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Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Louisiana Abortion Law

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  • The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in June Medical v. Russo, the first major abortion case that will be heard by Trump’s appointees.
  • The case centers around a Louisiana law that says doctors cannot provide abortion services unless they have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where they provide care.
  • In 2016, the court ruled against a very similar Texas law in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
  • If the court sides with the law, there would likely only be one doctor left in Lousiana who could provide abortions.

June Medical v. Russo

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday in what could be a historic case stemming from a controversial abortion law in Lousiana.

The law, known as Act 620, says doctors cannot provide abortion services unless they have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where they provide care. Louisiana already has some of the strictest abortion laws in the United States. Currently, there are only three clinics in the state. If this law survives the court, there would likely only be one doctor in Louisiana who could provide abortions.

This case, June Medical v. Russo, is the first major abortion case being heard by the current makeup of the Supreme Court, including Trump’s appointees, Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In 2016, the court heard a case involving a very similar law in Texas. It had the same rule about admitting privileges within 30 miles, but also included a piece mandating that clinics need facilities comparable to a surgical center. That case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, ended with the court ruling that the law was unconstitutional.

“The Court concluded that there ‘exists’ an ‘undue burden’ on a woman’s right to decide to have an abortion,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the decision, “and consequently a provision of law is constitutionally invalid, if the ‘purpose or effect’ of the provision ‘is to place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.’” 

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt was considered a major win for abortion rights activists, but this win is now in jeopardy as the new Supreme Court makeup could lead to an opposite ruling in June Medical v. Russo.

SCOTUS Hears Arguments

The case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt brought up a lot in Wednesday’s arguments. Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrillo argued in favor of Act 620 and maintained that the law was not identical to the law in Texas, thus warranting a different decision.

“The law was different, the facts are different,” she said. “The regulatory structure is different. And the record is different. And all of those things dictated a different result.” 

Chief Justice John Roberts pressed her on if there were real differences in these laws state to state. Murrill insisted that the law “serves a greater benefit” in this case. 

She also said the law serves to protect the safety of women who could potentially face complications after an abortion. She said it is justified by “abundant evidence of life-threatening health and safety violations, malpractice, noncompliance with professional licensing rules, legislative testimony from post-abortive women, testimony from doctors who took care of abortion providers’ abandoned patients.”

On the other side, Julie Rikelman argued against the law as the representation for June Medical Services. She maintained that abortion in Louisiana is a low-risk procedure and that these extra measures do not need to be taken. 

“Abortion in Louisiana in the years before the law was extremely safe, with a very low rate of complications,” she explained. 

She also said that if something were to go wrong, patients are usually not in a situation that would be aided by this law. 

When complications do occur, it’s almost always after the woman [has left] the clinic,” she said.

As for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Rikelman claimed that the cases were the same and that the 2016 decision should be respected in this case. 

“This case is about respect for the Court’s precedent,” she said before explaining that the law does not have any medical benefit or support from the medical community.

“Nothing, however, has changed that would justify such a legal about-face,” she said. “In fact, even more medical organizations have joined the [American Medical Association] and [American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists] to say that admitting privileges impose barriers to abortion with no benefit to patients and that this impact is not state dependent.” 

After arguments were made, Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, gave a statement further supporting the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision. 

“The arguments made clear that we are re-fighting a legal issue that we have already won and we’re refighting that legal issue because Louisiana is in open defiance of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Whole Woman’s Health case,” she wrote. 

Pro-life advocates also spoke publicly about the case.

“We’re are excited to stand proudly alongside Louisiana women who are making sure their voices are heard because they have been hurt by the abortion industry,” Alexandra Seghers, director of education at Louisiana Right to Life told NBC.

Activists Gather in D.C.

As arguments were ongoing, pro-abortion activists gathered outside the Supreme Court to protest Act 620 in Louisiana and urge the court to deem it unconstitutional. Celebrities like Busy Philipps and Elizabeth Banks attended and spoke in front of the crowd. 

“Today we are taking the opportunity to present reproductive freedom, including abortion, for exactly what it is: no less than liberty itself,” Banks said. 

Sen. Chuck Schumer Sparks Controversy

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also spoke in front of the pro-choice activists, which led to a spat between him and other politicians. Some thought his statements were threatening to the court. 

