The Supreme Court on Tuesday night blocked a Texas law that had drastically reduced the number of abortion clinics in the nation’s second most populous state.
The court’s order, staying a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that the law could go into effect, will allow more than a dozen of the clinics to resume operation, according to the group that challenged the law, the Center for Reproductive Rights.
The court’s brief order did not say why it was disagreeing with the appeals court. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. would have allowed the law to go into effect while abortion providers pursued their claims that it is unconstitutional.
The order was unsigned, but that apparently meant Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the other five justices — Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — were in agreement.
The action will allow 13 abortion clinics that closed after the appeals court decision to reopen, said Nancy Northup, president of the center. “We’re absolutely thrilled.”
The group told the justices that “if the stay entered by the 5th Circuit is not vacated, the clinics forced to remain closed during the appeals process will likely never reopen.”
The court’s decision is not a judgment on the Texas law, but whether the law’s new restrictions should be delayed while the legal battle continued.
Texas has been a leader among a number of states that have enacted new requirements for abortion clinics. The states say the laws are meant to protect a woman’s health, but Northup and others have called them “shams” meant only to make abortion less accessible.
At issue is the Supreme Court’s decision more than 20 years ago that, although states may regulate access to abortion, they may not pose an “undue burden” on women who seek an abortion early in pregnancy.
But the new laws test the extent of that “undue burden” with new requirements that abortion providers say are hard for them to meet.
The Texas law, for instance, requires physicians at clinics to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and it also requires the clinics to meet the standards of an “ambulatory surgical center.”
The Supreme Court in November agreed 5 to 4 that the admitting-privileges part of the law could be implemented, resulting in the loss of about half of the state’s 41 clinic providers. After the recent appeals court ruling, the number shrank to seven, the providers said.
The Supreme Court’s order issued Tuesday night, however, removes the admitting-privileges requirement for clinics in McAllen and El Paso. Providers there had said the requirement was particularly difficult to meet.
The law has been challenged ever since the Texas legislature passed it in 2013 and Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed it. It has played a large role in the gubernatorial contest, where the Republican candidate, Attorney General Greg Abbott, is vigorously defending the law, and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis shot to fame trying to stop it.
The challengers scored a victory in August when U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin struck it down, calling it a “brutally effective system of abortion regulation” that failed the Supreme Court’s test.
But the state went to the appeals court, saying Yeakel’s reading of the law was “indefensible.”
While the appeals court has yet to consider the merits of the case, a panel voted 2 to 1 to allow it to go into effect.
The Texas legislature’s stated purpose was to improve patient safety, the panel said, and “courts are not permitted to second-guess a legislature’s stated purposes absent clear and compelling evidence.”
Although the challengers said the closings of the clinics would mean that more than 900,000 women of reproductive age would live more than 150 miles from an abortion provider, the appeals panel said the challengers had not shown it would keep a “large fraction” of women seeking abortions to be unduly burdened.