WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) — The U.S. Supreme Court handed down two stunners on abortion and public corruption in its final opinions of the 2015-2016 term.
In its highest-profile abortion decision in decades, Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court’s liberal wing in a 5-3 ruling that spelled the demise of new restrictive laws in Texas.
The high court’s eight justices also unanimously moved to give public officials more wiggle room in corruption cases than many prosecutors would like.
Whole Woman’s Health ruling
The current eight-justice court, created by the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia, surprised many legal analysts Monday by finding a majority on abortion access, one of the judiciary’s most contentious subjects.
Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer declared “there was no significant health-related problem that the new law helped to cure.”
A 5-3 split in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt means that Texas laws vastly restricting who can provide abortion and where are now off the books, along with lower court rulings supporting their validity.
Provisions in the state law would’ve effectively decimated the number of abortion facilities able to function legally, leaving a significant number of women without local abortive options.
The court agreed with Texans who argued that the new requirements created an “undue burden,” which the institution outlawed in its landmark Casey decision in 1992.
Amped up crowds of screaming, chanting and singing abortion activists from both sides of the ideological spectrum filled the court’s steps as they waited for the final ruling.
As details of the decision broke on social media, the roar of pro-abortion rights advocates audibly drowned out the jeers of anti-abortion rights activists.
“I want everybody to understand that you don’t mess with Texas women,” exclaimed Amy Hagstrom Miller, president of Whole Woman’s Health.
Beyonce’s pro-woman song “Run the World” blared as older women, who’ve seen the issue litigated time and again, hugged one another and wiped away tears streaming down their cheeks.
A few steps away, Family Research Council representatives broadcast prayers for radical change through a megaphone.
Others displayed defiance.
“We stand here today as members of the pro-life movement saying that we will not give up,” vowed Concerned Women for America President Penny Nance.
Public corruption case upheaval
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has steadfastly maintained for three years that he never violated bribery laws during his tenure as the state’s chief executive.
Monday, SCOTUS unanimously sided with the once-rising Republican star, rejecting two lower court’s rulings against him.
McDonnell responded in a statement, “I express my heartfelt gratitude to the justices of the United States Supreme Court for the time and attention they have given to the law in my case.”
The former governor could face further prosecutions, but said, “It is my hope that this matter will soon be over and that my family and I can begin to rebuild our lives.”
The ruling boiled down to what qualifies as an “official act” by a public official.
McDonnell admits that he and his family accepted $177,000 in gifts from a benefactor, but always insisted that he did not break anti-corruption laws by merely setting up business meetings with state officials for the same man.
Eight justices agreed with his reasoning, finding that McDonnell didn’t attempt to benefit his financial patron by twisting the arms of officials, thereby remaining in the legal green zone.
Other elected officials like U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) were certainly watching the opinion closely for clues on how their own corruption cases could play out.
This outcome could complicate such prosecutions by placing a stricter burden on prosecutors to prove that actions by public officials weren’t just unseemly, but explicitly fell under a now-narrowed set of prohibited behaviors.
Time for recess
The Supreme Court now stands in recess until the start of its 2016-2017 term.
Justices will visit law schools and foreign countries to participate in gatherings of legal scholars.
Some more prefer to use their spare time for leisure, like Justice Clarence Thomas’s annual family road trips in his camper.
With the GOP-led Senate gridlock on Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination holding strong, it appears likely that when the justices reconvene on the first Monday in October, the court will still be one justice short.
If that’s the case, the country could be treated to another round of controversial 4-4 ties next year.
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales