The Supreme Court cast aside a broad challenge to federal limits on abortion-clinic protests as its 1995-96 term began Monday with a blizzard of paperwork but without the chief justice.
Giving a big victory to abortion-rights advocates, the court let stand rulings that said the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act does not infringe on anyone’s freedom of expression or religion.
With Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist home recuperating from back surgery, the court turned away more than 1,500 appeals.
The challenged abortion-clinic law makes it a crime for anyone to block, hinder or intimidate someone who seeks to enter.
Although Monday’s action was not a ruling - and therefore not necessarily the definitive word on the law’s validity - it was a key setback for anti-abortion activists.
Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice called the court’s action “very disappointing,” but said his organization would continue challenging the federal law.
“The Supreme Court missed an important opportunity to strike down a law that has turned the First Amendment on its head and crippled legitimate, peaceful protest,” Sekulow said.
Deborah Ellis of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund welcomed the action benefiting the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. “FACE has been effective in reducing the onslaught of violence to which women, doctors and their families have been subjected,” she said.
Lower courts had ruled in a case from Virginia that Congress, in passing the clinic-access law, had acted within its authority to regulate interstate commerce.
The anti-abortion American Life League sued Attorney General Janet Reno last year in an effort to block enforcement of FACE.
The Supreme Court last June rejected a challenge to FACE by the Concerned Women for America, but it had not raised the interstate commerce issue.
The appeal rejected Monday relied heavily on a decision last April in which the justices struck down a federal law that made it a crime to have a gun within 1,000 feet of a school. The court said the mere possession of a gun has virtually nothing to do with interstate commerce and should be left to state and local law enforcement.
“FACE, too, fails to reflect any substantial effect on interstate commerce,” the American Life League’s appeal argued.
Clinton administration lawyers had urged the justices to reject the appeal.
The court’s senior associate justice, John Paul Stevens, presided over the new term’s first day. Rehnquist is expected, however, to participate in deciding the cases argued before the court in his absence.
xxxx OTHER ACTION The Supreme Court also: Ruled that the way Tennessee elects the 33 members of its state Senate does not illegally dilute black voters’ political strength. Black voters had argued that a 1992 redistricting plan violated the federal Voting Rights Act. Rejected the appeal of a professor ousted as chairman of a New York college’s black-studies department after he was accused of making a bigoted and anti-Semitic speech. Refused to hear an appeal by Charles Keating, convicted of fraud and racketeering in the most expensive savings and loan failure in U.S. history. Keating had sought review of rulings that require him to repay $36.4 million to the collapsed Lincoln Savings & Loan. Let stand a ruling that American Cyanamid Co., one of the nation’s largest corporations, must be considered a private, not public, figure for its multimillion-dollar libel lawsuit against Mylan Pharmaceuticals Inc. Turned down the appeal of two California men who say they were victims of unconstitutional, excessive force when police dogs pursued and bit them. Associated Press