“Republican legislatures are waging a war on women, all women. And they’re taking away fundamental rights,” Schumer said to the crowd. “I want to tell you, Gorsuch; I want to tell you, Kavanaugh: You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.” 

Chief Justice Roberts issued a statement following this condemning the remarks. 

“Justices know that criticism comes with the territory, but threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous,” he wrote. 

President Donald Trump also tweeted about Schumer’s comments, saying the Senator must “pay a severe price for this!”

On Thursday morning, Schumer expressed regret for his words on the Senate floor.

“I should not have used the words I used yesterday. They didn’t come out the way I intended them to,” he said. “In no way was I making a threat. I never — never — would do such a thing.”

A decision for June Medical v. Russo is not expected until June. Right now, it is unclear which direction it will lean in, though many speculate the justices will stand by the Louisiana law. The Center for Reproductive Rights, however, told BuzzFeed News that they were hopeful. Rikelman also told them that she was “cautiously optimistic.”

See what others are saying: (NPR) (Vox) (New Yorker)

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As Unemployment Claims Rise, CA Officials Report Inmates Collected Millions in Benefits

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  • Unemployment numbers spiked for the second week in a row, marking the highest amount of new claims made since early October with 778,000 people filing. Over 20 million Americans are still collecting some kind of joblessness aid.
  • Experts say this will only get worse as COVID cases continue to rise and states impose more restrictions. However, unlike during the spring shutdowns, struggling Americans and small businesses will likely not have any help from the federal government.
  • Meanwhile, law enforcement officials in California reported that tens of thousands of inmates received upwards of $1 billion in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that officials described as “the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history.”

Unemployment Numbers Spike

Another 778,000 Americans filed for unemployment this week, the Department of Labor reported Wednesday, marking the highest spike since early October and the second week in a row that new claims have risen.

According to experts, this data signals that the massive coronavirus spikes the U.S. has seen in recent weeks are slowing the economy once again. On Wednesday, the country reported a record 2 million new cases in the same two weeks that joblessness claims also went up, bringing the official case count to more than 12.6 million Americans infected and over 260,000 dead.

As the COVID-19 spikes continue, and with more state and local governments imposing new restrictions on public gatherings, limiting hours and operations for restaurants and bars, and temporarily closing down some businesses entirely, economists say this situation will get worse before it gets better.

Unlike the first wave of shutdowns this past spring, it seems almost certain that struggling Americans will have to weather these latest closures without any help from the government.

Already, many of the programs that gave trillions of dollars to unemployed Americans and small businesses under the CARES Act have expired, and most of the few remaining programs will run out soon.

That is especially concerning when it comes to unemployment benefits. According to a recent report from the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, unless Congress and the White House sign off on a deal to extend key programs, roughly 12 million Americans will lose these benefits entirely the day after Christmas.

But after months of deadlock, any hopes for a new stimulus package petered out when the election came around. Democratic leadership is reportedly attempting to restart those talks, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he wants to approve some kind of bill before the end of the year. 

However, it remains unclear how all the problems that had deadlocked the lawmakers for months during the earlier negotiations will be resolved in time.

Inmate Unemployment Fraud

Meanwhile, states are still continuing to struggle with distributing unemployment benefits to jobless Americans.

On Tuesday, a task force lead by nine district attorneys across the state of California reported in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) that tens of thousands of prison and jail inmates — including more than 100 people on death row — have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that the officials say “appears to be the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history,”

According to the task force, between March and August, inmates housed in every single California prison and in jails throughout the state filed 35,000 claims totaling at least $140 million in benefits, though the alleged crimes could total as much as $1 billion.

In most cases, officials said that the payments were given out in the form of prepaid debit cards sent to friends or family on the outside who would then later deposit the proceeds to inmate accounts.

In some cases, the joblessness benefits were sent directly to the jails and prisons. Sometimes the inmates used their real names, but other times, they used fake names and fake Social Security numbers.

In fact, prosecutors were tipped off to some of the cases by listening to inmates recorded phone calls, where they bragged about how easy it was the game the system.

As far as how such widespread fraud could happen, law enforcement officials blamed California’s Employment Development Department, which has been swamped with processing more than 16.4 million unemployment claims since March, resulting in a massive backlog of unfilled claims that, according to reports, has totaled upwards of more than 1.6 million people at times.

