The US Supreme Court this week gets its first chance to consider new curbs on abortion rights with President Donald Trump's two conservative appointees on the bench as it examines the legality of a Louisiana law that could force two of the state's three clinics that perform the procedure to shut down.
The court, with a 5-4 conservative majority, is scheduled on Wednesday to hear arguments in an appeal by Shreveport-based abortion provider Hope Medical Group for Women seeking to invalidate the law. Chief Justice John Roberts may be pivotal in deciding the outcome, with Trump's appointees Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch also in the spotlight.
The clinic sued to block the 2014 law, which 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 abortion clinic. A federal appeals court ruled against the clinic and upheld the law.
The Supreme Court struck down a similar Texas requirement in 2016 when conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired in 2018, joined the four liberal justices to defend abortion rights. Trump has tightened the conservative grip on the court with his 2018 appointment of Kavanaugh, who replaced Kennedy, and his 2017 appointment of Gorsuch.
In their prior stints as federal appellate judges, neither Kavanaugh nor Kennedy ruled directly on abortion rights. But Trump promised during the 2016 presidential race to appoint justices who would overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that recognized a woman's constitutional right to an abortion and legalized it nationwide.
The Louisiana case will test the willingness of the court to uphold Republican-backed abortion restrictions being pursued in numerous conservative states.
Roberts, a conservative, cast the deciding vote when the court last year on a 5-4 vote blocked Louisiana's law from going into effect while the litigation over its legality continued.
When the Supreme Court in 1992 reaffirmed Roe v. Wade, it prohibited laws that placed an "undue burden" on a woman's ability to obtain an abortion. In the Texas case, Roberts concluded that an admitting privileges requirement did not represent an undue burden, but he was in the minority in the ruling.
Known to be concerned about the court's institutional reputation and integrity, Roberts may be wary about reversing such a recent precedent even though he was one of the dissenters in the 2016 case.
"Everyone is looking to the chief justice to see what he is going to do," said Nicole Saharsky, a lawyer who regularly argues at the Supreme Court.
Baton Rouge-based US District Judge John deGravelles cited the undue burden precedent when he struck down Louisiana's law in 2016, prompting the state to appeal to the New Orleans-based 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals. The 5th Circuit upheld the law despite the 2016 precedent, concluding there was no evidence any Louisiana clinic would close due to the admitting privileges requirement.
Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights legal advocacy group representing the Hope clinic, said the justices must know that Louisiana's law was in "open defiance" of their 2016 precedent.
"The real issue for the court in this case is: are they going to follow their own precedent from four years ago?" Northup said.