Supreme court hears first major abortion case since Trump appointees joined bench – as it happened

Last modified: 06: 16 PM GMT+0

Remade conservative majority will hear oral arguments in case that could result in grave new restrictions on abortion access

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Updated

The fate of abortion access in the United States will remain in question until the court’s decision is released, which will likely be around June.

Chief justice John Roberts will likely have a lot to think about as he is seen as the critical vote in the decision. Roberts line of questioning suggested he questions the differences between the case and the one the court decided in 2016 that struck down a similar law in Texas. Though Roberts was in the minority group of justices in that vote, he has become the key swing vote with the retirement of moderate justice Anthony Kennedy in 2018.

Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the country, though polls find that a majority of Americans believe it is a right that should be protected. A giant pro-choice rally was held in front of the Supreme Court today, featuring lawmakers and celebrity guests who spoke in favor of abortion rights. Just steps away, an opposing anti-abortion rally was held by those who support the law. The split-screen scene demonstrated just how far the country has come in garnering support for abortion and also how far reproductive rights activists still have to go.

Protestors gathered in front of the Supreme Court in favor of abortion rights.
Protestors gathered in front of the Supreme Court in favor of abortion rights. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

Direction of decision remains up in the air

Today’s hearings will be some of the most closely watched oral arguments in decades, because of the new rebalance in the courts.

This is how things changed – Justice Anthony Kennedy retired as a swing vote on reproductive rights. He was upheld some abortion restrictions, and struck down others. He was replaced by conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is generally believed to be more conservative – and that is a crucial difference.

Now, the Chief Justice John Roberts is the most closely watched judge. He is an institutionalist, apprehensive to overturn precedent, but has opposed abortion rights in the past. On Wednesday, he did little to reveal his hand.

He asked three times whether benefits of the law would remain the same under each state.

“Counsel, do you agree that the inquiry… is a factual one that has to proceed state-by-state?”, he asked early in the arguments. He would ask that same question twice more.

If justices uphold Louisiana’s law in a ruling expected in June, it would have wide-reaching, immediate and severe consequences for abortion access across the United States. One potential outcome is that the court upholds a law, making abortion legal, but almost impossible to access.

But the court can rule as narrowly or broadly as it chooses, and with a newly rebalanced court, it is extremely difficult to make predictions even after oral arguments.

Updated

While chief justice John Roberts is poised to be the critical vote in the decision, through their questioning, most of the other justices gave brief insight into how they are approaching the case.

Economist reporter Steven Mazie tweeted that Ruth Bader Ginsburg “was a fierce and strong voice” during the session. Other reporters said she made it clear she was skeptical about Louisiana’s law.

Justice Ginsburg was fierce and strong of voice in this morning's abortion-rights argument at SCOTUS.

She jumped in to ask the first question of each of the three lawyers and was active throughout.

— Steven Mazie (@stevenmazie) March 4, 2020

Justice Ginsburg kept returning to the fact that to the extent there are any complications women experience them at home - not in the clinic. So a requirement to have admitting privileges within 30 miles to the clinic does not make sense.

— Laurie Sobel (@laurie_sobel) March 4, 2020

While Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump’s first appointed judge asked no questions, his second appointee, Brett Kavanaugh, asked questions in line with Roberts, trying to understand how the law differs from the one the court struck down in Texas.

Put another way, kavanaugh was interested in how much the facts on the ground in each state matter when assessing admitting privileges laws, versus a blanket they’re always unconstitutional or always constitutional

— Tessa Berenson (@tcberenson) March 4, 2020

John Roberts will be key decider in case

Chief justice John Roberts has set himself up to be a key decider in the case as one of the only potential swing votes on the court. The main question Roberts seemed to be hung on is the similarity of this case versus the one the court ruled on in 2016 (which struck down an identical law in Texas).

#SCOTUS has finished oral arguments in challenge to Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have right to admit patients at nearby hospitals. Key vote likely to be Chief Justice John Roberts, who focused on how to apply 2016 decision striking down similar TX law.

— Amy Howe (@AHoweBlogger) March 4, 2020

Roberts asked three questions, one of each of the lawyers.
Each was basically the same: in the wake of Whole Woman's Health (2016), should the Court conduct a state-by-state inquiry of burdens & benefits? And do benefits of an admitting-privileges rule vary from state to state?

— Steven Mazie (@stevenmazie) March 4, 2020

Roberts repeatedly asked how the admitting privileges requirement could benefit Louisiana women HERE if it didn’t benefit Texas women in WWH. Asked a variation on that question several times. Louisiana didn’t give a good answer. Also Louisiana’s solicitor general was awful.

