U.S. Supreme Court lets Flint, Michigan residents sue over water contamination

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday let residents of Flint, Michigan pursue a civil rights lawsuit against the city and government officials that accused them of knowingly allowing the city’s water supply to become contaminated with lead.

The justices turned away two appeals by the city and the state and local officials of a lower court ruling that allowed the lawsuit to move forward. The lower court rejected a demand for immunity by the officials, finding that they violated the residents’ right to “bodily integrity” under the U.S. Constitution by providing the tainted water after switching water sources in a cost-cutting move in 2014.

The justices’ action comes as similar class-action cases are currently on appeal at the Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Flint switched its public water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River to reduce costs during a financial crisis. The corrosive river water caused lead to leach from pipes.

Lead poisoning can stunt children’s cognitive development. No level of exposure is considered safe.

The city switched back to Lake Huron water the next year. The contaminated river water also triggered an outbreak of bacteria-caused Legionnaires’ disease, which killed 12 people and sickened dozens of others

Lawsuits over Flint’s water have proliferated in recent years. The number of people who have reported being harmed through exposure to contaminants in Flint, including lead and bacteria, or who experienced ailments such as rashes and hair loss, has reached more than 25,000, including more than 5,000 children under 12, according to court records.

The cases center on the Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantee of due process under the law, which can protect people from government-induced harm to their personal security or health, a legal principle known as “bodily integrity.”

Courts have previously enforced the right to confront abuses of power in cases of direct physical intrusion, such as non-consensual medical procedures or forced drug administration.

The defendants argued that the lower courts have dangerously expanded that right by applying it to policy decisions that result in public exposure to environmental toxins. They also argued they are protected from the claims through a legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity” because they could not have known they could be held liable for “doing the best they could in difficult circumstances with limited information.”

The case before the justices was filed in 2016 by two Flint residents including Shari Guertin, who said that she and her child were exposed to high levels of lead.

Calling the water crisis a “government-created environmental disaster” in a 2019 ruling, the 6th Circuit green-lighted the constitutional claims and rejected immunity for the officials.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Supreme Court religious rights case has big implications for U.S. schools

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Despite wondering every autumn whether she can afford it, Kendra Espinoza has worked hard to keep her two daughters in a small private Christian school in Kalispell, Montana, costing about $15,000 annually for them to attend.

Even with some financial support from the school Espinoza, a single mother, still has a sizable tuition bill to pay. She decided against sending the girls, ages 14 and 11, to local public schools that would be free to attend. On top of her full-time office manager job, Espinoza has worked nights as a janitor in an office building to help pay for tuition, taking her daughters along to instill in them a strong work ethic.

If you want something enough in life, Espinoza said, you have to fight for it.

“The way I try to raise my girls, of course I want them to be able to read the Bible and be taught how to pray, taught from that faith-based perspective,” Espinoza said in an interview. “At the public school, there’s a lot of disrespect and not enough of those values that I wanted them to learn.”

Espinoza, 47, is a plaintiff in a major religious rights case that will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday. She and two other mothers of students at Stillwater Christian School are appealing a lower court ruling that struck down a Montana state tax credit that could help students pay to attend private schools including religious ones.

A 2015 Montana law provided people a tax credit of up to $150 for donations to groups that fund scholarships for private school tuition. State tax officials limited the program to non-religious schools in order to comport with the state constitution, which forbids public aid to any “church, sect or denomination.” Thirty-eight states have such constitutional provisions.

But the Montana Supreme Court struck down the scholarship program entirely because it could be used to pay for religious schools.

“This is grossly unfair to any parents of kids who go to religious school,” said Espinoza, who is represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal group. “It’s not fair to us to be excluded (from) funds available to the general public.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the case, due by the end of June, could narrow the separation of church and state.

In their appeal to the nine justices, lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that Montana’s decision to exclude religious school students from the scholarship program violated their rights under the U.S. Constitution to free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law.

It is an argument that could find favor with the court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority.

Under the Montana program, individuals could donate to a scholarship fund organization and receive up to a $150 tax credit. The one scholarship organization that currently exists provides $500 scholarships, primarily to needy students.

Proponents of religious school funding contend that the no-aid to religious institutions provisions in place in 38 states are so-called Blaine amendments, written into the majority of state constitutions in the 19th century as a form of anti-Catholic discrimination.

Montana disagrees, noting that the state adopted a new constitution in 1972 and kept the no-aid provision, believing it would protect religious freedom by preventing the government from gaining influence over religious schools and weakening public schools.

President Donald Trump’s administration is backing the plaintiffs in the case. The Republican president, seeking re-election on Nov. 3, enjoys strong support among evangelical Christian voters. At a rally in Florida this month he pledged to bring prayer to public schools.

Though the plaintiffs are asking the justices to rule in their favor on the tax credit program, Trump’s administration has a broader goal in mind: knocking out state constitution no-aid provisions.

“Because the no-aid provision contravenes the U.S. Constitution, the state court had no authority to enforce it,” Solicitor General Noel Francisco said in a court filing.

