U.S. Supreme Court divided over gay, transgender employment protection

LGBTQ activists and supporters hold a rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as it hears arguments in a major LGBT rights case on whether a federal anti-discrimination law that prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sex covers gay and transgender employees in Washington, U.S., October 8, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday appeared divided over whether a landmark decades-old federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in the workplace protects gay and lesbian employees as they heard arguments in one of the biggest cases of their current term.

Liberal justices signaled sympathy toward arguments that gay workers are covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex as well as race, color, national origin and religion.

Some conservative justices expressed reservations toward extending protection to gay employees. However, one of them, Justice Neil Gorsuch, asked questions of both sides indicating potential sympathy for the workers. When analyzing whether a person was fired on the basis of sexual orientation, Gorsuch said sex seemed to be a “contributing cause.”

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito said that if the court decides that Title VII protects gays and lesbians it would effectively be rewriting a law enacted by Congress in a way that was never intended by the lawmakers who passed it. Alito said the Supreme Court would be seen as deciding “a major policy question” that Congress would normally legislate on.

The second of two oral arguments was still underway, focusing on whether transgender workers are protected under the same law.

The court’s 5-4 conservative majority includes two justices – Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – appointed by President Donald Trump, whose administration has argued that Title VII does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity.

LGBT rights activists held a demonstration near the courthouse as the arguments took place. The arguments were held on the second day of the court’s new nine-month term.

The Supreme Court delivered an important gay rights decision in 2015 legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. Its dynamics on LGBT issues, however, changed following the 2018 retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who backed gay rights in major cases and wrote the same-sex marriage ruling.

The legal fight focuses on the definition of “sex” in Title VII. The plaintiffs, along with civil rights groups and many large companies, have argued that discriminating against gay and transgender workers is inherently based on their sex and consequently is illegal.

A couple of hundred demonstrators advocating for LGBT rights gathered a short distance from the white marble courthouse on an overcast day in the U.S. capital. They chanted for equal rights and held signs including ones that read, “Do fire Trump. Don’t fire LGBTQ workers,” “Discrimination is bad for business” and “LGBT Americans power our economy.”

Police moved demonstrators away from the plaza in front of the courthouse due to concern over “suspicious” packages.

“I am here because I’m a queer person and right now my right to live my life as everyone else is being determined by nine people, none of whom are queer, all of whom are cisgender,” said Washington resident Raegan Davis, 21. “I feel like it’s important for our voices to be part of this conversation because if we aren’t here there’s no guarantee that they will.”

‘THIS HAS TO STOP’

A small group of demonstrators opposing gay and transgender rights also was present holding signs including two that read, “Fear God” and “Sin and shame, not pride.”

“This has to stop. The more and more we give to the homosexual community, the more and more this nation is going to be destroyed,” said Jacob Phelps, 36, from Topeka, Kansas, who held a sign that read, “Jesus will return in wrath.” “It’s very easy in the workplace, shut your mouth, do what you’re supposed to do.”

The arguments presented the court with its first major test on gay and transgender rights since Trump appointed Kavanaugh to replace Kennedy, with the four liberal justices sympathetic to LGBT rights. Kavanaugh, whose approach to gay rights is unclear, could provide a pivotal vote.

A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would give gay and transgender workers greater protections, especially in the 28 U.S. states that do not already have comprehensive measures against employment discrimination. A ruling against the plaintiffs would mean gay and transgender people in those states would have few options to challenge workplace discrimination.

The court heard two cases about gay people who have said they were fired due to their sexual orientation. One involves a former county child welfare services coordinator from Georgia named Gerald Bostock. The other involves a New York skydiving instructor named Donald Zarda. He died after the case began and the matter is being pursued by his estate.

It also heard a third case that involved a Detroit funeral home’s bid to reverse a lower court ruling that it violated Title VII by firing a transgender funeral director named Aimee Stephens after Stephens revealed plans to transition from male to female.

Rulings in the cases are due by the end of June.

Trump, a Republican with vigorous support among evangelical Christian voters, has pursued policies taking aim at gay and transgender rights. His administration has supported the right of certain businesses to refuse to serve gay people on the basis of religious objections to gay marriage, restricted transgender service members in the military and rescinded protections on bathroom access for transgender students in public schools.

