Supreme Court justices argue over 35 feet buffer zone around Massachusetts abortion clinics

While hearing a case about the 35-foot buffer zone around Massachusetts abortion clinics to keep protesters at a distance, Supreme Court justices questioned just how long 35 feet really is.

The law was passed in 2007 to keep protesters from preventing women seeking abortions from getting them. Activist Eleanor McCullen, 77, is challenging the law, noting saying that it prevents her and other peaceful protesters from having conversations and passing out leaflets.

The Washington Post notes that some of the justices appeared to be siding with McCullen, noting that it unfairly targeted these peaceful protesters. Chief Justice John Roberts, though, did not ask the lawyers for the case a single question.

McCullen’s attorney, Mark L. Rienzi, argued that the First Amendment forbids “dragging Mrs. McCullen off to prison because she has a consensual conversation 25 feet away from the doorway.” However, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that Massachusetts passed the law due to a “considerable history of disturbances and blocking the entrance.” She said that the state can’t possibly tell the difference between a peaceful protester and a person causing a disruption until after a protest begins.

Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Grace Miller was asked by Justice Stephen G. Breyer about possible studies on less-restrictive laws. She pointed out that hearings had shown that some protests were more than just people in conversations and passing out pamphlets.

ABC News notes during the oral arguments, there was discussion about how long 35 feet really is. At first, Justice Elena Kagan suggested that it was as long as the huge Supreme Court chamber, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor disagreed.

"I thought it was two car lengths," Sotomayor said. "That's, I think, a little less than this courtroom."

Deputy Solicitor General Ian H. Gershengorn, who is representing the government, said it was “an NBA 3-point zone.”

Justice Antonin Scalia scolded Miller for considering McCullen a protester. “I object to you calling these people protesters,” Scalia said. “If it was a protest, keeping them back 35 feet might not be so bad. They can scream and yell and hold up signs from 35 feet. But what they can’t do is try to talk the woman out of the abortion. It’s a counseling case, not a — not a protest case.”

The case is McCullen v. Coakley and you can read the full oral arguments here.

image: Wikimedia Commons

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