The Slatest

SCOTUS Rejects the Trump Administration’s Attempt to Punish the ACLU in Jane Doe Abortion Case

A woman holds a "Keep Abortion Legal" sign.
A pro-choice activist holds a sign as she counterprotests in front of the the Supreme Court during the 2018 March for Life on Jan. 19 in Washington. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Supreme Court successfully defused a bomb on Monday that had been sitting on its docket for months: Azar v. Garza, better known as the undocumented minor abortion case. In Garza, the Trump administration had prohibited Jane Doe, a minor who entered the United States illegally without her parents, from terminating her pregnancy. She sued, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit eventually barred the government from blocking her access to an abortion. Her lawyers promptly secured that procedure, spurring an infuriated appeal to the Supreme Court from the Department of Justice. The DOJ asked the justices to reverse the ruling below, and to punish Doe’s lawyers for helping her terminate her pregnancy.

On Monday morning, the court declined both requests. In a per curiam opinion with no noted dissents, the justices instead charted a middle course. (Compromise seems to be the name of the game this week.) The court has a long-standing—though inconsistently applied—practice of vacating a lower court’s decision when it becomes moot during the appeal. It is often applied when one party wins in the court below then quickly seizes on its victory to do what it set out to do, since its actions leave no live controversy for the Supreme Court to decide. That is precisely what Jane Doe did here, so the justices vacated the D.C. Circuit’s decision and instructed the lower courts to dismiss the case.

The Supreme Court handled the DOJ’s astonishing request to sanction Doe’s lawyers just as delicately. “On the one hand,” the court wrote, “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.”

“On the other hand,” it added, “lawyers also have ethical obligations to their clients and not all communication breakdowns constitute misconduct.” However, “the Court need not delve into the factual disputes raised by the parties” to determine how to resolve this case—by erasing the lower court’s ruling and dismissing Jane Doe’s moot claim.

This resolution is not entirely satisfactory given the DOJ’s startlingly vindictive and groundless position with regard to Doe’s attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union. Its request for sanctions was a flagrant effort to intimidate the ACLU, one of the Trump administration’s fiercest legal foes, and had absolutely no basis in legal ethics. Indeed, if the ACLU had done what the administration insisted, it would’ve acted contrary to its client’s interests, committing an actual ethical breach. The court could have spelled out the egregious faults in the DOJ’s position and condemned its efforts to persecute its opponents. Practically speaking, though, a curt dismissal of the DOJ’s claim works just as well.

Notably, the court’s actions in Garza have no effect on the Trump administration’s ability to attempt to block undocumented minors from obtaining abortions. In March, a federal judge certified a class action on behalf of all similarly situated women and blocked the government from interfering with their access to abortion. Monday’s order dismissed Doe’s individual claim and does not affect this class action. Thus, undocumented minors’ right to abortion remains safe for now, thanks to the continued efforts of the ACLU attorneys whom the Trump administration tried and failed to scare out of court.