Trump’s Justice Department and the employers in the cases have argued that Congress did not intend for Title VII to cover gay and transgender people when it passed the law. Conservative religious groups and various Republican-led states back the administration.

Big business, typically eager to avoid liability in employment disputes, is backing the LGBT plaintiffs. More than 200 companies, including Amazon, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Bank of America Corp, joined a friend-of-the-court brief asking the justices to rule in favor of the plaintiffs.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. top court to hear Trump bid to revive law against encouraging illegal immigration

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a bid by President Donald Trump’s administration to resurrect a federal law that makes it a felony to encourage illegal immigrants to come or stay in the United States after it was struck down by a lower court as a violation free speech rights.

In a case involving a California woman named Evelyn Sineneng-Smith convicted of violating the law, the justices will review a ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidating it for infringing on rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

Federal prosecutors in 2010 brought charges against Sineneng-Smith, a U.S. citizen who ran an immigration consultancy in San Jose, accusing her of making money by duping illegal migrants into paying her to file frivolous visa applications while remaining in the country indefinitely. Her business primarily served Filipinos who worked as home healthcare providers.

Sineneng-Smith was convicted in 2013 of violating provisions of the federal law that bar inducing or encouraging an illegal immigrant to “come to, enter or reside” in the United States, including for financial gain. She also was convicted of mail fraud and was sentenced to 18 months in prison and three years of supervised release.

The 9th Circuit in 2018 ruled that the law must be struck down because it is overly broad and criminalizes even simple speech that is protected by the First Amendment. For instance, a grandmother could theoretically be charged under the law for telling her grandson whose visa has expired, “I encourage you to stay,” the 9th Circuit noted.

The court begins its next nine-month term on Monday.

(Reporting by Andrerw Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Supreme Court takes up major Louisiana abortion case

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to take up a major abortion case that could lead to new curbs on access to the procedure as it considers the legality of a Republican-backed Louisiana law that imposes restrictions on abortion doctors.

The justices will hear an appeal by abortion provider Hope Medical Group for Women, which sued to try to block the law, of a lower court ruling upholding the measure. The Shreveport-based Hope Medical Group said implementation of the law would prompt the closure of two of the state’s three abortion clinics. The court will also hear a separate appeal by the state claiming that the abortion clinics do not have legal standing to sue.

The law includes a requirement that doctors who perform abortions have a difficult-to-obtain arrangement called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the abortion clinic.

The Supreme Court struck down a similar Texas requirement in 2016 when conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the four liberal justices to defend abortion rights, but Kennedy retired in 2018 and Republican President Donald Trump replaced him with conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, with the court moving further to the right.

The case will test the willingness of the court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority that includes two Trump appointees, to uphold Republican-backed abortion restrictions being pursued in numerous conservative states. Anti-abortion activists are hoping the court will scale back or even overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

The court will review a September 2018 ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the Louisiana law. The Supreme Court in February on a 5-4 vote prevented the law from going into effect while litigation over its legality continued.

The justices on Friday took no action on another abortion-related case concerning the state of Indiana’s effort to revive an abortion-related law requiring women to have an ultrasound 18 hours before having an abortion.

A ruling in the Louisiana case is due by the end of June.

The law was passed in 2014 but courts have prevented it from taking effect.

Chief Justice John Roberts, one of the court’s five conservatives, joined the court’s four liberals in the majority when the court blocked the law from going into effect.

A federal district judge struck down Louisiana’s law in January 2016, saying it created an impermissible undue burden on a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion under existing Supreme Court precedent. The appeals court revived the law, saying there was no evidence any clinics in Louisiana would close as a result of the “admitting privileges” requirement.

The high court legalized abortion nationwide in 1973 and reaffirmed it in 1992 in a ruling that disallowed abortion laws that placed an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.

“An undue burden exists, and therefore a provision of law is invalid if its purpose or effect is to place substantial obstacles in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability,” the court wrote in the 1992 ruling.

Since Kavanaugh joined the court last October, it has sent mixed signals on abortion. The court in June declined to hear a bid by Alabama to revive a Republican-enacted law that would have effectively banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

In May, it refused to consider reinstating Indiana’s ban on abortions performed because of fetal disability or the sex or race of the fetus while upholding the state’s requirement that fetal remains be buried or cremated after an abortion.

