Political News

Supreme Court Rejects Bid to Discipline ACLU

Posted June 4, 2018 4:40 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday turned away a request from the Justice Department to discipline lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union for assisting a teenager in the country illegally to obtain an abortion.

In an unsigned opinion with no noted dissents, the court vacated an appeals court ruling that had allowed the teenager to obtain the procedure, saying the dispute was moot. That wiped out the appeals court’s ruling as precedent.

The case attracted wide attention after the Justice Department, in an unusual Supreme Court filing in November, accused the ACLU of serious professional misconduct in the case of the teenager, who was known as Jane Doe. She obtained an abortion in October over the government’s objection after an appeals court allowed it.

The government said the civil liberties group had misled it about the timing of the abortion, frustrating its ability to seek a stay from the Supreme Court. The group denied the accusations and said it had acted properly and diligently.

“The Trump administration blocked Jane Doe from getting constitutionally protected care for a month and subjected her to illegal obstruction, coercion and shaming as she waited,” David Cole, the ACLU’s legal director, said at the time. “After the courts cleared the way for her to get her abortion, it was the ACLU’s job as her lawyers to see that she wasn’t delayed any further — not to give the government another chance to stand in her way.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of the teenager, who was in government custody in Texas, on Oct. 24. According to the Justice Department’s brief, lawyers for the ACLU initially indicated that the abortion would take place on Oct. 26. On that understanding, the department’s brief said, it had planned to file an emergency application for a stay in the Supreme Court on Oct. 25.

Under Texas law, women must attend a counseling session at least 24 hours before having an abortion with the doctor who will perform the procedure. The teenager had attended such a session Oct. 19, but the doctor she consulted was initially thought to be unavailable to perform the procedure.

Had a new doctor been required, the teenager would presumably have received counseling Oct. 25 and obtained the abortion Oct. 26. It turned out that the original doctor was available after all and the teenager received the abortion early in the morning Oct. 25.

In its brief, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to vacate the appeals court’s ruling, which the court did. It also asked the justices to consider punishing the ACLU’s lawyers.

The Supreme Court rejected that request Monday in its unsigned opinion in the case, Azar v. Garza, No. 17-654.

“The court takes allegations like those the government makes here seriously, for ethical rules are necessary to the maintenance of a culture of civility and mutual trust within the legal profession,” the opinion said. “On the one hand, all attorneys must remain aware of the principle that zealous advocacy does not displace their obligations as officers of the court.”

“Especially in fast-paced, emergency proceedings like those at issue here, it is critical that lawyers and courts alike be able to rely on one another’s representations,” the opinion said. “On the other hand, lawyers also have ethical obligations to their clients and not all communication breakdowns constitute misconduct.”

But, the opinion concluded, “the court need not delve into the factual disputes raised by the parties” in order to vacate the appeals court’s decision.