FAN 63.3 (First Amendment News) Court denies cert in abortion ultrasound case despite circuit split — Balkanization of 1-A rights?
Twenty-four states now require an ultrasound to be performed or offered to a woman prior to the performance of an abortion. Five states have enacted essentially the same display-and-describe requirement at issue in this case, and an additional four states require a physician to provide a simultaneous explanation of an ultrasound image upon a woman’s request. — Cert. Petition of Attorney General of North Carolina
This past Monday the Court denied cert. in Walker-McGill v. Stuart with Justice Antonin Scalia dissenting from that denial. The issue in the case was whether North Carolina’s statutory requirement that an ultrasound image be displayed and described to the patient prior to an abortion procedure violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of the provider.
In their reply brief, the counsel for the Respondents refuted that claim. “There is no circuit conflict warranting this Court’s review,” they argued, “because no court has ever considered, let alone upheld, a law imposing as ‘unprecedented’ of a ‘burden on the right of professional speech’ as the [North Carolina] Requirement does. . . . And all courts—including the Fifth and Eighth Circuits—agree that a state regulation compelling physicians to engage in ideological speech [– as contrasted with truthful, non-misleading information relevant to a patient’s decision to have an abortion –] is subject to searching First Amendment scrutiny.”
Moreover, they argued that “the regulations approved by the Fifth and Eighth Circuits—which both courts found to be non-ideological and subject only to rationality review — are fundamentally different from the Requirement in ways that bear directly on the appropriate level of scrutiny. No court has upheld a physician-speech regulation as uniquely intrusive as the Requirement” contained in the North Carolina law.”
Consider in this regard what Judge Harvey Wilkinson stated in his opinion for his Fourth Circuit panel: “Insofar as our decision on the applicable standard of review differs from the positions taken by the Fifth and Eighth Circuits in cases examining the constitutionality of abortion regulations under the First Amendment, we respectfully disagree. . . . With respect, our sister circuits read too much into Casey and Gonzales. The single paragraph in Casey does not assert that physicians forfeit their First Amendment rights in the procedures surrounding abortions, nor does it announce the proper level of scrutiny to be applied to abortion regulations that compel speech to the extraordinary extent present here.”
Will a majority of the Court be as quick to sustain a First Amendment claim in “pro-choice” abortion case as it was in McCullen v. Coakley (2014), a “pro-life” abortion case?
Too fine a distinction?
Is the distinction proffered by the counsel for the Respondents too fine or too nuanced to be of any meaningful import in future cases? If so, does the cert. denial in Walker-McGill v. Stuart point to a balkanization of constitutional rights in this area? In other words, is the ideological warring we have witnessed in the abortion context now spreading to First Amendment law? Can we now expect speech related to abortion to be dragged into this ideological morass replete with all the confusion that comes with that?
Fewer than four votes
However that may be, the Court’s cert. denial seemed somewhat surprising. As David Horowitz, the executive director of the Media Coalition, observed: “I’m very surprised that this was a case that no one could find four votes for. I would’ve thought one side or the other could have done that. The failure to do so suggests, at least, that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy do not want to take the case, or one of those two and one of the liberal Justices felt likewise.”
→ See also Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court Rejects North Carolina’s Appeal on Pre-Abortion Ultrasounds,” New York Times, June 5, 2015, and “Supreme Court Won’t Revive North Carolina Abortion Law,” Associated Press, June 15, 2015