Various conservative states in 2019 have enacted new laws that ban abortion at an early stage of pregnancy. None of those laws has taken effect.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court to tackle gay rights, guns, abortion and Trump

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court’s new term opens on Monday with the conservative majority in a position to take a more aggressive rightward turn on divisive issues including abortion, gay rights and gun control while also refereeing legal brawls involving President Donald Trump.

The court has moved to the right since Trump took office, with a 5-4 conservative majority that includes two justices he appointed: Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and Neil Gorsuch in 2017.

“We will likely see the court move further and faster in a rightward direction,” said Irv Gornstein, executive director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Supreme Court Institute.

The justices are due to tackle a larger number of consequential cases than they did in their previous term, and they could end up producing more 5-4 rulings along ideological lines with the conservative justices on the winning end and the four liberal justices in dissent, according to court experts.

There were few such rulings in the term that ended in June. In one of the biggest rulings of the last term, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts joined the four liberals in blocking Trump from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census that opponents called an effort to intimidate immigrants into not taking part in the decennial population count.

The nine justices on Tuesday will hear their first major case: on whether gay and transgender people are protected by a landmark federal civil rights law that bars employment discrimination.

On Nov. 12, they will weigh the legality of Trump’s move to end a program created by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama that protects from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants – mostly Hispanic young adults – who were brought into the United States illegally as children.

The court has arguments scheduled for Dec. 2 in the first major gun rights case in decade, although the justices potentially could dismiss it because the New York City law being challenged by gun rights advocates has been amended since the litigation began. Other gun-related cases wait in the wings for possible action by the justices.

‘A VEHICLE TO OVERRULE’

The court could announce as soon as this week whether it will take up two appeals regarding Republican-backed abortion restrictions enacted in Louisiana and Indiana. If the court were to take either or both of those cases, it would raise the possibility of a ruling that curbs abortion rights, as hoped for by anti-abortion activists.

The Louisiana case concerns a challenge by an abortion clinic to state requirements that doctors who perform the procedure have a difficult-to-obtain arrangement known as “admitting privileges” with local hospitals. It is similar to a Texas law that the Supreme Court struck down in 2016, when conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the court’s liberals. Kennedy, who defended abortion rights in some pivotal rulings, retired last year and was replaced by Kavanaugh.

“If they take up the case they could use it as a vehicle to overrule their precedent from three years ago. That would be extraordinary. The only thing that’s different is the composition of the court,” said Julie Rikelman, a lawyer at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which supports abortion rights.

The court during its new term also may be called upon to intervene on issues concerning Trump’s personal conduct in office, including potential legal fights over congressional subpoenas for material in the ongoing impeachment drama in the Democratic-led House of Representatives.

In 1974, the Supreme Court played a decisive role in the investigation into President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, ruling 8-0 that Nixon had to hand over audio tapes recorded in the Oval Office. Facing impeachment, Nixon resigned days later.

Other disputes percolating in lower courts include lawsuits accusing Trump of violating anti-corruption provisions in the U.S. Constitution relating to his business interests. Two appeals courts have ruled on the issue so far, with one ruling for Trump and one against.

Trump is also fighting congressional subpoenas seeking his financial records from accounting firm Mazars LLP and two banks: Deutsche Bank AG and Capital One Financial Group.

Some legal experts have said that Trump, who has prevailed at the Supreme Court on issues such as his travel ban on people entering the United States from several Muslim-majority countries, may not fare so well on cases focusing on his personal activities.

In the House approves articles of impeachment – formal charges against Trump – Roberts would assume a daunting responsibility. As required under the Constitution, the chief justice would preside over a trial in the Senate on whether to remove Trump from office.

The health of the court’s oldest justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also could be an issue in the court’s nine-month term, which will culminate with a flurry of major rulings next June during the heat of the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign.

The 86-year-old Ginsburg, a justice since 1993, underwent radiation therapy in August to treat a cancerous tumor on her pancreas after having two cancerous nodules in her left lung removed last December. Ginsburg has made public appearances since her latest treatment and has said she is “on my way to being very well.”

Ginsburg’s health concerns raise the possibility of Trump making another appointment to the Supreme Court. In addition, another liberal justice, Stephen Breyer, turned 81 in August.

“I can safely predict that the new term will have a fair share of closely watched cases and I look forward to the challenges ahead,” Ginsburg said during a Sept. 12 appearance in Washington.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Abortion front and center as new U.S. Supreme Court term nears

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With new abortion cases on a fast track to the U.S. Supreme Court, the nine justices will get an opportunity within weeks to take up legal fights over Republican-backed laws that could lead to rulings curbing a woman’s ability to obtain the procedure.

The big question is not so much whether the court, with its 5-4 conservative majority that includes two justices appointed by President Donald Trump, will take up an appeal that could permit new restrictions on abortion rights, but when it will do so, according to legal experts.

The court’s new nine-month term starts on Oct. 7.

Anti-abortion advocates are hoping the court will chip away at the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide and recognized a woman’s constitutional right to the procedure – or even overturn the landmark decision.

Appeals already are pending in cases challenging the legality of Republican-backed abortion restrictions in Indiana and Louisiana, with legal fights also brewing over laws in other states including an Alabama measure that would effectively ban all abortions.

The court is scheduled to discuss the Louisiana and Indiana appeals in private on Oct. 1 and announce within days of that meeting whether it will hear the cases, which could lead to rulings by next June.

Whether the court proceeds quickly on abortion or takes a slower approach could depend upon conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, who has emerged as the court’s ideological center amid its rightward shift with Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.

“I have to believe they will take one sooner rather than later. It’s clear notwithstanding all the decades since Roe v. Wade that there is intense disagreement among Americans,” said John Bursch, a lawyer with conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which opposes abortion.

“Anytime you have that much turmoil in the political process it’s going to create conflicts the court must address,” Bursch added.

Abortion opponents are hoping the 2018 retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who was pivotal in defending abortion rights, has created an opening for more restrictions to secure Supreme Court approval. Kennedy as recently as 2016 cast the decisive vote in blocking strict regulations on abortion clinics and doctors in Texas.

Trump, who vowed during the 2016 presidential campaign to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, appointed Kavanaugh to replace Kennedy.

‘NO REASON’

“There should be no reason for the Supreme Court to revisit Roe, but we know this is exactly what some of the states are trying to do and what President Trump was looking for in his Supreme Court nominees,” said Jennifer Dalven, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is involved in litigation challenging various abortion restrictions.

Broadly speaking, Republican-controlled states have enacted two types of abortion laws: measures that impose burdensome regulations on abortion providers and those that directly seek to ban abortions during the early stages of pregnancy.

The latter laws in particular directly challenge Roe v. Wade and a subsequent 1992 ruling that upheld it. Those two rulings made clear that women have a constitutional right to obtain an abortion at least up until the point the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks of gestation or soon after.

The Louisiana law imposes restrictions that abortion providers have said would force them to close. It requires that doctors who perform abortions have a difficult-to-obtain arrangement called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic. The legal issue is similar to the 2016 case in which the court struck down a Texas admitting privileges requirement.

In February, the court on a 5-4 vote prevented the Louisiana law from taking effect while litigation continued, with Roberts joining the court’s four liberals. Roberts dissented in the Texas case but his vote in February indicates he may have some doubts about the court reversing course on a precedent it set only three years ago.

The Indiana case involves the state’s attempt to revive a Republican-backed law that requires women to undergo an ultrasound at least 18 hours before undergoing an abortion, a requirement critics call medically unnecessary.

Legal challenges to laws recently enacted in conservative states that directly challenge the Roe precedent by banning abortion outright or in early stages of pregnancy may not reach the court in time for it to act during its coming term.

In addition to the Alabama ban, Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia passed measures that would prohibit abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Missouri has a similar law that would prohibit abortion after eight weeks. Facing legal challenges, none of the laws has yet taken effect.

Other cases that could reach the court sooner include fights over abortion restrictions in Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas that are pending in appeals courts.

Since Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court last October, it has sent mixed signals on abortion. The court in June declined to hear a bid by Alabama to revive another Republican-backed law that would have effectively banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

In May, it refused to consider reinstating Indiana’s ban on abortions performed because of fetal disability or the sex or race of the fetus while upholding the state’s requirement that fetal remains be buried or cremated after an abortion.

Julie Rikelman, a lawyer at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which supports abortion rights, said the Supreme Court is likely to take up a case on one of the restrictive laws rather than a measure that directly bans abortion, meaning it could avoid having to decide for now on overturning Roe v. Wade.

