next president might also be a Democrat.

The change in the balance of the court was apparent in the first of two cases concerning reproductive health that were scheduled to be heard this month. (The second case, Zubik v. Burwell, will be argued on March 23.) At SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston analyzed the oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. It was always clear that the outcome would hinge on Justice Kennedy, and, before Scalia’s death, that in all likelihood the Texas law requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and abortion clinics to meet ambulatory surgical clinic requirements, would be upheld. Continue reading