Court leaves intact right of a minor to obtain abortion Judge can allow choice without notification of parents, justices rule

October 21, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court voted yesterday, over one justice's dissent, to leave unchanged the constitutional right of minors to obtain abortions without notifying their parents.

If a minor is found to be mature enough to make the choice on her own and does not want her parents to know about it, a judge must allow an abortion under a series of Supreme Court rulings dating to 1979.

Those rulings also require a judge to allow an abortion even for a minor who cannot demonstrate that she is "mature," so long as the judge concludes that ending the pregnancy would be in the minor's "best interest" -- no matter what her parents might wish.

In a new appeal, the state of Louisiana launched a challenge to all those decisions, urging the Supreme Court to wipe out minors' abortion right altogether.

The appeal, in fact, asked the court to go even further, to reconsider whether any woman -- adult or minor -- should continue to have a right to end a pregnancy. The court had reaffirmed the basic right to abortion as recently as 1992 and has been unwilling to reopen the issue since then.

Only Justice Antonin Scalia, the court's most vocal opponent of abortion rights, announced that he wanted to hear Louisiana's challenge to the court's abortion precedents. If any other justices favored a review of the case, they did not say so; it would have taken the votes of four to grant review.

Beginning with a Massachusetts case 18 years ago, the court has protected access to abortion for pregnant minors by assuring that they could obtain permission from a state judge if they did not want to involve their parents.

Judges do not always have to grant permission. Further, the court has sometimes left the impression that it might grant states some authority to draw parents into the decision process, least for immature minors.

Louisiana's legislature sought to test that option by passing a law in 1995, which was immediately tested in court and has since been blocked. That law gave to a judge who found a minor to be immature the authority to invite the parents in for advice on whether an abortion would be in their daughter's best interest. The final decision on permission would remain with the judge.

A federal appeals court struck down the law in April, saying it conflicted with the Supreme Court's rulings on minors' rights. But one of the judges on that court, Emilio M. Garza of San Antonio, wrote a separate opinion lambasting all the court's abortion rulings going back to Roe vs. Wade in 1973. Garza implied that the court might be ready to walk away from those rulings.

Louisiana used that judge's opinion as the springboard for its unsuccessful appeal.

Besides turning down that appeal, the court also refused to hear a plea from the father of a young man who was murdered by Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee serial killer. The plea sought to hold Dahmer's probation officer legally responsible for the murder.

In a separate action, the court agreed to define the length of sentence to be imposed when someone is convicted of a conspiracy to deal in both powdered cocaine and crack cocaine.

Five men convicted of drug trafficking in Illinois asked the justices to reject the longer sentences for crack crimes and apply the shorter ones for crimes involving the drug in powdered form.

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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