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Full 9th Circuit overturns decision of three-judge panel, puts Idaho protective law on hold as it weighs Biden’s challenge

by | Oct 11, 2023

By Dave Andrusko

On Tuesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, supported by a majority of the appellate court’s full roster of active judges, said it would reconsider the Biden Administration’s argument that Idaho’s protective abortion “violates the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which requires hospitals to provide stabilizing treatment in emergency situations,” Robert Hart reported for Forbes. In so doing it overturned a prior decision of a three-judge panel of the 9th circuit.

When the Biden Justice Department filed suit against Idaho last August, it argued that Idaho’s law “was likely to discourage physicians from providing emergency treatment to pregnant patients who need an abortion to preserve their life or health,” Josh Gerstein reported for Politico. The three judge panel disagreed.

It issued an order that granted Idaho officials’ request to put the injunction against aspects of the state’s very protective abortion law on hold while the state appeals U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s ruling. The law protects unborn babies from abortion except for cases that threaten the mother’s life, or in cases of rape and incest.

In temporarily blocking the law, Judge Winmill wrote that it appears to violates the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act. EMTALA is a 1986 federal law that requires stabilizing treatment for any conditions that would jeopardize “the health of the individual (or, with respect to a pregnant woman, the health of the woman or her unborn child).”

“Winmill, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, issued a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the abortion ban against medical providers and hospitals in situations where the patient’s life or health is in jeopardy,” according to Gerstein.

The appeals panel unanimously disagreed.

“Citing the Supreme Court decision Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that returned the issue of abortion to the individual states, Judge Lawrence VanDyke said Idaho is one of many states using ‘that prerogative to enact abortion restrictions,’” according to Lauren Irwin.

The key to the panel’s opinion was that the Idaho Supreme Court had “since clarified its interpretation of the Idaho statute, so the two laws no longer appear to be in conflict.”

The Supreme Court of Idaho clarified that the text of the exception means what it says: If a doctor subjectively believes, in his or her good faith medical judgment, that an abortion is necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman, then the exception applies. Thus the district court’s reliance on declarations of certain doctors claiming that the law would undermine their medical judgement is no longer valid.

Judge VanDyke also noted

The purpose of EMTALA is not to impose specific standards of care— such as requiring the provision of abortion—but simply to “ensure that hospitals do not refuse essential emergency care because of a patient’s inability to pay.” To read EMTALA to require a specific method of treatment, such as abortion, pushes the statute far beyond its original purpose, and therefore is not a ground to disrupt Idaho’s historic police powers.

The entire appeals court will now hear the case. “While most circuit courts deploy their entire roster of judges for such hearings, the size of the Ninth Circuit means the hearing will be overseen by a panel of eleven judges selected at random,” Hart reported

The 9th Circuit “is the U.S.’ largest appellate court covering 15 judicial districts from areas including Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, Arizona, Guam, Oregon, Idaho, Washington and California.”

Categories: State Legislation