By Gregory M. Lipper
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a constitutional challenge to a pair of Texas restrictions on abortion providers. The first provision requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges from a hospital no more than 30 miles from their clinic; for a variety of reasons, these privileges are very difficult for abortion providers to obtain. The second provision requires abortion clinics to meet the rigorous—and often prohibitively expensive—requirements governing ambulatory surgical centers (this was referred to as the ASC law). If allowed to take effect, these requirements would cause 3/4 of Texas abortion clinics to close and leave just 10 clinics to serve over 5 million women.
The requirements were struck down by the district court, reinstated by the Fifth Circuit, and temporarily blocked by the Supreme Court, which is now hearing the merits of the challenge.
Based on my review of the transcript, here are ten observations about the argument:
1. Justice Ginsburg opened the argument with a procedural curveball.
With the law’s challengers going first, most people presumably expected the argument to start with sharp questioning from, say, Justice Alito. Instead, the Center for Reproductive Rights’s Stephanie Toti got just two sentences out before she was interrupted by Justice Ginsburg. The former civil-procedure professor wanted to know about claim preclusion: in particular, whether the challenges, in this case, to the admitting-privileges requirement were foreclosed by the plaintiffs’ unsuccesful facial challenge, in an earlier case, to those same requirements. This and other procedural inquiries dominated Toti’s argument.
2. All roads lead to the record.
Several of the conservative Justices interrogated Toti about the proof that the law’s requirements would cause clinics to close. Toti provided some infromation about how laws would affect clinics, but also repeatedly alluded to more detailed information that she would supply during her rebuttal. This approach may have prolonged the questioning on this point: