The Supreme Court on Monday voted 5-4 to strike down a restrictive Louisiana abortion measure in a major win for reproductive rights activists, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the court's four liberals.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who authored an opinion joined by his fellow Democratic appointees, wrote that the law placed an undue burden on women seeking abortions. Roberts wrote separately to say his thinking was based on the court's 2016 decision to strike down a similar law in Texas.
The case involved a Louisiana abortion law requiring doctors who provide abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic. Challengers of the law alleged the restriction would limit the state to just one abortion provider at a single clinic.
Breyer wrote that the law posed a "substantial obstacle" on women and provided "no significant health-related benefits," and therefore was unconstitutional.
The dispute was the first over abortion to be argued before President Donald Trump's two appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which challenged the Louisiana abortion law at the top court, said in a statement that "we're relieved that the Louisiana law has been blocked today but we're concerned about tomorrow."
"With this win, the clinics in Louisiana can stay open to serve the one million women of reproductive age in the state. But the Court's decision could embolden states to pass even more restrictive laws when clarity is needed if abortion rights are to be protected," Northup said.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican said in a statement that the top court had "continued its heartbreaking line of decisions that places 'access' to abortion above the health and safety of women and girls."
"It is deeply disappointing that the Chief Justice continues a pattern of inconsistent and groundless decisions," Landry said. "In his misguided effort to convince the public that the Supreme Court is not political, Justice Roberts shows how political it actually is."
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who voted in favor of the abortion law while in the Louisiana House of Representatives, said in a statement that he was "disappointed" with the Supreme Court's ruling but that he respected the decision "and trust that Louisiana and our nation will continue to move forward."
Anti-abortion groups immediately criticized the decision.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, called the ruling a "bitter disappointment."
"It demonstrates once again the failure of the Supreme Court to allow the American people to protect the well-being of women from the tentacles of a brutal and profit-seeking abortion industry," Dannenfelser said.
Dannenfelser said the Supreme Court decision "reinforces just how important Supreme Court judges are to advancing the pro-life cause" and called it "imperative that we re-elect President Trump and our pro-life majority in the U.S. Senate so we can further restore the judiciary, most especially the Supreme Court."
The case is the third in a string of major victories for liberals at the high court that have come in the midst of an election battle between Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Earlier this month, Roberts joined the court's four Democratic appointees rebuffing the Trump administration's effort to terminate the Obama-era immigration program known as DACA.
Also in June, Roberts and Gorsuch sided with the four liberals in a decision that held that gay and transgender workers can't be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Trump campaigned on nominating justices who would "automatically" overturn the landmark abortion decision Roe v. Wade, and the Department of Justice supported Louisiana in the case.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called the ruling "unfortunate."
"States have legitimate interests in regulating any medical procedure — including abortions — to protect patient safety," McEnany said in a statement. "Instead of valuing fundamental democratic principles, unelected Justices have intruded on the sovereign prerogatives of State governments by imposing their own policy preference in favor of abortion to override legitimate abortion safety regulations"
A federal judge declared the Louisiana law unconstitutional in 2017, but that decision was reversed by a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court put the appeals court ruling on hold last year while it considered the case.
Roberts said his vote with the liberals on Monday was based on the top court's precedent in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, a case the court decided in 2016. In that case, the court struck down a nearly identical Texas law by a 5-3 vote. Roberts voted at the time to uphold the law.
But in his opinion on Monday, Roberts said that the legal doctrine known as stare decisis, or the principle of adhering to precedent, "requires us, absent special circumstances, to treat like cases alike."
"The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons," Roberts wrote. "Therefore Louisiana's law cannot stand under our precedents."
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by fellow conservatives Gorsuch and Kavanaugh and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote that it was true that the Louisiana case and the Texas case "have something in common."
"In both, the abortion right recognized in this Court's decisions is used like a bulldozer to flatten legal rules that stand in the way," he wrote.
Thomas, in his own dissent, wrote that the Louisiana law was "perfectly legitimate" and criticized his colleagues for perpetuating "its ill-founded abortion jurisprudence."
"Our abortion precedents are grievously wrong and should be overruled," Thomas wrote.
The case is June Medical Services v. Russo, No. 18-1323.