Opponents of government support for religion as well as public educators have expressed alarm at the possible ramifications of a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs.

Such a decision could lead to the unprecedented outcome of requiring state funding for religious education or other activities, said Rachel Laser, president of the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“The question before the court is whether states can continue to protect their citizens’ religious freedom by ensuring that public money not be used to fund religious education and discrimination. The answer must be yes,” Laser said.

Expanding tax credits and vouchers for private education takes scarce resources away from public education, added Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, a union that represents public school teachers nationwide.

The case is “an obvious attempt to use the Supreme Court to move this political agenda,” she said.

Eighteen other states have tax-credit programs like the one ended in Montana, supporting around 250,000 students, according to a court filing. Most private schools in those states are religious.

Espinoza’s case could give the justices an opportunity to build on a major 2017 religious rights ruling in favor of a Missouri church that challenged its exclusion from state playground improvement grants generally available to other nonprofit groups. The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that churches and other religious entities cannot be flatly denied public money even in states where constitutions explicitly ban such funding.

“People will say that they’re afraid of religion being pushed down their throat but I don’t believe that’s an issue in this case,” Espinoza said. “If funds are donated by private citizens to a private organization, just because they have a tax credit attached doesn’t make them public funds.”

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court takes up presidential Electoral College dispute

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the 2020 race heats up, the Supreme Court agreed on Friday to hear a dispute involving the complex U.S. presidential election system focusing on whether Electoral College electors are free to break their pledges to back the candidate who wins their state’s popular vote, an act that could upend an election.

The Supreme Court will take up appeals in two cases – from Washington state and Colorado – involving electors who decided to vote in the Electoral College process for someone other than Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 even though she won the popular vote in their states.

The justices will determine if such so-called faithless electors have the discretion to cast Electoral College votes as they see fit or whether states can impose restrictions including with penalties. The case is expected to be argued in April and decided by the end of June.

President Donald Trump is seeking re-election on Nov. 3, with a field of Democrats seeking their party’s nomination to challenge him. His administration did not take a side in either case.

“We are glad the Supreme Court has recognized the paramount importance of clearly determining the rules of the road for presidential electors for the upcoming election and all future elections,” said Lawrence Lessig, a lawyer for the faithless electors sanctioned in Washington and Colorado.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, said she hopes the justices will let states enforce their laws.

“Unelected and unaccountable presidential electors should not be allowed to decide the presidential election without regard to voters’ choices and state law,” Griswold said.

The dispute involves the U.S. presidential election system set out in the U.S. Constitution in which the winner is determined not by amassing a majority of the national popular vote but by securing a majority of the electoral votes that are allotted to the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Individuals who serve as Electoral College electors – typically party loyalists – cast these votes. All states, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, have a winner-takes-all system awarding all electors to the presidential candidate who wins the state’s popular vote.

The number of electors in each state is the sum of its two U.S. senators and its number of members in the House of Representatives, based on population size. The District of Columbia, which is not a state, is allotted three electors.

Typically an overlooked formality, the Electoral College took on greater importance after the 2016 election, when 10 electors cast ballots for someone other than their party’s candidate. That was an unusually high number of faithless electors and could have changed the outcome in five of the 58 prior U.S. presidential elections, according to legal papers in one of the appeals filed at the Supreme Court.

LOSING THE POPULAR VOTE

Trump defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by a margin of 304 to 227 Electoral College votes despite losing the popular vote nationally by about 3 million votes. Faithless electors could change the outcome of presidential elections with thinner Electoral College margins.

Electors pledge to vote for their party’s candidate if that person wins the state’s popular vote. At issue in the cases are laws requiring that electors follow through on those pledges.

While 32 states and the District of Columbia have such laws, a handful enforce them by removing and replacing faithless electors, or in some cases, imposing fines.

The plaintiffs challenged the sanctions, saying they were deprived of their rights under the Constitution’s Article II as well as its 12th Amendment, which spell out the Electoral College process.

In Colorado, one elector, Micheal Baca, was replaced and his vote canceled when he sought to vote for Republican John Kasich, Ohio’s former governor. A federal judge dismissed Baca’s challenge, but the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year revived the suit, concluding that Baca’s constitutional rights were violated.

The Washington state case arose after three faithless electors voted for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, a moderate Republican, instead of Clinton. They each were fined $1,000 for their defiance, which they called the first such penalty in U.S. history. The Washington Supreme Court in 2019 upheld the fines.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court leaves in place Kentucky abortion restriction

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday left in place a Kentucky law requiring doctors to show and describe ultrasound images to women seeking the procedure, turning away a challenge arguing that the measure violates the free speech rights of physicians.

The justices declined without comment to hear an appeal by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of a lower court ruling that upheld the law after a federal judge previously had struck it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

The Supreme Court has a 5-4 conservative majority and is closely divided on abortion rights.

The ACLU said the law has no medical basis and that its sole purpose is to coerce a woman into not getting an abortion.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of EMW Women’s Surgical Center, Kentucky’s only licensed abortion clinic, as well as physicians who work there shortly after the law was passed in 2017.

