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Justices take up abortion case pitting state against federal law

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The Supreme Court on Friday afternoon granted a request from Idaho and the state’s Republican-controlled legislature to temporarily put on hold a ruling by a federal district court that would require emergency rooms in the state to provide abortions to pregnant women in an emergency. The justices agreed to weigh in on the question at the center of the dispute: whether the federal law on which the lower court relied trumps an Idaho law that criminalizes most abortions in the state.

The federal law, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, requires hospitals receiving Medicare funding to offer “necessary stabilizing treatment” to pregnant women in emergencies. In Aug. 2022, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, the Biden administration went to federal court in Idaho, where it argued that EMTALA trumps an Idaho law that makes it a crime to provide an abortion except in a handful of narrow circumstances, including to save the life of the mother.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill agreed and barred Idaho from enforcing its law to the extent that it conflicted with EMTALA. The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit declined to put Winmill’s ruling on hold while the state’s appeal proceeded.

Calling the Biden administration’s lawsuit an “unauthorized power grab,” both the state and the legislature came to the Supreme Court late last year, asking the justices to temporarily freeze Winmill’s ruling or fast-track the case for a ruling on the merits.

Emphasizing that nothing in EMTALA mentions abortion, much less requires hospitals to perform them, the state and the legislature argued that EMTALA was simply enacted to ensure that hospital emergency rooms treat poor or uninsured patients – not to impose a federal standard of care for patients. “The federal government,” the state wrote, “cannot use EMTALA to override in the emergency room state laws about abortion any more than it can use it to override state law on organ transplants or marijuana use.”

The legislature contended that the use of EMTALA to compel emergency rooms in Idaho to perform abortions also violates the major questions doctrine, the idea that if Congress wants to give a federal agency the power to make decisions having a vast economic or political significance, it must say so directly. The law’s “spare directive” to emergency rooms to provide “stabilizing treatment” “does not convey clear authorization to regulate abortion in all 50 states,” the legislature suggested.

The Biden administration countered that EMTALA was not simply intended to ensure that patients with insurance and those without it receive the same treatment. Instead, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote, the law requires Medicare-funded hospitals to provide whatever treatment is required to stabilize a patient’s medical condition. And nothing in the law, Prelogar stressed, limits that treatment to treatment permitted by state law.

The requests from Idaho and the legislature for the court to intervene had been fully briefed for over a month before the court acted. But earlier this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled in a similar case that EMTALA does not supersede abortion laws in Texas, increasing the likelihood that the Supreme Court would weigh in.

The case will be argued in late April, with a decision to follow by late June or early July.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Justices take up abortion case pitting state against federal law, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 5, 2024, 6:41 PM),