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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

High Court Overturns Abortion Protest Rule

WASHINGTON -- A week after ruling anti-abortion activists have a free-speech right to confront patients on the sidewalk, the Supreme Court on Monday overturned a U.S. appeals court decision that upheld restrictions against such protesters in Arizona.


In a one-line order, the justices told the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, to reconsider the constitutionality of a Phoenix ordinance that restricts large protests within 100 feet of medical facilities.


The law, enacted in 1993, also requires all anti-abortion activists to step back eight feet from any person who asks them to do so.


The appeals court upheld this so-called "bubble ordinance'' in 1995, but the justices vacated that decision Monday and sent it back for further consideration in light of its decision last week in the similar case.


Meanwhile, the high court dealt another setback to the advocates of term limits for members of Congress.


Last year, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down a voter initiative that sought to either force its federal lawmakers to support term limits or carry a ballot notation telling voters of their disagreement with it. The state judges said the initiative was "coercive'' of lawmakers and violated the constitutional provision that requires amendments to begin either in Congress or the state legislatures, not through a popular vote.


The justices refused to hear two appeals of that decision Monday. The same issue is percolating in several other state courts, and the justices may reconsider the matter later.


Two years ago, the Supreme Court dealt a major blow to the term limits movement by ruling 5-4 that states cannot impose such restrictions on federal lawmakers. Many states have adopted term limits for their state legislators, a matter generally outside the Supreme Court's jurisdiction.


In the abortion area, the Phoenix case has been closely watched as a test case in the West involving the power of cities to shield medical facilities from persistent demonstrators.


The Phoenix City Council passed its ordinance in 1993 in response to protests outside clinics where abortions are performed. The women going to these clinics are a "captive audience'' who are being subjected to "harassing and intimidating activity,'' the ordinance said.


Its key provision made it illegal for a demonstrator near a health facility "to fail to withdraw upon a clearly communicated request to do so to a distance of at least eight feet away from any person'' who makes such a request.


Lawyers for the American Center for Law and Justice, the legal firm funded by televangelist Reverend Pat Robertson, challenged the law on free-speech grounds.


Upholding the law, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Phoenix ordinance did not substantially limit free speech by the abortion opponents.


Lawyers for the protesters appealed to the Supreme Court last March, which held the case until deciding a similar dispute from upstate New York. Last week, the Supreme Court upheld a judge's order imposing a 15-foot, no-protest zone at the entrance in order to "secure physical access'' to the medical facility. However, in Schenck vs. the Pro-Choice Network, the justices struck down other restrictions on demonstrators and said a "floating buffer zone'' around the approaching patients was unconstitutional.