— Mark Joseph Stern (@mjs_DC) March 4, 2020

Updated

Alexis McGill Johnson, the acting president of Planned Parenthood, was inside the courtroom and spoke to the pro-choice crowd when the session ended.

She praised the three women Supreme Court justices for asking the right questions, “really breaking down the idea that this is a sham, it’s a fundamental sham.”

“It is clear that this is not just about abortion, this is about the right to control our own bodies. This is about elected officials who think we are not smart enough and not capable enough to make our own decisions. We know this is about freedom.”

"Next month we’ll be back here as the Court hears a case about our ability to access birth control. It’s about our right to control our own bodies. To imagine our futures. To be free." @alexismcgill @PPFA #MyRightMyDecision pic.twitter.com/aJkh9fevJn

— Planned Parenthood Action (@PPact) March 4, 2020

The session just ended, so we’re just getting some insight into what kinds of questions the justices asked.

Questions focused on whether doctors can sue on behalf of patients.

The focus of a lot of the arguments at #SCOTUS today was on whether doctors can sue on behalf of patients – a question of "standing". Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out overturning precedent on standing would draw into question 8 cases just in abortion law.

— Jessica Glenza (@JessicaGlenza) March 4, 2020

Oral arguments just ended at the Supreme Court – Chief Justice John Roberts is going to be the focus of a lot of analysis, as the liberal and conservative wings of the court appear to have already developed strong opinions on the case

— Jessica Glenza (@JessicaGlenza) March 4, 2020

Busy Phillips: I will never stop talking about my abortion

Activist, actress and author Busy Phillips, who has been outspoken about the abortion she had when she was 15-year-old, gave an impassioned speech on the importance of protecting the right to abortion at the pro-choice rally in front of the Supreme Court.

“Like so many Americans, I took Roe for granted. I assumed that it would always be upheld, but then, the extreme abortion bans began passing, somewhat quietly at first, state by state,” Phillips said.

Phillips raised her voice when she began talking about the benefit having an abortion had on her life. “Here I was sitting in Los Angeles in my beautiful office of my own late night talk show. Soon I would be driving my beautiful hybrid car to my beautiful fucking home to kiss my two beautiful and healthy children and my husband who had taken the year off to parent so I could focus on my career.”

“I have all of this, all of it, because I was allowed bodily autonomy at 15,” Phillips said. “I am a human being who deserves bodily autonomy.

“I will never stop talking about my abortion.” - @BusyPhilipps #MyRightMyDecision pic.twitter.com/LGGCW5kkkv

— NARAL (@NARAL) March 4, 2020

Arguments are happening right now inside the Supreme Court. Reporters granted access are only allowed a pen and a notepad for notes, but the session should be ending around 11 am EST.

In the meanwhile, let’s take a look at what we know on public opinion around abortion in the US.

The most recent poll from the Pew Research Center, taken last summer, found that 61% of Americans continue to say that abortion should be legal. A majority of Americans, seven of 10 people polled said they do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, while 28% said they would like the law to be completely overturned.

There is heavy partisan divide on the issue, with the vast majority of Democrats, 82%, saying abortion should be legal while 62% of Republicans indicated it should be illegal.

About six in 10 Americans indicated they believe some states are making it too difficult for people to get an abortion.

In attendance at the pro-choice rally outside the Supreme Court are a handful of more US representatives and senators who showed up in support of abortion rights.

Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Massachusetts, spoke to the cheering crowd. “We are here and we are ready, can you hear us in there?” Pressley said, pointing to the court building behind her.

“Ready to stand up, ready to fight back, ready to remind this court that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land and that our liberty, our humanity and our bodily autonomy is not up for debate,” she said.

“We have two alleged sexual predators on the bench of the highest court of the land with the power to determine our reproductive freedoms,” Pressley said.

“I still believe Anita Hill. I still believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.” The crowd cheered.

“We’re ready to stand up, ready to right back, ready to remind this Court that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, and our liberty, our humanity, and our bodily autonomy is not up for debate.”

- @RepPressley, Chair of the abortion rights and access force pic.twitter.com/n8zXHa9v8N

— Center for Reproductive Rights (@ReproRights) March 4, 2020

Later, senator Chuck Schumer assured protestors that come the election in November, the tide will change. “We will tell President Trump and Senate republicans who stacked the court with right-wing ideologs that you’re going to be gone in November and you will never be able to do what you’re trying to do now ever again,” he said.

“You hear that over there on the far right? You’re gone in November,” he said, pointing to the adjacent anti-abortion rally.

Another split-screen moment at the rallies being held outside the Supreme Court when a Republican senator spoke to the anti-abortion rally moments after a Democratic senator spoke to the pro-choice crowd.

