Whole Women’s Health, First Take: On the Major Victories and On Technocratic vs. Kulturkampf Approaches to Abortion Litigation at the Supreme Court

I have just made my way through all 107 pages of Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt,  the Supreme Court’s decision this morning to invalidate Texas’ H.B. 2 admitting privileges and surgical center regulations as undue burdens on the abortion right. Full disclosure I filed an amicus brief arguing for this result.  The case was 5-3 with Justices Thomas, Alito, and Chief Justice Roberts in dissent.  I am sure I’ll have a lot more to say after I’ve read through the opinion 3 or 4 more times. Here’s what’s clear to me though even on a quick read.

First, this is a major victory for opponents of Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws. Armed with this opinion they will have a much easier time in the lower courts challenging such laws. Among other things,  (1) the Court signals much less deference to legislatures than in Gonzales and prior cases (see p. 21 of Opinion); (2) the Court instructs that “The rule announced in Casey, however, requires that courts consider the burdens a law imposes on abortion access together with the benefits” conferred (p. 19) ; (3) the Court clarifies the “large fraction” language from Casey as to what is an undue burden in a way favorable to opponents of these regulations. Let me quote the majority here:

Casey used the language “large fraction” to refer to “a large fraction of cases in which [the provision at issue] is relevant,” a class narrower than “all women,” “pregnant women,” or even “the class of women seeking abortions identified by the State.” 505 U. S., at 894–895 (opinion of the Court) (emphasis added). Here, as in Casey, the rele- vant denominator is “those [women] for whom [the provi- sion] is an actual rather than an irrelevant restriction.” Id., at 895. (p.39)

Contrast that with Justice Alito’s long discussion in his dissent as to his understanding (with the pizzaz that shows why he is such a good writer) in a footnote:

The Court, by contrast, applies the “large fraction” standard without even acknowledging the open question. Ante, at 39. In a similar vein, it holds that the fraction’s “relevant denominator is ‘those [women] for whom [the provision] is an actual rather than an irrelevant re­ striction.’ ” Ibid. (quoting Casey, 505 U. S., at 895). I must confess that I do not understand this holding. The purpose of the large-fraction analysis, presumably, is to compare the number of women actually burdened with the number potentially burdened. Under the Court’s holding, we are supposed to use the same figure (women actually burdened) as both the numerator and the denominator. By my math, that fraction is always “1,” which is pretty large as fractions go.

Second, it is remarkable how differently these sets of opinions read from, let’s say, the gay marriage cases or even Gonzales v. Carhart. All the opinions, except perhaps Justice Ginsburg’s very short concurrence, are decidedly in the “technocratic” mode of writing as opposed to what we might call the “kulturkampf” mode that characterized much of Justice Scalia’s dissents on these kinds of issues. These opinion are written for lawyers not the public. I would have to do a proper count to be sure but it seems to me that something like 2/3 to 3/4 of the total pages of these set of opinions are devoted to issues that only lawyers will be able to engage in — res judicata/claim preclusion, severability, third-party standing, as-applied versus facial challenges, and the cogency of tiers of scrutiny.

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Introducing our 2016 Summer Student Bloggers

The Petrie-Flom Center is pleased to welcome Kelly Dhru and Shailin Thomas to Bill of Health as our 2016 Summer Student Bloggers!

Kelly Dhru - photo1 (2)Kelly Amal Dhru is an incoming LLM student at the Harvard Law School, and a 2016-17 Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellow in Public Health Law and Bioethics from India. Previously, Kelly has completed her BCL (Distinction) and MPhil in Law from University College, University of Oxford, where thesis focused on the gap between rights and duties in the context of laws preventing cruelty to animals. Kelly holds a law degree from Gujarat National Law University, and has been the Research Director at Research Foundation for Governance in India, where she has been involved in drafting laws relating to public health, bioethics and human rights. Kelly has been a research assistant for Public Health Law at King’s College London, taught the Law of Tort, Jurisprudence and Bioethics at the University of Oxford, and Ethics and Philosophy at Ahmedabad University in India. She is a co-founder and storywriter for Lawtoons: a comic series on laws and rights, and been involved spreading awareness about public health and human rights through the use of street theatre.

Thomas Shailin PhotoShailin Thomas is a second year law student in a joint MD/JD program between Harvard Law School and the New York University School of Medicine.  He received a B.S. from Yale University, where he studied cognitive neuroscience — exploring the anatomy and physiology underlying social phenomena.  His interests lie at the intersection of clinical medicine and the legal forces that shape it.  Prior to law school, Shailin worked on both the administrative and clinical sides of health care, and as a research associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.  He is currently an affiliate of the Berkman Center and Outreach Editor for the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology.  A fervent proponent of privacy and freedom of expression, Shailin has also served on the Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.