U.S. Supreme Court

Chief justice asks no questions in challenge to abortion-clinic buffer zones


Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. didn’t ask a single question during oral arguments on Wednesday in a free-speech challenge to a Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics.

Despite Roberts’ silence, he is likely to provide a crucial vote to strike down the law, the New York Times reports. He wrote the majority opinion in 2011 that found the First Amendment protects anti-gay picketers at military funerals from tort liability. The Washington Post and SCOTUSblog also have coverage.

The lead plaintiff is 77-year-old Eleanor McCullen, who says she wants to hold quiet conversations with women entering the clinic to persuade them not to have an abortion. The last time the Supreme Court looked at the issue was in 2000, when the Supreme Court upheld a Colorado law establishing an eight-foot no-contact zone around health-care facilities.

During arguments, justices differed in their assessment of the expanse of a 35-foot zone, according to the Post. Justice Elena Kagan said it’s about the size of the courtroom (which is actually 82 feet by 91 feet.) Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it was about two car lengths.

“By the end of Wednesday’s hearing,” SCOTUSblog says, “it was hard to see how the court—with a recent string of decisions supporting broad rights of free expression, in situations ranging from funeral protests to violent video games—would put together a majority to uphold a law that its lawyer repeatedly said was all about the use of public sidewalks as a forum for exchanging ideas.”

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Chemerinsky: Bankruptcy case tops a busy January session”

ABAJournal.com: “SCOTUS to consider whether 35-foot abortion-clinic buffer zone impedes free speech”

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