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Politics
AP
Supreme Court strikes down Louisiana abortion clinic law

WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics, reasserting a commitment to abortion rights over fierce opposition from dissenting conservative justices in the first big abortion case of the Trump era.

Chief Justice John Roberts and his four more liberal colleagues ruled that the law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals violates abortion rights the court first announced in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

The outcome is not the last word on the decades-long fight over abortion with dozens of state-imposed restrictions winding their way through the courts. But the decision was a surprising defeat for abortion opponents, who thought that a new conservative majority with two of President Donald Trump’s appointees on board would start chipping away at abortion access.

The key vote belonged to Roberts, who had always voted against abortion rights before, including in a 2016 case in which the court struck down a Texas law that was virtually identical to the one in Louisiana.

The chief justice explained that he continues to think the Texas case was wrongly decided, but believes it’s important for the court to stand by its prior decisions.

“The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law,” Roberts wrote. He did not join the opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer for the other liberals in Monday’s decision, and his position left abortion-rights supporters more relieved than elated.

The case was the third in two weeks in which Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, joined the court’s liberals in the majority. One of the earlier decisions preserved the legal protections and work authorization for 650,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. The other extended federal employment-discrimination protections to LGBT Americans, a decision that Justice Neil Gorsuch also joined and wrote.

In dissent on Monday, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “Today a majority of the Court perpetuates its ill-founded abortion jurisprudence by enjoining a perfectly legitimate state law and doing so without jurisdiction.”

Trump’s two high-court picks, Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were in dissent, along with Samuel Alito. The presence of the new justices is what had fueled hopes among abortion opponents, and fears on the other side, that the Supreme Court would be more likely to uphold restrictions.

The Trump administration had sided with Louisiana in urging the court to uphold the law. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany criticized the decision. “In an unfortunate ruling today, the Supreme Court devalued both the health of mothers and the lives of unborn children by gutting Louisiana’s policy that required all abortion procedures be performed by individuals with admitting privileges at a nearby hospital,” McEnany said.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, said, “Today’s ruling is a bitter disappointment. It demonstrates once again the failure of the Supreme Court to allow the American people to protect the well-being of women from the tentacles of a brutal and profit-seeking abortion industry.”

On the other side, support for the decision mixed with a wariness that the future of abortion rights appears to rest with Roberts.

Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said Monday’s decision by no means ends the struggle over abortion rights in legislatures and the courts.

“We’re relieved that the Louisiana law has been blocked today but we’re concerned about tomorrow. With this win, the clinics in Louisiana can stay open to serve the one million women of reproductive age in the state. But the Court’s decision could embolden states to pass even more restrictive laws when clarity is needed if abortion rights are to be protected,” Northup said.

In his reasoning, Roberts “signaled a willingness to lessen the legal protections for abortion,” University of Michigan law professor Leah Litman wrote on the Take Care blog. However, she also acknowledged that Roberts’ “emphasis on the importance of adhering to the Court’s prior decisions does not sound like the thinking of a person who is inclined to overrule Roe v. Wade.”

A trial judge had said the law would not provide health benefits to women and would leave only one clinic open in Louisiana, in New Orleans. That would make it too hard for women to get abortions, in violation of the Constitution, the judge ruled.

But the appeals court in New Orleans rejected the judge’s findings and upheld the law in 2018, doubting that any clinics would have to close and saying that doctors had not tried hard enough to establish relationships with local hospitals.

The clinics filed an emergency appeal at the Supreme Court, asking that the law be blocked while the justices evaluated the case.

Early last year, Roberts joined with the four liberal members of the court to grant that request and keep the law on hold.

Roberts’ vote was a bit of a surprise because of his earlier vote in the Texas case. It may have reflected his new role since Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement as the court’s swing justice, his concern about the court being perceived as a partisan institution and his respect for a prior decision of the court, even one he disagreed with. Roberts didn’t write anything explaining his position at the time of the Texas case.

The regulations at issue in Louisiana are distinct from other state laws making their way through court challenges that would ban abortions early in a pregnancy. Those include bans on abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as 6 weeks, and the almost total ban passed in Alabama.


Politics
AP
Trump denies briefing about reported bounties on U.S. troops

WASHINGTON — The White House said Monday that President Donald Trump wasn’t briefed on U.S. intelligence assessments earlier this year that Russia secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American troops in Afghanistan because the information had not been “verified.”

Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany asserted that intelligence “would not be elevated to the president until it was verified.” However, it is rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers.

McEnany added that a House briefing for select members of Congress was being held Monday, but she said that even then, Trump still had not been briefed on the intelligence. Eight Republican lawmakers were in the briefing, an official said, adding Democrats were invited but chose not to attend. McEnany declined to say why a different standard applied to briefing lawmakers than the president. “There is no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations and in effect there are dissenting opinions from some in the intelligence community with regards to the veracity of what’s being reported and the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated,” McEnany said.

