Justices doubtful on Mass abortion buffer zone law

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WASHINGTON (AP) - A 35-foot protest-free zone outside Massachusetts abortion clinics appeared unlikely to survive Supreme Court review after liberal and conservative justices alike expressed misgivings about the law in arguments Wednesday.

Lawyers for both sides faced tough questions about the Massachusetts law aimed at ensuring patient access and safety at abortion clinics. Nationwide, clinics have dealt with threats and violence, including the shooting deaths of two employees in Boston-area clinics in 1994.

But the court questioned the size of the zone and asked whether the state could find less restrictive ways of preventing abortion opponents from impeding access to clinics without prohibiting peaceful, legal conversations.

“In speech cases, when you address one problem, you have a duty to protect speech that’s lawful,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said.

No one has been prosecuted under the 2007 law, which state officials and clinic employees have said has resulted in less congestion outside the clinics.

The court - which bars protests on the plaza outside its own building, but allows them on the public sidewalks - last considered abortion clinic protest zones in 2000, when it upheld a Colorado law.

It seemed possible that there could be more than the five votes needed to strike down the law after Justice Elena Kagan said she was “hung up” over the size of the zone.

But it was hard to tell whether the court might also upend its 2000 ruling in support of the Colorado zone, which has been criticized by free-speech advocates for unfairly restricting protesters’ rights.

That’s because Chief Justice John Roberts, normally an active questioner, did not ask a single question of any of the three lawyers who argued the case.

Painted semicircles outside Planned Parenthood clinics in Boston, Springfield and Worcester mark the spot beyond which abortion opponents are free to protest and try to dissuade women from ending their pregnancies. Inside the line, protesters and supporters alike risk arrest.

One woman who shows up most Tuesdays and Wednesdays outside the Boston facility, 77-year-old Eleanor McCullen, was at the court Wednesday, as was Marty Walz, the sponsor of the 2007 law in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and now the president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.

McCullen said the law has made it harder, but not impossible, to persuade women to have their babies rather than abort.

The justices tried different, and at times confusing, comparisons in imagining the size of the zone. Kagan compared it to the dimensions of the courtroom, which is 82 feet by 91 feet.

In an exchange with Justice Stephen Breyer, lawyer Mark Rienzi started to make a point about being asked to stand back an additional 35 feet to make his argument on behalf of McCullen.

“I’d hear you,” Breyer cut in.

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