However, the task force also said that part of the problem was due to the fact that unlike at least 35 other states, California does not have the technology to crosscheck inmate rosters against unemployment claims.

Looking Forward

In their letter, the officials called on Newsom to crack down on the rampant fraud and provide “significant resources” to do so. 

Newsom, for his part, responded in a statement by calling the fraud “absolutely unacceptable,” and ordering the Office of Emergency Services to create a task force to help the prosecutors with their investigation.

However, as The New York Times pointed out, Newsom had already formed a “strike team” a few months ago to help the state’s employment department speed up claims and address other issues, including fraud at correctional facilities.

The district attorneys were still forced to form their own task force with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after the reports of fraud in the employment department continued and the “strike team” failed to uncover the large amounts of fraud the other groups had seen.

Currently, it is unclear how Newsom’s new task force is different from the largely unsuccessful “strike team.” 

California, of course, is not the only state having these issues with unemployment insurance fraud. There have also been similar reports of fraud in Massachusetts, Illinois, Kansas, and other states.

These problems also go beyond unemployment. There have been frequent reports of CARES Act funding being misused, including by people using small business loans to buy luxury cars, as well as large companies or businesses connected to President Donald Trump Trump and members of Congress improperly receiving funding.

As Congress considers another much-needed stimulus package, these issues of transparency and accountability have now become paramount. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NBC News) (USA Today

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COVID-19 Cases Expected To Surge After Thanksgiving

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  • With coronavirus cases already on a steep rise in the U.S, experts are warning that Thanksgiving travel and gatherings will likely make things worse. Canada, for example, saw a jump in cases after its citizens celebrated the holiday last month.
  • Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that Americans should hold out for a vaccine, which is on the horizon, and be safe this Thanksgiving.
  • A family in Texas is also waring against gathering, saying they learned how dangerous it is the hard way. After celebrating a birthday together, all 15 people who attended the party tested positive for the virus.
  • On top of this experts are also warning against thinking a negative test clears you for socialization. In reality, you can test negative for the virus and still have and transmit it.

Warning From Surgeon General 

As Thanksgiving looms closer, warnings against family gatherings are being echoed by experts and everyday people alike. 

Health officials have been vocal about the threat the Thanksgiving holiday poses when it comes to the coronavirus. The U.S. has seen 12.4 million cases and lost 257,000 lives to the virus, and cases have been on a steep increase this month. The CDC has already warned against travel and experts have said that based on the spike Canada saw after its October Thanksgiving, America is set to go down a similar, or even worse path. 

“I want the American people to know that we are at a dire point in our fight with this virus by any measure,”  U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Monday on Good Morning America.Cases, positivity, hospitalizations, deaths. We’re seeing more Americans negatively impacted than ever before.” 

Adams said that with a vaccine on the horizon, Americans should just wait out this homestretch and stay put for the holiday.

“I’m asking Americans, begging you, hold on just a little bit longer,” he said. “Keep Thanksgiving and the celebration small and smart this year.” 

Family in Texas Urges Caution

Health officials are not the only ones preaching this advice. In Arlington, Texas, a family that has lived the consequences of gathering without regard for public health is urging people to not make the same mistake as them. The Aragonez family celebrated a birthday earlier this month indoors without masks or distancing. Now, all 15 people who attended tested positive for the virus. 

“We feel guilty for gathering,” members of the family said in a video encouraging caution. “All this pain that my family is feeling, this loneliness, this sickness, this longing to be healthy could have been prevented.” 

“Please don’t be like my family and ignore the CDC guidelines,” one person said. “By staying apart we can fight this virus together.” 

While most cases in the family were mild, one person was hospitalized for over a week.

“One moment of carelessness has cost us a month of peace, has cost us sleep, has cost us laughs, has cost us a lot of money,” one family member told the Washington Post. 

Testing Negative is Not Enough

Many have still forged on with their gathering plans under the false idea that if everyone tests negative before attending, they are in the clear to socialize. However, experts warn this is far from the case.

Just because a person tests negative does not necessarily mean they do not have the virus. Tests are not 100% accurate and it can take days or even a week to test positive for the virus after exposure. Not to mention, people could come into contract with the virus between their test and the family event. 