Senator John Neely Kennedy, a Republican senator from Louisiana, emphasized to a cheering crowd that they are fighting for lives. “I’m here to celebrate with all of you God’s greatest gift to all of us: life.”

He read three quotes from the Bible and said he is proud of his state for being at the forefront of the issue. “Louisiana, and I’m very proud of this, is a pro-life state that is helping to lead this country’s pro-life movement,” he said.

Moments earlier, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, spoke to the pro-choice crowd about how he once was a clerk for Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, the case that guaranteed the right to abortion. “We thought we were done, we thought that right was enshrined in the Constitution. But this is a fight that goes on, and it has never been more critical.”

“This is what America looks like and America is for reproductive rights,” the senator told the crowd.

Pro-choice rally outside the Supreme Court
Pro-choice rally outside the Supreme Court Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

The pro-choice rally outside the Supreme Court just heard Kaylan Tanner, a college student from Louisiana, speak about why young people deserve access to reproductive healthcare:

“As a 20-year-old college student in Louisiana, the thought of such a personal decision of if and when i choose to start a family being left up to politicians is truly terrifying. Young people have the right to make decisions about our lives and our futures, especially when it comes to the decision of having a child.”

. @kaayalexx is 20 years old. She’s from Louisiana. And she’s about to speak in front of THE SUPREME COURT!!

Tune in to the #MyRightMyDecision rally here: https://t.co/Ho4LjXUpp5 pic.twitter.com/Zvout0EndR

— Advocates For Youth (@AdvocatesTweets) March 4, 2020

Given that the space outside the Supreme Court is relatively small, the rallies for and against abortion are being held right next to each other. The cheering crowds from each side can be heard as people stand at podiums, speaking to their respective crowds.

The anti-abortion protestors just heard from a woman named Ashley, who told the crowd that she underwent an abortion when she was 18. “I was 18, promiscuous, and I became pregnant by my boyfriend who was just as lost as I was.”

Ashley described going to an abortion clinic where the waiting room was full of women who could not look at each other because the “shame had already begun on their lives”. She said she received no support before and after the procedure and was “filled with anger and shame.”

“When people say it’s my body, it is most certainly not my body. That day it was my baby’s body.”

On the pro-choice side, the two US representatives who co-chair the Pro-Choice Caucus, Barbara Lee and Diana DeGette, spoke to the crowd.

“We’re not going to let anti-choice politicians continue their extreme and anti-science attack on abortion care,” Lee said.

Now, @RepBarbaraLee takes the stand!!

“We are fighting tooth and nail to make sure that everyone has access to the care they need regardless of race, income, or zip code.” #MyRightMyDecision pic.twitter.com/cRy8Ujnj9y

— Center for Reproductive Rights (@ReproRights) March 4, 2020

DeGette said “they might have a louder mic”, referring to the anti-abortion protestors, “but guess what we have. We have the majority of the American public.” The crowd started chanting “our voice is our power.”

Outside the court, the anti-abortion protest was smaller than the pro-choice side, but still fervent.

“Our argument is that since we know fetuses are persons... they have rights,” said Steve Jacobs, the program director for Illinois Right to Life. His group filed a “friend of the court” brief with the Thomas More Law Center, a faith-based legal firm.

“My understanding is abortion is homicide,” said Jacobs. He said that laws forbidding abortion if a woman is raped, for example, are a “perfectly justifiable way to protect fetal life.”

Surveys show most Americans believe abortion should remain legal.

Steve Jacobs, program director for Illinois Right to Life, is protesting against abortion outside the Supreme Court.
Steve Jacobs, program director for Illinois Right to Life, is protesting against abortion outside the Supreme Court. Photograph: Jessica Glenza

The pro-choice rally has started to roll out its lineup of featured speakers.

Actress and director Elizabeth Banks gave a quick speech emphasizing the importance of fighting for abortion rights. Banks is the chair of the creative counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, the not-for-profit hosting the rally and fighting the case on the side of abortion access.

“The truth is the kind of a person who has an abortion is everyone. People have abortions across party lines, geographic lines, religious lines, class lines, racial lines, people of all genders have abortions,” she said.

Abortion is normal. Abortion is health care. Abortion is freedom. Abortion is our human right. --@ElizabethBanks #MyRightMyDecision pic.twitter.com/biJMZPwH7Z

— Planned Parenthood Action (@PPact) March 4, 2020

Activist Blair Imani told the crowd, “so long as the right to safe and legal abortion is on the line, none of us are free.”

