The U.S. Supreme Court turned away two abortion-rights related cases Monday, letting stand appellate court decisions protecting patient rights and clinic access while giving reproductive rights advocates a rare reprieve before the nation’s highest court.
The Roberts Court first let stand a federal appeals court ruling reinstating key portions of a New York City law regulating so-called crisis pregnancy centers. New York City lawmakers in 2011 passed a law that places three specific truth-in-advertising disclosure requirements on crisis pregnancy centers. First, CPCs must have a “status disclosure” requirement in which they must disclose whether or not they have a licensed medical provider on staff who provides or directly supervises services.
Second, CPCs must disclose a “government message” that the New York City Department of Health encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed provider.
CPCs must also make specific “services disclosures” to clients as to whether they provide referrals for abortions, emergency contraception, or prenatal care.
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The law stipulates that these disclosures must be provided at entrances and waiting rooms, in any advertising done by the CPC, and during telephone conversations with potential clients. Failure to follow the disclosure requirements results in civil fines and the possibility of the facility closing for repeated violations.
Conservative legal advocacy groups sued to block the law on behalf of several religious nonprofits operating CPCs in the area shortly after it was passed, arguing that it violated the First Amendment.
In June 2011, a lower court agreed and blocked the law, temporarily preventing it from taking effect. Attorneys for the city appealed, and in January 2014 a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed in part the lower court ruling and reinstated the “status disclosure” portion.
However, the federal appeals court did not reinstate the “services disclosure” or “government message” portions of the law. According to the Second Circuit judges, New York could require CPCs to make disclosures about medical providers because the professionals are related to its ability to “protect the health of its citizens and combat consumer deception in even the most minimal way.”
Furthermore, the court held, New York has a compelling interest in protecting consumers from well-documented deceptive practices of CPCs, many of which the court noted were located near Planned Parenthood health-care clinics and had misleading names and signage.
However, the Second Circuit ruled, the law’s requirement that centers disclose whether they provide referrals for emergency contraception, abortions, or prenatal care were likely unconstitutional.
The Roberts Court also refused to take up the case of Jo Ann Scott, a Colorado woman who was convicted in 2010 of violating a Colorado law that makes it a crime to “knowingly obstruct, detain, hinder, impede, or block another person’s entry to or exit from a health care facility” after a jury found she made physical contact with a woman trying to enter a Planned Parenthood clinic in Denver.
Scott challenged her conviction, arguing the law was unconstitutionally vague and too broad, but a federal appeals court disagreed. After last summer’s decision in McCullen v Coakley, unanimously striking down as unconstitutional a Massachusetts buffer zone law, anti-choice advocates urged the Roberts Court to take up Scott’s case. They argued that the McCullen decision made it clear that “there is no right to be protected from ‘uncomfortable’ speech on public streets and sidewalks.”
Scott is a familiar player in litigation concerning clinic access. The Department of Justice in 2011 filed a federal complaint against Scott for violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, alleging that Scott used force against a patient on April 2, 2010, and against a companion of a patient on June 9, 2010, with the intent to injure, intimidate or interfere with their efforts to obtain reproductive health services.
The complaint alleged that Scott’s husband, Kenneth Scott, violated FACE by engaging in ten incidents in which he physically obstructed patients and staff who were attempting to enter or exit the Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. In October 2011, Scott settled that lawsuit and agreed to pay monetary damages to each of her alleged victims of harassment.
The Department of Justice also filed FACE Act claims against her husband, Kenneth. In March 2012 that lawsuit was dismissed after a federal court refused to issue an order blocking Kenneth Scott’s protest activities.