“What’s important for people to know,” Rikelman said, “is that even while Roe is the law, there is a great deal of harm that can be done.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. agency says Walmart likely discriminated against female workers: WSJ

(Reuters) – Walmart Inc likely discriminated against 178 female workers by paying less or denying promotions or both because of their gender, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in memos reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the newspaper said on Tuesday.

The agency urged Walmart and the women who filed complaints to come to a “just resolution,” which could include a settlement and changes to Walmart’s employment practices, after finding “reasonable cause” to believe there was gender discrimination, the newspaper said.

Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, and according to the newspaper has 1.5 million U.S. employees.

Randy Hargrove, a Walmart spokesman, said Walmart told the EEOC it was willing to engage in a “conciliatory process,” though in most cases the agency’s reasonable cause findings were “vague and non-specific.”

He also said the cases involved allegations that were more than 15 years old and were “not representative of the positive experiences millions of women have had working at Walmart.”

A lawyer who has acted as a co-counsel for women who filed complaints could not immediately be reached for comment.

In 2011, Walmart convinced the U.S. Supreme Court not to let roughly 1.5 million female workers complaining about pay and promotions sue in a class action, with a majority of justices concluding the women had too little in common to sue as a group.

More than 1,900 women have since pursued cases and filed charges with the EEOC accusing the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer of gender discrimination, the Journal said.

The charges involving the 178 women come from more than 30 states, and it is rare for the EEOC to pursue that many cases against one employer over such a wide geographic area, the newspaper added, citing labor lawyers.

An EEOC spokesman told the newspaper that the agency cannot discuss investigations or the administrative process until litigation is filed.

(Reporting by New York Newsroom; Editing by David Gregorio)

Supreme Court applies limits to federal agency power

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie speaks during ceremonies on Veteran's Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday constrained the power of federal agencies, scaling back a legal doctrine that called for judges to give agencies deference to interpret their own rules but declining to eliminate it all together.

The ruling, coming in a case in which a Vietnam War veteran sued the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) after being denied retroactive disability benefits, could buoy business groups and others wanting to curb governmental regulatory authority.

The justices imposed new limits on the legal doctrine, which is called “Auer deference,” that was rooted in Supreme Court precedents dating back to 1945. The ruling could constrain administrative agencies in issuing certain informal policies and rules.

The Supreme Court threw out a lower court’s ruling denying retired U.S. Marine James Kisor, 75, benefits dating back to 1982 arising from battle-related post-traumatic stress disorder. The justices sent the case back to the lower court to reconsider Kisor’s claim on the meaning of a regulation that the agency had said was unfavorable to Kisor.

While all nine justices agreed with the outcome for Kisor, the decision, written by liberal Justice Elena Kagan, divided the justices 5-4 on whether to overrule Auer deference altogether.

Kagan, joined by the three other liberal justices and conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, said the court should uphold Auer deference because of its longstanding tradition of adhering to prior decisions, a principle known as stare decisis.

Four of the court’s conservative justices – Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh – said Auer deference should have been formally eliminated since it is already on “life support.” In his opinion in the case, Gorsuch wrote, “So the doctrine emerges maimed and enfeebled – in truth, zombified.”

In recent years, some of the court’s conservative justices had questioned the need for judges to defer to agencies on the meaning of regulations, foreshadowing Wednesday’s ruling.

Paring back the authority of federal agencies – which can control regulation in important areas such as energy, climate change and the workplace – has been a key goal of many business and conservative groups, which complain about what they call the “administrative state.”

These critics have said judicial deference has allowed agencies to accumulate power by enabling them to issue vague or burdensome regulations and then enforce them according to the policy preferences of unelected administrators.

Supporters of judicial deference have said the views of agencies should be accorded greater weight because they often have technical expertise that judges lack. Some liberals view the attack on the “administrative state” as an effort by conservatives to hinder government regulation of a wide range of businesses.

The name of the doctrine arose from a 1997 Supreme Court ruling in the case Auer v. Robbins, which extended a 1945 precedent in the case Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co that had accepted an agency’s take unless it was plainly wrong or inconsistent with the regulation.

Kisor, who served during the Vietnam War installing field telephone networks, fought in a 1965 battle in which several of his fellow troops were killed. The VA granted him disability benefits for PTSD in 2006, but refused to pay Kisor retroactively going back to 1982, when he first made a claim for benefits. At that time, he had not been diagnosed with PTSD.

The case hinged on the VA’s interpretation of a rule requiring “relevant” military service records to reconsider a denied claim.

The Washington-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in 2017 applied Auer deference to side with the VA over Kisor.

The current VA secretary is Robert Wilkie.

The court also announced that it will issue its final decisions of its current term, which began in October, on Thursday. Cases remaining to be decided include closely watched disputes over the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census and whether limits can be set on partisan gerrymandering, a practice in which state lawmakers manipulate electoral maps purely for partisan gain.

For a Reuters graphic on major Supreme Court cases of the 2018-2019 term, click: https://tmsnrt.rs/2V2T0Uf

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

As conservative U.S. states pass abortion bans, Missouri’s sole clinic could close

People take part in a pro-choice march in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., May 30, 2019 in this image obtained from social media. Ael Diehm/via REUTERS

By Pavithra George

ST. LOUIS (Reuters) – Missouri could become the only U.S. state without a legal abortion provider on Friday, as its only abortion clinic could lose its license to perform the procedure unless a St. Louis judge intervenes.

The legal battle in St. Louis comes a week after Missouri Governor Mike Parson, a Republican, signed a bill banning abortion beginning in the eighth week of pregnancy, making Missouri one of nine U.S. states to pass anti-abortion legislation this year.

Planned Parenthood sued Missouri this week after state health officials said the license for Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood in St. Louis was in jeopardy because they were unable to interview seven of its physicians over “potential deficient practices,” documents filed in a St. Louis court showed.

The circuit judge in the case, Michael Stelzer, was expected on Friday to rule on Planned Parenthood’s request for a temporary restraining order and injunction against the state, according to local media.

Outside the clinic, a handful of anti-abortion protesters stood holding “Choose Life” signs early Friday.

If Stelzer rules against Planned Parenthood, the clinic’s license to perform abortions would expire at midnight, making Missouri the only U.S. state without an abortion clinic since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that established a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.

Abortion is one of the most socially divisive issues in U.S. politics, with opponents often citing religious beliefs to call it immoral, while abortion-rights advocates say the bans amount to state control of women’s bodies.

On Thursday, abortion-rights demonstrators held a rally in downtown St. Louis, where police arrested Alderman Megan Ellyia Green and several Planned Parenthood board members during a sit-in at the Wainwright State Office Building, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported.

Anti-abortion activists say they aim to prompt the newly installed conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade by enacting laws that are virtually assured of facing court challenges.

A series of prominent U.S. media companies said they will rethink working in Georgia, if a new state law takes effect, banning abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected by doctors. That standard effectively bans abortions at about six weeks into a pregnancy, before some women would even be aware they were pregnant.

Those companies include AT&T Inc’s WarnerMedia, CBS Corp, Viacom Inc, Comcast Corp’s NBCUniversal, AMC Networks Inc, Walt Disney Co and Netflix Inc.

(Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Scott Malone, Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)

Louisiana governor to sign ‘heartbeat’ ban, latest move to curb U.S. abortion rights

FILE PHOTO - Missouri Governor Mike Parson signs Bill 126 into law banning abortion beginning in the eighth week of pregnancy, alongside state House and Senate members and pro-life coalition leaders at his office in Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S., May 24, 2019. Office of Governor Michael L. Parson/Handout via REUTERS.

By Gabriella Borter and Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – Louisiana’s Democratic governor said on Wednesday he would sign a bill passed earlier in the day to ban abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected, the latest legislation in a movement in mostly Southern and Midwest states to curb abortion rights.

Earlier on Wednesday, Missouri’s governor renewed his intention to close a Planned Parenthood clinic and become the first state without a medical facility that performs abortions.

The Louisiana bill was approved on Wednesday by a 79-23 vote of the Republican-controlled Louisiana House of Representatives and had already passed in the state Senate.

Louisiana would join at least four other conservative-leaning states that have passed measures this year to prohibit abortion as early as six weeks. Alabama has approved a stricter law that would ban nearly all abortions in the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court may eventually be called upon to rule on the various state laws, which challenge the high court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that women have a constitutional right to an abortion.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards would become the first Democrat this year to sign a ban on abortion when a heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks from conception before a woman realizes she is pregnant, lending bipartisanship to the measure. The bill’s sponsor, state Senator John Milkovich, is also a Democrat.

Other states that passed similar measures this year, including Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri, are led by Republican governors.

