In a surprise, Court smacks down Louisiana abortion restrictions

It seemed likely that the Supreme Court would chip away at abortion rights by upholding a restrictive Louisiana abortion law. That's not what happened.
Image: Supreme Court Building
The Supreme Court building.Sarah Silbiger / Reuters file
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By Steve Benen

For many involved in the fight over reproductive freedoms, it seemed quite likely that the Supreme Court would chip away at abortion rights by upholding a restrictive Louisiana abortion law.

That's not what happened.

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Louisiana's tough restriction on abortion violates the Constitution, a surprising victory for abortion rights advocates from an increasingly conservative court. The ruling struck down a law passed by Louisiana's legislature in 2014 that required any doctor offering abortion services to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles.

If the circumstances sound at all familiar, it's not your imagination. In 2016, the high court struck down a very similar measure out of Texas, with then-Justice Anthony Kennedy siding with the majority against the admitting-privileges policy. As NBC News' report noted, in the case four years ago, the court's majority, "ruled that Texas imposed an obstacle on women seeking access to abortion services without providing any medical benefits."

But with Kennedy being replaced on the bench by Justice Brett Kavanaugh -- one of Donald Trump's two justices -- the right hoped the Supreme Court would reverse its 2016 ruling.

In a 5-4 ruling, the justices did the opposite. Chief Justice John Roberts -- who, incidentally, voted with the right in the Texas case four years ago -- sided with the court's more progressive justices in this case. Though the ruling in June Medical Services v. Russo was written by Justice Stephen Breyer, Roberts wrote a concurring decision in which he explained:

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 pre-viability 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.

In other words, Roberts showed respect for a four-year-old precedent -- even though he disagreed with it at the time.

Brett Kavanaugh, meanwhile, whom many Republican senators said would honor precedents -- Susan Collins, I'm looking in your direction -- apparently had no qualms about overturning the Supreme Court's decision from four years ago.

I'll look forward to seeing Maine's senior senator say today that she's "concerned" about Kavanaugh doing the opposite of what he promised to do.