“A negative result is a snapshot in time,”  Dr. Paige Larkin, a clinical microbiologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago explaining to the New York Times. “It’s telling you that, at that exact second you are tested, the virus was not detected. It does not mean you’re not infected.”

While it might slightly minimize the risk of spread, it certainly does not eliminate it. More than anything, it gives people a false sense of security that they have a free pass to go wherever and see whoever they want, despite the fact that it still poses a large health threat.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Washington Post) (Associated Press)

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Over 1 Million People Traveled Through U.S. Airports Friday, Despite COVID-19 Warnings

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  • Over 1 million people traveled through U.S. airports on Friday, marking the second-highest single day of airport traffic since the coronavirus pandemic began.
  • The new record comes despite the fact that the CDC has issued a warning against travel for Thanksgiving, encouraging people to stay home instead because COVID-19 cases are already on a steep rise.
  • In Canada, cases spiked after the country celebrated their Thanksgiving holiday in October.
  • While cases were already increasing in the country, contact tracing has linked outbreaks to holiday gatherings, which likely accelerated the speed of spread.

Cases and Travel Both Increase

The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is expected to worsen the already increasing coronavirus outbreak in the United States. 

Currently, the country has seen over 12.3 million cases and lost more than 256,000 lives to this virus. On Friday, the U.S. broke its record for new cases in a single day, reporting 198,500 cases. The daily average has reached 171,462 cases a day and roughly one-quarter of all cases in the U.S. have come from just the month of November. 

These circumstances paint a grim picture of what could come after all of the traveling and large gatherings that are expected to happen over the holiday, even after repeated warning against doing so.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned against traveling and advised that “postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.”

The CDC told travelers to ask themselves questions, like if cases are high in their home or destination, if their method of travel makes social distancing difficult, and if there are travel restrictions in their area. If the answers to any of those questions are yes, people should “consider making other plans, such as hosting a virtual gathering or delaying your travel.”

Despite these warnings, air travel is on the rise in the country. On Friday, more than 1 million people passed through airports, marking the second-busiest day of air travel since the pandemic began. While this is 1.5 million people less than the same day last year, the travel surge troubles health officials who fear the virus could spread as people gather with their families. 

Case Spike After Canada’s Thanksgiving

All the U.S. has to do is look to its neighbor to the North in order to find out just what kind of impact Thanksgiving can have on coronavirus cases. Two weeks after Canada’s Thanksgiving in October, the country saw a spike in cases. While cases were already on the rise at the time, experts believe that holiday gatherings contributed to and accelerated the spread.

“Cases were indeed increasing already, but we definitely saw an increase in the rate of transmission after Thanksgiving. And we know that Thanksgiving is important for a couple of reasons. One is through contact tracing data,” Dr. Laura Rosella, an associate professor and epidemiologist at the University of Toronto told CBS News.

Contact tracing in the country showed a significant transmission from household gatherings stemming from Thanksgiving. 

“One local health unit that reported about 12 people being infected because of a Thanksgiving gathering,” Rosella explained. 

It’s not the only reason the cases are increasing, it’s not the only setting in which transmission is occurring, but definitely when people gathered indoors it did transmit COVID.”

Superspreading Events

Still, people are more likely to feel safe with their family, no matter how high the COVID-19 risk actually is. Superspreading weddings are among the strongest examples of this, as numerous have led to significant outbreaks because couples thought it was safe to gather with friends, family, and other people they trust.

“Many people don’t believe that you can actually catch it from your family and friends. They feel safe when they are around people that they know,” Karen Potts, the director of the Adams County Health Department in eastern Washington explained to NBC News. “And I think that’s why this sort of event happens. People just feel safe, and they go to the event, and it just spreads so rapidly.”

One August wedding in Maine, for instance, was liked to 177 coronavirus cases and 7 deaths. Many of those cases include people who did not attend the wedding. In fact, none of the deaths traced back to the wedding were attendees. 

An October wedding in Cincinnati led to 32 of the 83 guests getting COVID-19, including grandparents of the bride and groom. In Washington, a 300 person wedding earlier this month has led to 17 people getting the virus so far. 

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (NBC News) (Washington Post)

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