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Docket for Supreme Court's New Term Includes Mass.' Buffer Zone Law

October 7, 2013 — In the new term that begins today, the Supreme Court's docket includes a case involving a Massachusetts law that prohibits protests within 35 feet of abortion clinics, the New York Times reports (Liptak, New York Times, 10/7). 

According to the Los Angeles Times, this new term "gives the court's conservative bloc a clear opportunity to shift the law to the right on touchstone social issues such as abortion, contraception and religion" (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 10/6). The New York Times reports, "An unusually large number of new cases put important precedents at risk, many in areas of the law the court has been rapidly revising since the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor." O'Connor -- who was at the court's ideological center and helped shape rulings on abortion, race, religion and the role of money in politics -- was succeeded by the "more conservative" Justice Samuel Alito in 2006 (New York Times, 10/7).

Massachusetts' Buffer Zone Law

The Supreme Court in June agreed to hear an appeal of a lower court's ruling that upheld a Massachusetts law prohibiting protests within 35 feet of abortion clinics. The 2007 law permits people to enter a 35-foot zone around clinics only to access the facility itself or reach another destination (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/25).

According to the Daily Beast, the case takes up the constitutionality of the law, which the plaintiffs contend is particularly suspect because "it targets those who speak against abortion" and "content-based speech restrictions are subject to stricter scrutiny than content-neutral rules."

In 2000, the Supreme Court upheld a Colorado law that prohibited protests within eight feet of a clinic, but the justices "could rule either way here without disturbing that precedent -- perhaps by relying on the individual right to be in a public place," the Daily Beast reports (Shapiro, Daily Beast, 10/7). Chief Justice John Roberts and Alito have replaced the members of that 2000 majority and "are considered more sympathetic to the free-speech claims of the protesters," according to AP/ABC News (Sherman, AP/ABC News, 10/6).