|The Supreme Court on Thursday turned away pleas from anti-abortion activists to make it easier for them to protest outside clinics, declining to wade back into the abortion debate just days after striking down a Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics.
The justices said in a written order that they would not hear cases from Chicago and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where anti-abortion activists had challenged ordinances that restrict their behavior outside clinics.
As is usual, the justices did not comment in turning away the cases. The order from the court noted Justice Clarence Thomas would have heard the Chicago case.
The Supreme Court has since the late 1990s heard several cases involving demonstration-free zones, called buffer zones, outside abortion clinics. Most recently, in 2014, the justices unanimously struck down a law that created a 35-foot protest-free zone outside Massachusetts abortion clinics. The court said Massachusetts’ law, which made it a crime to stand in the protest-free zone for most people not entering or exiting the clinic or passing by, was an unconstitutional restraint on the free-speech rights of protesters.
On Thursday, one of the two cases the court declined to take up involved an ordinance passed by the city counsel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital, in 2012 that made it illegal to “congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate” in a zone 20 feet from a health care facility. Anti-abortion activists sued, arguing that the ordinance violates their free speech rights. Lower courts have upheld the ordinance, however, ruling it doesn't apply to “sidewalk counseling,” where individuals who oppose abortion offer assistance and information about alternatives to abortion to those entering a clinic.
Roberts a pivotal vote in the Supreme Court's big opinions
The biggest cases of the Supreme Court term so far have a surprising common thread. On a court with five Republican appointees, the liberal justices have been in the majority in rulings that make workplace discrimination against gay and transgender people illegal, protect young immigrants from deportation and, as of Monday, struck down a Louisiana law that restricted abortion providers.
As surprising, Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative nominated by President George W. Bush who has led the court for nearly 15 years, has joined his liberal colleagues in all three. Since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2018, Roberts has played a pivotal role in determining how far the court will go in cases where the court's four liberals and four conservatives are closely divided.
Here's a look at where Roberts stood in the abortion, immigration and LGBT cases, his history on the court and what's at stake in coming decisions in which Roberts could play a key role:
On Monday, Roberts joined liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in striking down Louisiana's Act 620. The justices ruled that the law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals violates the abortion rights the court first announced in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
But Roberts' reason for siding with the liberals had less to do with his feelings on abortion than with his feelings on whether the court should do an abrupt about-face. Four years ago the court's four liberal members and Justice Kennedy struck down a Texas law nearly identical to Louisiana's. At the time, Roberts was a vote in dissent. But with Kennedy's retirement and replacement by conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, many conservatives had hoped the result in the Louisiana case would be different. Not so, Roberts wrote: “The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago."