Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

PETITIONER: Whole Woman’s Health, et al.
RESPONDENT: John Hellerstedt, Commissioner, Texas Department of State Health Services, et al.
LOCATION: Texas State Capitol

DOCKET NO.: 15-274
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 579 US (2016)
GRANTED: Nov 13, 2015
ARGUED: Mar 02, 2016
DECIDED: Jun 27, 2016

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. - Solicitor General, for the United States as amicus curiae, for the petitioners
Scott A. Keller - for the respondents
Stephanie Toti - for the petitioners

Facts of the case

In 2013, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 2 (H.B. 2), which contained several provisions related to abortions. One such provision required that any physician performing an abortion have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where the abortion was performed, and another provision required that all abortion clinics comply with standards for ambulatory surgical centers. The petitioners are a group of abortion providers who sued the State of Texas seeking to invalidate those provisions in H.B. 2 as they relate to facilities in McAllen and El Paso. The petitioners argued that H.B. 2 denied equal protection, unlawfully delegated lawmaking authority, and constituted arbitrary and unreasonable state action. The district court dismissed the equal protection, unlawful delegation, and arbitrary and unreasonable state action claims and granted declaratory and injunctive relief against the enforcement of the two contested provisions of H.B. 2. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the equal protection, unlawful delegation, and arbitrary and unreasonable state action claims and partially reversed the injunctions because the plaintiffs failed to show that they placed a substantial burden in the path of a woman seeking an abortion.


Should a court's "substantial burden" analysis take into account the extent to which laws that restrict access to abortion services actually serve the government's stated interest in promoting health?

Media for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

Audio Transcription for Dissenting Opinion - Alito - June 27, 2016 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 02, 2016 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 27, 2016 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Breyer has our opinion this morning in case 15-274, Whole Woman's Health versus Hellerstedt.

Stephen G. Breyer:

We here consider the constitutionality of two statutory provisions of Texas law both of which regulate facilities where abortions are performed.

The first provision concerns hospital admitting privileges.

Before that provision was enacted, Texas law required an abortion facility to maintain a written protocol for managing, among other things, the transfer of patients requiring emergency care to a hospital.

The law before us adds a requirement that a doctor performing or inducing an abortion have active admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the facility where the abortion is performed.

The second provision says that “the minimum standards for an abortion facility must be equivalent to the minimum standards for ambulatory surgical centers.

We have to decide whether these two provisions are consistent with the Federal Constitution as interpreted in our 1992 case, Planned Parenthood versus Casey.

We find that they are not consistent with the constitutional standards set forth in Casey and we hold both provisions unconstitutional.

The federal district court after a trial found the two provisions were unconstitutional.

They constituted an undue burden on a women's right to choose.

The Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit reversed.

We in turn agree with the district court and we reverse the Court of Appeals.

The Fifth Circuit upheld the two provisions in question for several different reasons, independent reasons often, and we explain at length in our opinion why we reject each of those reasons.

I shall here summarize our basic reasoning.

First, the Court of Appeals pointed out that some of the doctors who brought this lawsuit had been part of an earlier case in which they also challenged the constitutionality of the admitting privileges requirement.

They lost the case.

For that reason the Court of Appeals held this lawsuit is barred by principles of res judicata which is a legal doctrine that says in essence you only get one bite of the same apple.

The question, however, is whether what we here really is the same apple.

Seeking the answer to that question and well-established legal principles, we conclude that it is not the same apple.

The restatement of judgments points out that “material operative facts occurring after the decision in the first action may provide a basis for a new and second action even if the second action in other respects resembles the first.

Suppose a group of the prisoners claim that a state is violating the Constitution by making them drink unhealthy water and they lose the claim, not enough evidence, but then suppose quite a few of them die of water contamination, because of that new critically important evidence, they could bring a second action similarly attacking the constitutionality of the state's actions even if the second action was in other respects like the first.

The plaintiffs here brought their first case before the Texas Law took effect.

They brought this second case after it had actually taken effect and clinics had actually closed.

So we think it is rather like the prisoner hypothetical.

Second, the circuit court thought that the physicians should have brought their challenge to the surgical center requirement earlier, at the time they first challenged the admitting privileges requirement.

The court concluded that that same doctrine about the apples' res judicata means that because they could have brought the surgical center challenged then, they can't bring it now.

In our view, however, res judicata does not require those who wish to challenge one part of a complicated regulatory law, say like the long law that regulates securities or drugs, it doesn't require them to challenge every part of that complex statute at the same time.

The provisions that are challenged here are distinct regulatory requirements, and so the doctors are free to challenge the surgical center requirement here in this new action as they have done so.

Turning to the constitutional merits, we think that Fifth Circuit applied the wrong legal standard.

That court said, “Medical uncertainty underlying a statute is for resolution by legislatures, not by courts.”