“As I prepare to sign this bill, I call on the overwhelming bipartisan majority of legislators who voted for it to join me in continuing to build a better Louisiana that cares for the least among us and provides more opportunity for everyone,” Edwards said in a statement on Wednesday.

The measure would allow a woman to have an abortion, after detection of an embryonic heartbeat, to prevent her death or if she risks serious injury.

The Louisiana legislation will not go into effect until a U.S. Appeals Court rules on whether to allow a similar measure in neighboring Mississippi to take effect. Last week, a U.S. district judge blocked the Mississippi law from taking effect, and the Appeals Court that is expected to review the ruling also has jurisdiction over Louisiana.

DECADES-LONG FIGHT

The Roe v. Wade decision allowed states to restrict abortion from the time a fetus can viably survive outside the womb, which the opinion placed at 24 to 28 weeks from conception.

Anti-abortion campaigners have sought to overturn the decision ever since, and they see an opportunity with the newly installed 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

While some states have sought to ban abortion at six weeks from conception, at least three states have passed measures this year to ban abortion starting at some point between eight weeks and 18 weeks.

The Louisiana House on Wednesday rejected a proposed amendment that would have allowed exceptions to the ban if a woman became pregnant during a rape or through incest.

Other states that have passed abortion restrictions this year also declined to make exceptions for rape and incest, drawing criticism from Trump, who supports such exceptions.

Abortion rights groups this year are challenging a number of state restrictions in court.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood obtained an injunction from a judge in March blocking Kentucky’s ban on abortions, which would apply as early as six weeks from conception.

On another front in the battle, Planned Parenthood sued the Missouri Department of health on Tuesday after the department told the state’s only abortion clinic it could not approve a license until it interviewed seven doctors that worked there.

The license for the clinic, which Planned Parenthood operates, is due to expire on Friday.

Missouri Governor Mike Parson, a Republican, on Wednesday, reiterated his intention to close the clinic for failing to meet state licensing standards.

Planned Parenthood said in a statement that Parson’s remarks were “not based on medicine, facts or reality,” and it will do “everything to ensure our patients get the best medical care available.”

Last week, Parson signed into law a measure banning abortion in Missouri after the eighth week of a woman’s pregnancy.

(Story was refiled to remove “Bel” from governor’s name in paragraph 8)

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Alex Dobuzinskis, Editing by Bill Tarrant and Grant McCool)

ACLU, Planned Parenthood sue over Alabama abortion ban

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Flag and Alabama State Flag fly over the Alabama Governor's Mansion as the state Senate votes on the strictest anti-abortion bill in the United States at the Alabama Legislature in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit on Friday challenging a law enacted by Alabama last week that bans nearly all abortions and makes performing the procedure a felony punishable by up to 99 years in prison.

The lawsuit is one of several the groups have filed or are preparing to file against states that recently passed strict anti-abortion measures in an effort to prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark case that guarantees a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.

“This dangerous, immoral, and unconstitutional ban threatens people’s lives and well-being and we are suing to protect our patients’ rights,” Leana Wen, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement.

The ACLU’s Alabama chapter and Planned Parenthood of America filed their complaint in federal court in Alabama on behalf of the Southern state’s three abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood Southeast.

Anti-abortion advocates expected legal challenges to Alabama’s new law, which will be the most restrictive in the nation when it takes effect in November, and say they welcome the chance to have a court test their conviction that a fetus’ right to life is paramount.

Also on Friday, Missouri Governor Mike Parson signed a bill into law that bans abortion beginning in the eighth week of pregnancy.

Earlier this year, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio outlawed abortion after a doctor can detect an embryonic heartbeat, which can occur at six weeks, often before a woman knows she is pregnant.

The wave of anti-abortion legislation reflects a boost of confidence among anti-abortion advocates after Republican President Donald Trump nominated two conservative judges, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, to the U.S. Supreme Court, tilting the court’s political balance to the right.

Alabama state Senator Clyde Chambliss, a Republican, supports his state’s new law and said the whole point of the ban was “so that we can go directly to the Supreme Court to challenge Roe versus Wade.”

The ACLU and Planned Parenthood obtained an injunction from a judge in Kentucky in March, blocking that state’s abortion ban. The organizations have filed lawsuits in Ohio and are preparing to do so in Georgia, they said in a statement on Friday.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis)