The Power of Law: Public Health in the Highest Court

April 3, 2016

As I stepped over the marble threshold of the Supreme Court of the United States to attend the oral arguments on the case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the loud, rhythmic chants from the rally outside were silenced in an instant.

Being able to witness such an important hearing is a rare opportunity, and I was determined not to miss a thing. As I settled in behind lawyers, senators, and advocates, I pulled out a little pen and pad.

In the courtroom, I looked around at the ornate ceiling, beautiful drapes, and audience members filing in. I was struck by the knowledge that outside these walls, thousands gathered and exercised their Constitutional right to demonstrate, while still more rallied in their cities and States around the country. That day, the fight was over access and, ultimately, over choice.

The case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt is momentous in its potential to affect a woman's ability to access safe abortions. The appeal hinges on whether regulations in Texas (in a law called HB 2) constitute an “undue burden” on access to abortions, as put forth in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

The audience rose as the justices entered the courtroom. Black bunting was draped over the seat of recently departed Justice Antonin Scalia. We sat. After the new members of the bar were welcomed, the oral arguments began.

First to speak was Stephanie Toti from the Center for Reproductive Justice arguing for the petitioner, Whole Woman’s Health. She gave some of her time to the United Sates Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli. Then, Scott Keller, Solicitor General of the State of Texas argued for the respondent. Ms. Toti closed with a rebuttal.

The arguments were elegant, thoughtful, and fascinating. The Justices’ questions were poignant, pointed, and purposeful. I will not give a play-by-play of the arguments but I highly recommend that you listen to it here.

I didn't anticipate being overwhelmed by the experience, but I left the courtroom breathless, even though I hadn't spoken a word in over 75 minutes. I worked to catch my breath and walked away from the court, leaving the loud chanting of the rally behind me, struggling to name what I was feeling.

I felt the thrill of hearing brilliant arguments, the excitement of being at the heart of a momentous event, and yet also fear. I was afraid that women could potentially lose the right to access and choice.

The 75 minutes that had seemed so long, now seemed like an impossibly short time for arguments both, in favor of and against, appealing a law at the highest level. Things we consider to be our rights could be granted in just as much time as taken within the room where I had been sitting. For better or for worse, this is our system, and it filled me with awe.

The decision on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt will be given this summer, and as I discussed in another post, the ruling likely rests on Justice Kennedy’s vote.

After this experience, I am even more eager to encourage my colleagues and peers to keep an eye on the Supreme Court sessions each year. Check out SCOTUSblog, where cases are outlined and articles shared, to learn more about each argument. To dig into a case, read the blue and red highlighted briefs for the petitioner and respondent, respectively. The introduction and summary sections of these briefs will inform you on what exactly each side claims.

As Mailman alumni, it is possible that we may one day be asked to provide testimony or contribute to an amicus brief. We have the professional knowledge to understand public health cases like this one, and we may be in the position to influence Supreme Court decisions through our professional advocacy. Until that time, I know Mailman students, alumna, and faculty will continue to make positive contributions wherever they go.

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