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Sotomayor hearing: Explaining the Casey abortion case

July 13, 2009 | 10:55 am

So what exactly is the “Casey case” that Sen. Dianne Feinstein spoke so passionately about today at Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing? The California Democrat brought up Casey during her opening statement, when she suggested that the things Supreme Court nominees say during their confirmation hearings are not good indications of how they will judge.

“I've found it increasingly difficult to know, from answers to questions we ask from this dais, how a nominee will actually act as a Supreme Court justice,  because answers here are often indirect and increasingly couched in euphemistic phrases,” she said.

For example, Feinstein said, in the past nominees had been asked questions about two landmark Supreme Court rulings on abortion, 1973’s Roe vs. Wade and 1992’s Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey.

“Some nominees,” she said, likely referring to John G. Roberts Jr.  and Samuel Alito, had assured the Senate Judiciary Committee during their confirmation hearings that “Roe and Casey were precedents of the court entitled to great respect.”

Later, after winning confirmation and being sworn in as Supreme Court justices, the two justices “voted to overturn the key holding in Casey that laws restricting a woman's medical care must contain an exception to protect her health,” she said.

Feinstein made these comments about the abortion rulings just moments after she had been interrupted by a man in the audience who stood up and yelled: “What about the unborn?”

So here’s the rundown on Casey:

The case revolved around a series of Pennsylvania’ statutes that required, among other things, that a married woman seeking an abortion notify her husband and that a minor seeking an abortion obtain parental consent. Abortion clinics also were required to provide women with certain information at least 24 hours before an abortion is performed.

But before the laws took effect, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania sued the governor, claiming that the laws were unconstitutional. When the case made its way to the Supreme Court, the justices upheld the state’s parental consent requirements, and the 24-hour waiting period. The court struck down the spousal notification requirement.

Most significantly, though, it upheld Roe vs. Wade and a woman’s right to seek an abortion. The plurality opinion stated that that right was provided for by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

-- Kate Linthicum

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