WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Louisiana law that could have left the state with a single abortion clinic, dashing the hopes of conservatives who were counting on President Trump’s appointments to lead the court to sustain restrictions on abortion rights and, eventually, to overrule Roe v. Wade.
Instead, conservatives suffered a setback, and from an unlikely source. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. added his crucial fifth vote to those of the court’s four-member liberal wing, saying that respect for precedent compelled him to do so, even though he had voted to uphold an essentially identical Texas law in a 2016 dissent.
In the past two weeks, Chief Justice Roberts has voted with the court’s liberal wing in three major cases — on job discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers, on a program protecting young immigrants known as Dreamers and now on abortion. While the chief justice has on occasion disappointed his usual conservative allies, notably on the Affordable Care Act and adding a citizenship question to the census, nothing in his 15-year tenure on the court compares to the recent run of liberal votes in major cases.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the four other justices in the majority, said the Louisiana law was “almost word-for-word identical” to the one from Texas that the Supreme Court struck down in the 2016 decision, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
In both cases, Justice Breyer wrote, the laws put an undue burden on the constitutional right to the procedure.
The court’s decision to revisit the issue of admissions privileges worried proponents of abortion rights given Chief Justice Roberts’s support for the Texas law. Since that ruling, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who voted to overturn the law, was replaced by the more conservative Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
In the end, Chief Justice Roberts’s commitment to precedent sank the Louisiana law. “I joined the dissent in Whole Woman’s Health,” he wrote on Monday, “and continue to believe that the case was wrongly decided. The question today, however, is not whether Whole Woman’s Health was right or wrong, but whether to adhere to it in deciding the present case.”
“The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons,” the chief justice wrote. “Therefore Louisiana’s law cannot stand under our precedents.”
Still, it would be hasty to conclude that he was prepared to strike down other abortion restrictions or that he would vote to sustain the Roe decision, which in 1973 established a constitutional right to abortion, should a direct challenge to the ruling reach the court.
Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, expressed disappointment in Monday’s decision.
“In an unfortunate ruling today,” she said in a statement, “the Supreme Court devalued both the health of mothers and the lives of unborn children by gutting Louisiana’s policy that required all abortion procedures be performed by individuals with admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.”