Supreme Court rules on executive power, abortion rights

On Monday, in the first big abortion case of the Trump era, the court struck down a Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics. The court also ruled on the president's executive powers. 

Patrick Semansky/AP
The sun rises behind the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 29, 2020. The Supreme Court released two major rulings on Monday, striking down restrictions on executive power and abortion rights.

The Supreme Court on Monday struck down restrictions on both executive power and abortion rights. 

Abortion rights

The court struck down a Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics, reasserting a commitment to abortion rights over fierce opposition from dissenting conservative justices in the first big abortion case of the Trump era.

Chief Justice John Roberts joined with his four more liberal colleagues in ruling that the law requiring doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals violates the abortion right the court first announced in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

In two previous abortion cases, Chief Justice Roberts had favored restrictions.

The Louisiana law is virtually identical to one in Texas that the court struck down in 2016.

"The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law," Chief Justice Roberts wrote, although he did not join the opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer for the other liberals.

In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, "Today a majority of the Court perpetuates its ill-founded abortion jurisprudence by enjoining a perfectly legitimate state law and doing so without jurisdiction."

President Donald Trump's two appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were in dissent, along with Justice Samuel Alito. The presence of the new justices is what fueled hopes among abortion opponents, and fears on the other side, that the Supreme Court would be more likely to uphold restrictions.

Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said Monday's decision by no means ends the struggle over abortion rights in legislatures and the courts.

"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," Ms. Northup said.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, said, "Today's ruling is 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."

A trial judge had said the law would not provide health benefits to women and would leave only one clinic open in Louisiana, in New Orleans. That would make it too hard for women to get an abortion, in violation of the Constitution, the judge ruled.

But the appeals court in New Orleans rejected the judge's findings and upheld the law in 2018, doubting that any clinics would have to close and saying the doctors had not tried hard enough to establish relationships with local hospitals.

The clinics filed an emergency appeal at the Supreme Court, asking that the law be blocked while the justices evaluated the case.

Early last year, Chief Justice Roberts joined with the four liberal members of the court to grant that request and keep the law on hold.

Chief Justice Roberts' vote was a bit of a surprise because he voted in the Texas case to uphold the clinic restrictions. It may have reflected his new role since Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement as the court's swing justice, his concern about the court being perceived as a partisan institution and respect for a prior decision of the court, even one he disagreed with. Chief Justice Roberts didn't write anything explaining his position at the time, but he had never before cast a vote on the side of abortion rights.

The regulations at issue in Louisiana are distinct from other state laws making their way through court challenges that would ban abortions early in a pregnancy. Those include bans on abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as 6 weeks, and the almost total ban passed in Alabama.

Executive power

On Monday, the court also made it easier for the president to fire the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The justices struck down restrictions on when the president can remove the bureau’s director.

“The agency may ... continue to operate, but its Director, in light of our decision, must be removable by the President at will,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

The court’s five conservative justices agreed that restrictions Congress imposed on when the president can fire the agency's director violated the Constitution. But they disagreed on what to do as a result. Chief Justice Roberts and fellow conservative Justices Alito and Kavanaugh said the restrictions could be stricken from the law. The court’s four liberals agreed, though they disagreed the restrictions were improper.

The decision doesn’t have a big impact on the current head of the agency. Kathy Kraninger, who was nominated to her current post by the president in 2018, had said she believed the president could fire her at any time.

Under the Dodd-Frank Act that created the agency in response to the 2008 financial crisis, the CFPB’s director is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to a five-year term. The law had said the president could only remove a director for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” That structure could leave a new president with a director chosen by the previous president for some or all of the new president’s time in office. The Trump administration had argued that the restrictions improperly limit the power of the president.

Defenders of the law’s removal provision had argued the restrictions insulated the agency’s head from presidential pressure.

“Today’s decision wipes out a feature of that agency its creators thought fundamental to its mission – a measure of independence from political pressure. I respectfully dissent,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for herself and the court's four liberals.

The agency was the brainchild of Massachusetts senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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