Court sides with Trump administration but doesn't punish attorneys in immigrant abortion case

The Supreme Court on Tuesday granted the Trump administration's request to toss out a lower court ruling that allowed an undocumented immigrant teen in federal custody to receive an abortion.

The justices said the dispute is now moot because the 17-year-old has already had the abortion and remanded the case to the district court with instruction to dismiss it.

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The Department of Justice had asked the court not only to vacate the ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, but to punish the attorneys for the plaintiff in the case either directly or through a referral to their respective state bars. 

The government argued in briefs that it was misled by the opposing lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for sneaking the teen off in the early morning hours — 4:15 a.m. — to get an abortion before the government could appeal the court’s ruling.

But the justices decided not to go that far.

In their five-page opinion, the justices said "lawyers have ethical obligations to their clients and not all communication breakdowns constitute misconduct." 

There was no noted dissent from the court’s decision.

The D.C. Circuit ruling, which came from the court’s full panel of judges, required the government to make the 17-year-old, known only in court documents as Jane Doe, available for pre-abortion counseling and the procedure.

Solicitor General Noel Francisco argued the case is moot since Doe has already had the abortion and asked the court to dismiss it under a 1950 court precedent known as the Munsingwear doctrine.

That doctrine holds that “a judgment, unreviewable because of mootness, should not be permitted to spawn any legal consequences.” 

The government had originally kept Doe from leaving the facility where she was being held to attend her pre-abortion counseling appointment and the appointment for the procedure, arguing it should not be forced to facilitate an abortion that is not medically necessary for an unaccompanied minor who entered the country illegally and was in federal custody.

The court took an unusually long time to issue their decision on the request. Francisco first petitioned the court in November, and court watchers speculated an argument amongst the justices behind the scenes could have been causing the delay.  

But there was no fiery dissent from the court’s ruling on Monday.

“When ‘a civil case from a court in the federal system … has become moot while on its way here,’ the court’s ‘established practice’ is ‘to reverse or vacate the judgment below and remand with a direction to dismiss,’” the court said. 

In a joint statement the departments of Justice and of Health and Human Services (HHS) hailed the court’s decision.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear that the federal government is not obligated to help a minor get an abortion and may choose policies favoring life over abortion,” they said.

“A pregnant minor who is in the country illegally can leave federal custody by returning to her home country, for example, but American taxpayers are not responsible for facilitating her abortion. We look forward to continuing to press the government’s interest in the sanctity of life.”

A class action case is now pending before the federal district court in D.C.

Jane Doe and another teen, Jane Roe, brought the case challenging the government’s policy of barring unaccompanied immigrant teens from obtaining an abortion.

The case is being brought on behalf of all pregnant unaccompanied immigrant teens who are or will be in federal custody.

In March, District Judge Tanya Chutkan granted the teens' request for a preliminary injunction, blocking HHS officials and the Office of Refugee Resettlement from interfering or obstructing the teens’ access to abortion counseling, medical appointments or other pregnancy-related care.

In a statement Monday, Brigitte Amiri, lead attorney for the class action lawsuit and deputy director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, said the Supreme Court's decision Monday does not effect that lawsuit in the lower court.

“The district court has blocked the Trump administration’s cruel policy of obstructing unaccompanied immigrant minors’ access to abortion while the case continues, and we won’t stop until we strike it down once and for all,” she said. 

Updated at 4:48 p.m.