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Court bypasses another abortion case

For the second time in a week, the Supreme Court on Monday appeared to be signaling that it is not ready to reconsider one of the basic protections it has provided women seeking abortions.  A new case from North Dakota, denied as one from Arkansas was last Tuesday, explicitly asked the Court to reconsider the legal principle that states may not ban abortions until a fetus is capable of living outside the woman’s body, after a live birth.

And, on another point, also for the second time this Term, the Court refused to consider a state’s appeal to allow its legislature to ban abortions much earlier in the pregnancy cycle.  Both the law in North Dakota and the one in Arkansas sought to move the point at which abortion could be banned back to when a fetal heartbeat could be detected.  The North Dakota law put that at about six weeks of pregnancy, the Arkansas law would impose the ban explicitly at twelve weeks.

Those were among the most restrictive anti-abortion laws among a wave of such legislation passed by state legislatures across the country in the past few years, most if not all of which were intended to set up a test of the Court’s willingness to abandon its basic abortion ruling in Roe v. Wade in 1973.  These laws were attempts to directly regulate the timing of the termination of pregnancy, rather than to do so by imposing restrictions on the practices and facilities at abortion clinics.  The Court will hear a Texas case on clinic regulation on March 2, at its next sitting.

The Court, undeterred by the massive snowstorm in Washington over the weekend, showed up Monday to issue a list of orders and to release four opinions in argued cases.  The courtroom had few spectators, and the population of the Court’s press room was reduced sharply.

Besides the rulings in argued cases, the Court issued two summary rulings — that is, decisions made without full briefing and oral arguments.  Each was issued in the name of the Court: “per curiam.”

In one, James v. Boise, Idaho, the Court chastised the Idaho Supreme Court for concluding that it was not bound by Supreme Court rulings dealing with the award of attorneys’ fees under federal civil rights law. It told the state court that it had no choice but to follow the Justices’ lead on an issue.  In the second summary ruling, in Amgen Inc., v. Harris, the Court took its second look at a dispute over the duty of an employee benefit plan’s administrator to manage the plan’s assets with “prudence.”  For the second time, the Justices told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reconsider its decisions in that case.

On Tuesday, the Court did not grant any new cases for review, and it did not send any cases to the Justice Department for the federal government’s reaction.

Among the series of denials of new cases, the Court declined to hear challengers over attorney’s fees that were awarded or denied by lower courts in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013 in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, narrowing the scope of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.   One lower court awarded fees of $1.1 million against the state of Texas, in favor of Texas voters and officeholders who had opposed the state on the impact of the Shelby County ruling on a redistricting dispute.  The Justices denied review of that on Tuesday in Texas v. Lynch.

Another lower court had denied Shelby County a fee claim of $2 million, concluding that its victory in the Voting Rights Act case did not serve the purposes that Congress had in mind in allowing fee recovery in civil rights cases.  That decision was left intact by the Justices in the case of Shelby County v. Lynch.

In another order, the Court refused to hear a claim that the death penalty is unconstitutional in all circumstances — a plea made by a Pennsylvania death-row inmate.  The case was Walter v. Pennsylvania.



Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court bypasses another abortion case, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 25, 2016, 4:31 PM),