The intelligence assessments came amid Trump’s push to withdraw the U.S. from Afghanistan and suggested Russia was making overtures to militants as the U.S. and the Taliban held talks to end the long-running war. The assessment was first reported by The New York Times, then confirmed to The Associated Press by American intelligence officials and two others with knowledge of the matter.

While Russian meddling in Afghanistan isn’t new, officials said Russian operatives became more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012. Russian operatives are said to have met with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, and Afghanistan; however, it’s unknown if the meetings were to discuss bounties.

The officials the AP spoke to said the intelligence community has been investigating an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three U.S. Marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they traveled back to Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan.

Three other U.S. service members were wounded in the attack, along with an Afghan contractor. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter. The officials the AP spoke to also said they were looking closely at insider attacks — sometimes called “green-on-blue” incidents — from 2019 to determine if they are also linked to Russian bounties.

In early 2020, members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known to the public as SEAL Team Six, raided a Taliban outpost and recovered roughly $500,000. The recovered funds further solidified the suspicions of the American intelligence community that the Russians had offered money to Taliban militants and linked associations.

One official said the administration discussed several potential responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step.

The intelligence officials said Trump was briefed on the bounty matter earlier this year; Trump denied that, tweeting Sunday neither he nor Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed. Trump tweeted Sunday night he was just told intelligence officials didn’t report the information to him because they didn’t find it credible.

The intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the matter insisted on anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive matter.

The White House National Security Council wouldn’t confirm the assessments but said the U.S. receives thousands of intelligence reports daily that are subject to strict scrutiny.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who played golf with Trump on Sunday, tweeted Saturday it’s “Imperative Congress get to the bottom of recent media reports that Russian GRU units in Afghanistan have offered to pay the Taliban to kill American soldiers with the goal of pushing America out of the region.” GRU is a reference to the Russian military intelligence agency.

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican in the House, called for the White House to share more information with Congress, saying, if true, lawmakers need to know “Who did know and when?” and, referring to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, “What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?”

Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden said reports Trump was aware of the Russian bounties would be a “truly shocking revelation” about the commander in chief and his failure to protect U.S. troops in Afghanistan and stand up to Russia.

Russia called the report “nonsense.”

“This unsophisticated plant clearly illustrates the low intellectual abilities of the propagandists of American intelligence, who instead of inventing something more plausible have to make up this nonsense,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he regretted “the biggest, respectful and high-class international media organizations have not been above publishing absolute hoaxes in recent years.”

A Taliban spokesman said the militants “strongly reject this allegation” and aren’t “indebted to the beneficence of any intelligence organ or foreign country.”

John Bolton, an ex-national security adviser who was forced out by Trump last September and has written a tell-all book about his White House tenure, said Sunday it’s “pretty remarkable the president’s going out of his way to say he hasn’t heard anything about it. One asks, why would he do something like that?”

Bolton told NBC’s “Meet the Press” he thinks the answer “may be precisely because active Russian aggression like that against the American service members is a very, very serious matter and nothing’s been done about it, if it’s true, for these past four or five months, so it may look like he was negligent. But, of course, he can disown everything if nobody ever told him about it.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one of the few congressional leaders typically briefed on sensitive intelligence matters, told ABC’s “This Week” she hadn’t been informed about the reported bounties and requested a report to Congress on the matter.

“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score, denies being briefed. Whether he is or not, his administration knows and our allies — some of our allies who work with us in Afghanistan had been briefed and accept this report,” she said.

Pelosi called for a briefing to all members of Congress on the intelligence.

Trump responded to Biden on Twitter, saying, “Russia ate his and Obama’s lunch during their time in office”

But it was the Obama administration, with international allies, that suspended Russia from the Group of Eight after its unilateral annexation of Crimea from Ukraine — a move that drew widespread condemnation.

Biden criticized Trump for “his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself” before Putin. Trump tweeted “nobody’s been tougher” on Russia than his administration.


National
AP
Florida site of GOP convention orders wearing of masks

The city of Jacksonville, Florida, where mask-averse President Donald Trump plans to accept the Republican nomination in August, ordered the wearing of face coverings Monday, joining the list of state and local governments reversing course to try to beat back a resurgence of the coronavirus.

Less than a week after Mayor Lenny Curry said that there would be no mask requirement, city officials announced that coverings must be worn in “situations where individuals cannot socially distance.”

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said the president’s advice is to “do whatever your local jurisdiction requests of you.”

Trump has refused to wear a mask on recent trips to states and businesses that require them.

In recent weeks, the Republicans moved some of the convention pageantry to Jacksonville after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina objected to the holding of a large gathering in Charlotte without social-distancing measures.

The Jacksonville order came on the same day that the head of the World Health Organization warned that the pandemic is “not even close to being over” and is accelerating.

“The worst is yet to come,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu. “With this kind of environment and condition, we fear the worst.”

Health authorities have recorded more than 10 million confirmed infections and a half-million deaths globally, including 2.5 million cases and 126,000 lives lost in the U.S. The U.S. is seeing a surge in confirmed cases, especially in the South and West.