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Supreme Court Hands Abortion-Rights Advocates A Victory


A divided Supreme Court stood by its most recent precedent on abortion. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the courts four liberals to invalidate a Louisiana law. That law required doctors at clinics that perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is with me now. Good morning, Nina.


KING: What did the court decide here?

TOTENBERG: Well this was a big opportunity for the court to start rolling back its abortion precedents. And it didn't do that. It stuck by its 2016 decision, in which it said that a Texas law that required doctors who provide - who perform abortions at clinics - that law required them to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. And the court found that that law was a violation of its precedent, which said that women could not have an undue burden imposed on their right to terminate a pregnancy and that that law in Texas did impose that kind of a burden. And about half the clinics in the state had been required to close as a result of it.

The court in this case said that is even truer in Louisiana, where there remain only three abortion clinics. And there would be, at most, only one left if this identical law were allowed to stand. And the chief justice signed on to the judgment but had a whole different line of reasoning which means that there's a plurality opinion of four people who said, here's how we will determine and have long determined how to decide whether there's an undue burden on a woman's right to choose. And the chief justice said, I don't buy into that weighing of factions and factors so much. But what I do know for sure is that to reverse this decision would be to reverse the Texas decision. And I believe in following precedent.

KING: And did that come as a surprise - that John Roberts said that?

TOTENBERG: I would not say it came as a surprise. But it came - I'm sure it will be a disappointment to anti-abortion forces. What he said was, I dissented the last time you decided this in the Texas case. The question today, however, is not whether that decision was right or wrong but whether to adhere to it in deciding the present case. And he said the legal doctrine of stare decisis means adhering to precedent. And there are good reasons for that. First of all, people know what the rules of the game are. They don't think that courts are just deciding controversial issues based on their personal beliefs. It has pragmatic benefits.

Respect for precedent promotes the evenhanded, predictable and consistent development of legal principles and fosters reliance on judicial decisions and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process. And he's long been an advocate of that idea. And so here, he made a - what I suspect was a very difficult decision for him but a decision to stick with the idea of precedent as opposed to deciding who's right and who's wrong in the question of the right to terminate a pregnancy.

KING: Absolutely fascinating. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, thank you.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.