Chief Justice Silent in High Court Hearing on Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones

By:  Jack Kenny
01/17/2014
       
Chief Justice Silent in High Court Hearing on Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones

On a court that appeared evenly divided on the constitutionality of a Massachusetts law banning banning abortion protesters from entering a 35-foot buffer zone around entrances to an abortion clinic, Chief Justice John Roberts exercised his right to remain silent.

The chief justice’s silence during a January 15 hearing on a First Amendment challenge to the law was duly noted in news reports on the hearing and was even included in a New York Times headline. While it is not unusual for a justice to refrain, as Clarence Thomas usually does, from taking an active part in the oral arguments, the Roberts silence was notable for two reasons: The chief justice usually engages freely in the rigorous verbal sparring that takes place between the judges and litigants in Supreme Court hearings; and Roberts will cast a crucial vote that could decide the case in a likely 5-4 ruling. Noting that Roberts asked no questions at the hearing, Times reporter Adam Liptak added: “His earlier opinions suggest, however, that he is likely to provide the fifth vote to strike down the law.”

Eleanor McCullen, the lead plaintiff in McCullen v. Coakley, claims the buffer zone limits the free speech rights that she and others seek to exercise by speaking to women on their way into the clinic in an effort to dissuade them from having an abortion. McCullen stands outside the buffer zone at the Planned Parenthood clinic in downtown Boston twice each week. She said she has been able to persuade more than 80 women at the site to cancel abortion plans since the 2007 law went into effect, but insists she could convince even more if not limited by the zone. Women coming to the clinic for abortions are typically conflicted and “mixed up,” she said outside the Supreme Court building January 15, “and if I had another two minutes or three minutes, that’s all I need, but when I’m cut off, it’s very, very frustrating.”

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Photo of Eleanor McCullen with her attorney outside U.S. Supreme Court: AP Images

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