The Standing Argument in the New Abortion Case

In our latest Legal Spirits podcast, Mark and I discuss June Medical Services v. Gee, the latest case about abortion picked up by the Supreme Court. This is a 5th Circuit case reviewing a Louisiana law requiring doctors to obtain admitting privileges at area hospitals in order to continue performing abortions at clinics. The 5th Circuit upheld the law, distinguishing a facially similar law in Texas that the Supreme Court struck down three years ago by a vote of 5-3 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. In the podcast, Mark and chat about the lower court opinion, the petition, and the cross-petition.

I want to say just a little more in this post about the cross-petition, which advances an argument about standing–the constitutional requirement that a claimant allege a concrete and particularized injury that was caused by the defendant and can be redressed by the Court. One widely recognized rule of standing–a “prudential” rule rather than a constitutionally compelled rule (meaning that Congress could, if it wished, legislate around the prudential doctrine)–is that one cannot assert claims on behalf of other parties; that is, so-called “third party standing” or jus tertii is generally impermissible. There are exceptions to the rule. For example, a parent may assert a claim on behalf of a child. But in the main, third party standing has been rejected by the Court as adequate.

One of the exceptions to the third party standing prohibition was carved out by the Court in 1976, after Roe v. Wade, in a case called Singleton v. Wulff. In Wulff, the Court held that two Missouri physicians had standing to challenge a law excluding abortions that were not “medically indicated” for purposes of Medicaid coverage. A majority of the Court found adequate standing for the doctors themselves because of the financial consequences they might face in the absence of Medicaid coverage. But a plurality of the Court went further: in an opinion by Justice Blackmun, it held that physicians have the right to assert third party standing on behalf of women whose rights may be affected by a particular law because it thought that the interests of physicians and their patients in the abortion context are “inextricably bound up” and thus there exists a “close relationship” between them, that doctors are “effective advocates” for their patients, and that women may not be effective advocates of their own rights in this area.

The Gee cross-petition takes aim at this plurality holding in Wulff. Citing Justice Thomas’s dissenting opinion in Whole Woman’s Health (which only he signed), it argues that the Court should revisit the third party standing rule of Wulff and that the interests of women and physicians are actually adverse in this case (it claims that many of the doctors simply do not want to obtain admitting privileges, which would enhance patient safety). It also argues that because the issue of prudential third party standing was not explicitly raised below, the physicians have waived that standing, while the physicians say that it is the state that has waived its right to object to third party standing.

As we discuss in the podcast, there is also an amicus brief in the case submitted by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, a former clerk of Chief Justice John Roberts. It argues that the effect of this third party standing rule is to give physicians a heightened standard of review that they would not ordinarily get if they were asserting their own injuries. On their own, the law would be reviewed for a rational basis, but through third party standing, it is now reviewed under the higher undue burden standard of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. And it also argues that even if the physicians are granted third party standing, they cannot satisfy the undue burden standard as fleshed out by Casey and WWH because they cannot show that the statute affects a “large fraction of women,” which is the language used in the cases.

The Court could certainly use this case as a chance either to rethink or to rein in the Wulff rule. Option A: it could revisit the rule altogether and reject the plurality portion of the Wulff rule. Option B: it could narrow the Wulff rule to situations in which there is evidence that a “large fraction of women” might be affected by the legislation in question, and that there is insufficient evidence in Gee. Note that rejecting the third party standing rule altogether would abrogate that part of Whole Woman’s Health concerning standing (doctors brought the challenge there too), while the remainder of the “law” of WWH would remain in effect. Probably there are other possibilities. But resolving the case on the basis of third party standing doctrine might give the Court a way to chip away at existing abortion law without going directly after the likes of Casey. “They’ve narrowed Singleton v. Wulff!!” just doesn’t have the same sky-is-falling quality for abortion rights supporters that a more direct attack might. Going in this direction would also track some of the skepticism with which some members of the Court view its broader standing doctrines (see, for example, Justice Gorsuch’s views on standing in the Bladensburg Cross opinion).

It will be interesting to see just what the Court does with the standing claim. Stay tuned. And for more on the case generally (including some speculation about the standing claim), have a listen to our podcast!

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