Kentucky requires a physician or qualified technician to perform the ultrasound and position the screen so the woman can view the images of the fetus. The medical staff are required to describe what the images show, including the size of the fetus and any organs or appendages visible. They are also required to make audible the sound of the fetal heartbeat.

The law requires the physicians to continue with the process even if the patient objects and shows signs of distress. Doctors can be fined and referred to the state’s medical licensing board if they fail to comply with the Kentucky law.

The Supreme Court on March 4 is scheduled to hear its first major abortion case in three years in a dispute over the legality of a Republican-backed Louisiana law that imposes restrictions on abortion doctors. The court’s ruling could lead to new curbs on access to abortion. Numerous Republican-backed measures restricting abortion have been passed at the state level in recent years.

The Louisiana case will test the willingness of the court, which includes two conservative justices appointed by Republican President Donald Trump, to uphold laws that lower courts have ruled unconstitutional. The court has shifted to the right after Justice Anthony Kennedy, a decisive vote in favor of abortion rights, retired in 2018 and was replaced by Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh, who has a thin judicial record on the issue.

In 2018, the Supreme Court blocked a California law requiring clinics that counsel women against abortion to notify clients of the availability of abortions paid for by the state, finding that it violated the free speech rights of the facilities. In that 5-4 ruling along ideological grounds, the court’s conservative justices were in the majority.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; editing by Grant McCool)

Demonstrators gather as U.S. Supreme Court hears major gun case

Demonstrators gather as U.S. Supreme Court hears major gun case
By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A legal fight over a New York City handgun ordinance that could give the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority a chance to expand gun rights goes before the nine justices on Monday in one of the most closely watched cases of their current term.

The court is scheduled to hear arguments starting at 10 a.m. (1500 GMT) in a legal challenge backed by the influential National Rifle Association gun rights lobby group to a regulation that had prevented licensed owners from taking their handguns outside the confines of the most-populous U.S. city.

It is the first major gun case to come before the Supreme Court since 2010.

Three local handgun owners and the New York state affiliate of the NRA – a national lobby group closely aligned with President Donald Trump and other Republicans – argued that the regulation violated the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

New York City’s regulation was amended in July to loosen the restrictions at issue in the case, but the Supreme Court opted to proceed with the arguments anyway. The justices have said they will consider during the arguments the city’s contention that the change in the regulation has made the matter moot.

Outside the white marble courthouse, hundreds of gun control supporters held a demonstration and carried signs including some reading, “Why are guns easier to buy than a college education?” “Gun laws save lives” and “2nd Amendment written before assault weapons were invented.”

Maryland resident Christina Young said such laws need to reflect modern society, including mass shootings.

“I have an 11-year-old daughter. I never had to worry about guns in my school when I was a kid,” Young said.

Amid the crowd, one gun rights supporter held high a large sign demanding Second Amendment rights.

Gun control advocates have expressed concern that the court, with a 5-4 conservative majority, could use the legal battle over a now-loosened gun control regulation unique to one city to issue a ruling widening gun rights nationwide.

Such a ruling could jeopardize a variety of firearms restrictions passed in recent years by state and local governments across the country, including expanded background checks and confiscations of weapons from individuals who a court has deemed dangerous, according to these advocates.

The dispute centers on New York City’s handgun “premises” licenses that allowed holders to transport their firearms only to a handful of shooting ranges within the city, and to hunting areas elsewhere in the state during designated hunting seasons.

The plaintiffs filed suit in 2013 after they were told by authorities they could not participate in a shooting competition in New Jersey or bring their guns to a home elsewhere in the state. The Manhattan-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the regulation advanced the city’s interest in protecting public safety and did not violate the Second Amendment.

GUN CONTROL LAWS PROLIFERATE

Gun control is a contentious issue in the United States, which has experienced numerous mass shootings. Since 2013, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted more than 300 gun control laws, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Republican opposition in Congress has been instrumental in thwarting passage of new federal laws.

New York City officials have argued that controlling guns in public takes on particular urgency in the most densely populated urban center in the United States, where the potential for violence, accidents or thefts is heightened.

The regulation dated back to 2001 when New York police tightened handgun transport rules because officers had observed license holders improperly traveling with loaded firearms or with their firearms far from any authorized range.

The city argued that the rule did not prevent training as there are plenty of ranges at which to practice within the city, and individuals could rent firearms at competitions farther afield. The rule also did not prevent homeowners from keeping a separate handgun at a second home outside the city.

The Supreme Court had avoided taking up a major firearms case since 2010, when it extended to state and local regulations a 2008 ruling that recognized for the first time that the Second Amendment protects a person’s right to keep a gun at home for self-defense.

The challengers have said that the history and tradition of the Second Amendment makes clear that the right extends beyond the home. They also are asking the Supreme Court to require lower courts to more strictly review gun curbs, with an eye toward striking them down.

The court’s ruling is due by the end of June.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

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)