TheHill reports Chief Justice John Roberts is under the microscope as the Supreme Court prepares to issue its first major ruling on abortion rights in the Trump era, which will give the clearest indication yet of the court’s willingness to revisit protections that were first granted in Roe v. Wade.
The tie-breaking vote may rest with Roberts, and the case stands to test his role as the court’s new ideological center as well as his allegiance to past rulings.
A decision could come as early as Monday, following a blockbuster week at the court. Roberts joined narrow majorities last week to extend civil rights protections to gay and transgender people and block the Trump administration’s plan to end a deportation shield for young undocumented immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.
But the abortion rights case differs from the others in a key respect. Whereas the LGBT and DACA disputes asked the justices to interpret the meaning of federal law, the Louisiana case asks the justices to weigh their own past rulings on abortion.
Roberts’s image as an “institutionalist” justice dedicated to honoring prior Supreme Court opinions, especially recent ones, is now on the line.
One ruling in particular — the court’s 2016 decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt — looms large over the Louisiana case. It also raises the stakes for the reputations of both Roberts and the court.
The court in Hellerstedt ruled 5-3 to strike down a Texas law that required abortion-performing doctors to be authorized to admit patients at a nearby hospital. Roberts dissented on technical grounds from the majority, which said the Texas law was unconstitutional because its burden on a woman’s right to an abortion outweighed any medical benefit.
While Roberts’s vote was not decisive in the Texas dispute, he may hold the tie-breaking vote in the Louisiana case. What complicates matters is the fact that the Texas law that the court struck down in Hellerstedt is nearly identical to the Louisiana law now under review.
Roberts’s reputation would suffer if the court uses the Louisiana case to overturn its 2016 decision in Hellerstedt, legal analysts say.
“Roberts has as much if not more of an interest than anyone in the public face and integrity of the court,” said Steven Schwinn, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “He is acutely aware that if the court were to take dramatic actions in the Louisiana case, like overturning Hellerstedt, it would widely be seen as a sheer political move.”
Were the court to reach different rulings on the nearly identical Texas and Louisiana abortion laws, many would attribute the discrepancy to the court’s rightward shift in recent years.
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