The 5-3 ruling is the most significant decision from the Supreme Court on abortion in two decades and could serve to deter other states from passing so-called “clinic shutdown” laws.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion, which was joined in full by Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered the swing vote on the abortion issue.
“There was no significant health-related problem that the new law helped to cure,” Breyer wrote. “We agree with the District Court that the surgical-center requirement, like the admitting-privileges requirement, provides few, if any, health benefits for women, poses a substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions, and constitutes an “undue burden” on their constitutional right to do so.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Breyer’s opinion and wrote a brief concurring opinion, which focused on what she called women in “desperate circumstances.”
“When a State severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners, faute de mieux, at great risk to their health and safety.”
The ruling will have major reverberations on the presidential election, where the fate of the Supreme Court has been front-and-center after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. Senate Republicans have refused to act on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland, leaving the court with eight justices.
Hillary Clinton immediately praised the ruling.
“SCOTUS’s decision is a victory for women in Texas and across America. Safe abortion should be a right—not just on paper, but in reality. -H”
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito wrote dissents.
Thomas wrote a bitter dissent for himself, accusing the court of eroding the Constitution.
“The Court has simultaneously transformed judicially created rights like the right to abortion into preferred constitutional rights, while disfavoring many of the rights actually enumerated in the Constitution,” Thomas wrote. “But our Constitution renounces the notion that some constitutional rights are more equal than others. … A law either infringes a constitutional right, or not; there is no room for the judiciary to invent tolerable degrees of encroachment. Unless the Court abides by one set of rules to adjudicate constitutional rights, it will continue reducing constitutional law to policy-driven value judgments until the last shreds of its legitimacy disappear.”
There were two provisions of the law at issue. The first said that doctors have to have local admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, the second says that the clinics have to upgrade their facilities to hospital-like standards.
Critics say if the 2013 law, known as H.B. 2, is allowed to go into effect it could shutter all but a handful of clinics in a state with 5.4 million women of reproductive age.
Texas countered that the law was passed in response to the Kermit Gosnell scandal. The Pennsylvania man was convicted in 2013 of first-degree murder for killing babies that were born alive in his clinic.
State Solicitor General Scott Keller argued in court papers that if the court were to uphold the law, an abortion clinic “will remain open in each area where one will close, meaning that over 90% of Texas women of reproductive age will live within 150 miles of an open abortion clinic.”
A federal appeals court upheld the Texas law in 2015, and last spring a majority of the Supreme Court voted to stay that ruling pending appeal. The four conservative justices at the time: Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, publicly noted that they would have denied the stay.