“So long as the right to safe and legal abortion is on the line, none of us are free.” --@BlairImani #MyRightMyDecision pic.twitter.com/obgc2Jw6MT

— Planned Parenthood Action (@PPact) March 4, 2020

Updated

Two women came all the way from Mississippi to protest outside the Supreme Court. Derenda Hancock and Kim Gibson came from Jackson, where they escort patients past protesters into the state’s last remaining abortion clinic.

If the law being heard by the Supreme Court today is upheld, it could close clinics across the country, and leave neighboring Louisiana with just one clinic (there are three today).

“This is the end-all game,” said Hancock. “We’ve already been through this in Mississippi,” she said, referring to the laws in question, which require doctors to have hard-to-obtain admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles.

Doctors performing abortions in Mississippi submitted 32-page applications to all seven of the state’s hospitals, she said. None would give them rights to transfer patients.

“We have protests constantly – they don’t want to deal with the hassle,” she said. Early term abortion is one of the safest procedures regularly performed in outpatient clinics, statistics show. “If you’re not going to send anyone to the hospital, why give you admitting privileges?”

Derenda Hancock, left, and Kim Gibson, fly from Jackson, Mississippi to show support for abortion rights.
Derenda Hancock, left, and Kim Gibson, fly from Jackson, Mississippi to show support for abortion rights. Photograph: Jessica Glenza

Protesters were already gathered outside the Supreme Court before 8am Wednesday, in anticipation of oral arguments in one of the most important abortion rights cases in decades.

Two dueling sets of protesters cheered and chanted on the steps up to the court, with a metal gate between them. Pro-choice activists outnumbered anti-abortion protesters, and also had star power on their side. Actresses such as Elizabeth Banks and Busy Philipps are both expected to speak today.

Pro-choice activists held signs such as, “Reproductive rights are human rights.” Most Americans believe abortion should remain legal. Anti-abortion activists held signs reading, “Abortion industry exploits women”.

Pro-choice protestors are gathered outside the Supreme Court.
Pro-choice protestors are gathered outside the Supreme Court. Photograph: Jessica Glenza

Dual rallies held outside the court

Guardian US reporter Jessica Glenza, who is at the Supreme Court today, points out the number of pro-choice activists outnumbers the number of anti-abortions protestors outside the courthouse.

The Supreme Court will hear one of the most consequential abortion rights cases in decades today - June Medical Services v Russo. Here’s a view from outside, where pro-choice activists outnumber the anti-abortion protesters. pic.twitter.com/S0UNJkxkcK

— Jessica Glenza (@JessicaGlenza) March 4, 2020

And here’s a look at the anti-abortion rally, hosted by anti-abortion organization Students for Life. Anti-abortion protestors are holding up signs saying “protect women, protect life” and “the abortion industry exploits women”.

This IS the pro-women, whole life, pro-science, pro-life generation 💪 @StudentsforLife pic.twitter.com/jJ1ZNDdt6a

— Mattea Merta 🇨🇦 (@MatteaMerta) March 4, 2020

Updated

Hoards of people are already in front of the Supreme Court for the rally in support of abortion rights.

The rally is hosted by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the group that filed a lawsuit against Louisiana’s health department that became the case the Supreme Court is hearing today.

Here’s a look at the rally, which is just getting started:

MY BODY
MY RIGHT
MY DECISION #MyRightMyDecision

Abortion is a human right. we’ll never stop fighting for it. pic.twitter.com/YqiN0TQ2Lz

— Center for Reproductive Rights (@ReproRights) March 4, 2020

We're at the Supreme Court with abortion rights advocates from across the country ahead of oral arguments in June v. Russo, a case that could threaten abortion access for years to come. #MyRightMyDecision pic.twitter.com/Xlicv4mCHy

— Gender Justice (@GenderJustice) March 4, 2020

We will always show up to defend our rights and fight for abortion access. #Myrightmydecision pic.twitter.com/IE88JpOJ2m

— SisterSong (@SisterSong_WOC) March 4, 2020

Supreme court hears major abortion case

Good morning, and welcome to the Guardian’s supreme court live blog. Today we’ll be giving you live updates as the supreme court hears arguments for June Medical Service LLC v Russo, the first major abortion case to be heard by new justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who were both appointed by Donald Trump.

The case stems from a state law in Louisiana that requires doctors to be registered to a state-authorized hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic in order to be permitted to perform abortions. The state law is meant to heavily restrict access to abortion.

It will be a busy morning today as a big rally in support of abortions rights is scheduled to start at 8am. A competing anti-abortion rally will be held at the same time.

Guardian US reporter Jessica Glenza is in Washington DC this morning to listen in on the oral arguments. We’ll be hearing from her and keeping an eye out for all the activity around the case, so stay tuned!

Updated

Contributors

Lauren Aratani in New York

The GuardianTramp

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