WASHINGTON -- Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the Supreme Court's liberal justices dealt a surprising setback to abortion opponents Monday, striking down a restrictive Louisiana law and pledging to stand by past rulings that have upheld a woman's right to choose abortion.
By a 5-4 vote, the court threw out a Louisiana law that would have required abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. If put into effect, it was expected to result in the closing of all but one of the state's abortion providers.
It came as no surprise that the four liberal justices opposed the law since they struck down a similar Texas law four years ago. But the chief justice, a conservative who had steadily opposed abortion rights in the past and had voted to uphold the Texas law, cast the fifth vote with them, citing precedent as his reason.
It was the court's first abortion ruling since President Donald Trump's two appointees took their seats, and it dashed hopes of abortion opponents who expected the more conservative court would move to repeal Roe vs. Wade or at least give states more power to narrow it.
It also marked the third major decision in the last two weeks in which the chief justice joined with the court's four liberals. The court extended workplace protections for LGBTQ employees and blocked Trump's repeal of the Obama-era policy that protected so-called Dreamers from deportation.
A statement from the White House press secretary called the decision "unfortunate," adding that "unelected justices have intruded on the sovereign prerogatives of state governments by imposing their own policy preference in favor of abortion to override legitimate abortion safety regulations."
Roberts, in a 16-page concurring opinion for June Medical Services vs. Russo, said he did not agree with the liberals' legal reasoning in rejecting the Louisiana and Texas laws: that the court should balance the health costs and benefits of each abortion regulation. But he said the court should honor the outcome of the Texas decision.
"The legal doctrine of stare decisis requires us, absent special circumstances, to treat like cases alike. The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons. Therefore Louisiana's law cannot stand under our precedent," he said.
His opinion on Monday suggests he would uphold some further regulations, but not those that greatly hamper women. Roberts also said he would abide -- for now -- by the court's 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, which reaffirmed the central principle of Roe vs. Wade that states may not put a "substantial obstacle" in front of women seeking abortions.
But in a line that might worry abortion rights advocates, Roberts noted that in the Louisiana case, "neither party has asked us to reassess the constitutional validity of that standard."