Mark Sherman

WASHINGTON: The Supreme Court issued its strongest defense of abortion rights in a quarter-century Monday, striking down Texas’ widely replicated rules that sharply reduced abortion clinics in the nation’s second-most-populous state.

By a 5-3 vote, the justices rejected the state’s arguments that its 2013 law and follow-up regulations were needed to protect women’s health. The rules required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and forced clinics to meet hospital-like standards for outpatient surgery.

The clinics that challenged the law argued that it was merely a veiled attempt to make it harder for women to get abortions by forcing the closure of more than half the roughly 40 clinics that operated before the law took effect.

Justice Stephen Breyer’s majority opinion for the court held that the regulations are medically unnecessary and unconstitutionally limit women’s right to abortions.

Breyer wrote that “the surgical-center requirement, like the admitting privileges requirement, provides few, if any, health benefits for women, poses a substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions and constitutes an ‘undue burden’ on their constitutional right to do so.”

Thirteen states have similar requirements, enacted as part of a wave of abortion restrictions that states have imposed in recent years. Others include limits on when in a pregnancy abortions may be performed and the use of drugs that induce abortions without surgical intervention.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, the owner of several Texas clinics among her eight facilities in five states, predicted that the decision would “put a stop to this trend of copycat legislation.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the law “was an effort to improve minimum safety standards and ensure capable care for Texas women. It’s exceedingly unfortunate that the court has taken the ability to protect women’s health out of the hands of Texas citizens and their duly elected representatives.”

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Breyer’s majority.

Ginsburg wrote a short opinion noting that laws like Texas’ “that do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion, cannot survive judicial inspection” under the court’s earlier abortion-rights decisions. She pointed specifically to Roe v. Wade in 1973 and Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, of which Kennedy was one of three authors.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Thomas wrote that the decision “exemplifies the court’s troubling tendency ‘to bend the rules when any effort to limit abortion, or even to speak in opposition to abortion, is at issue.’?” Thomas was quoting an earlier abortion dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February. Scalia has not yet been replaced, so only eight justices voted.

Alito, reading a summary of his dissent in court, said the clinics should have lost on technical, procedural grounds. Alito said the court was adopting a rule of, “If at first you don’t succeed, sue, sue again.”

Obama praises decision

Abortion providers said the rules would have cut the number of abortion clinics in Texas to fewer than 10 if they had been allowed to take full effect.

Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which represented the clinics, said, “The Supreme Court sent a loud and clear message that politicians cannot use deceptive means to shut down abortion clinics.”

President Barack Obama praised the decision, saying, “We remain strongly committed to the protection of women’s health, including protecting a woman’s access to safe, affordable health care and her right to determine her own future.”

Abortion opponents had hoped Kennedy, who wrote a 2007 opinion upholding a federal ban on a certain type of abortion, would conclude that states can enact health-related measures to make abortions safer.

Instead, he sided with his four more liberal colleagues.

The court “has stripped from states the authority to extend additional protections to women such as clinic safety standards or admitting privilege requirements for abortionists,” said Notre Dame University law professor Carter Snead.

Court upholds gun ban

The Supreme Court also upheld the broad reach of a federal law that bars people with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions from owning guns.

The justices rejected arguments that the law covers only intentional or knowing acts of abuse and not those committed recklessly — where a person is aware of the risk that an act will cause injury, but not certain it will. As examples, the court mentioned throwing a plate in the heat of an argument, or slamming a door.

The case involved two Maine men who said their guilty pleas for hitting their partners should not disqualify them from gun ownership.

Writing for herself and five other justices, Kagan said that Congress enacted the gun law some 20 years ago to close a loophole and “prohibit domestic abusers convicted under run-of-the-mill misdemeanor assault and battery laws from possessing guns.” She said if the law were read to exclude misdemeanors in which a person acted recklessly, it would “substantially undermine the provision’s design.”

Gun-rights groups had argued that Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong III should not lose their constitutional right to bear arms, while advocates for victims of domestic abuse pushed to preserve the restriction.

The case is notable in part because when it was argued on Feb. 29 Thomas asked a series of questions from the bench, the first time in 10 years that he’d asked a question.

Thomas expressed concern at the argument that a misdemeanor conviction could deprive someone of their constitutional gun rights, pressing a government attorney for any other examples when that could happen. He returned to that issue in a dissenting opinion Monday.

“Under the majority’s reading, a single conviction under a state assault statute for recklessly causing an injury to a family member — such as by texting while driving — can now trigger a lifetime ban on gun ownership,” he wrote, adding: “We treat no other constitutional right so cavalierly.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined Thomas’ dissent in part, agreeing that if Congress wanted to cover all reckless conduct it could have written the law differently.

Other decisions

The Supreme Court on Monday:

•?Unanimously threw out the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in a ruling that could make it tougher to prosecute elected officials accused of corruption.

•?Agreed to decide whether Republican lawmakers relied too heavily on race when they redrew North Carolina’s congressional districts to give the GOP a powerful advantage in the swing state.

•?Rejected a challenge to Obama administration regulations that extend minimum wage and overtime pay rights to nearly 2 million home health care workers.