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Friday, June 27, 2014

Supreme Court ruling casts uncertainty on NH law on abortion buffer zones

By JIM HADDADIN

Staff Writer

NASHUA – A U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down protest-free zones around abortion clinics in Massachusetts is casting uncertainty on a similar measure set to take effect in New Hampshire next month.

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Massachusetts regulations establishing a 35-foot buffer zone outside abortion clinics in that state are unconstitutional. ...

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NASHUA – A U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down protest-free zones around abortion clinics in Massachusetts is casting uncertainty on a similar measure set to take effect in New Hampshire next month.

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Massachusetts regulations establishing a 35-foot buffer zone outside abortion clinics in that state are unconstitutional.

The justices were unanimous in ruling that the buffer zones violate the First Amendment rights of protesters. Chief Justice John Roberts, in the ruling, said authorities have less intrusive ways to deal with problems outside the clinics.

Authorities in New Hampshire have been closely watching the ruling after Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a measure into law June 10 that establishes a 25-foot buffer zone around facilities that perform abortions. That regulation is set to take effect July 10.

It was unclear Thursday what impact the Supreme Court’s ruling would have in the Granite State. While the state’s upcoming law was patterned on regulations in Massachusetts, proponents of the measure said the New Hampshire law contains substantial differences.

“New Hampshire’s law is different than Massachusetts’, but we will closely review today’s decision to determine its impact, if any, on our state,” Hassan said in a statement.

The New Hampshire law establishes a 25-foot buffer zone around the access, exit and parking lot areas of all clinics that perform abortions. Any protester coming within that buffer zone would first be issued a written warning before being cited for a violation that would carry a minimum fine of $100.

Leah A. Plunkett, associate professor of legal skills at the University of New Hampshire Law School, said Thursday’s decision does not make it inevitable that New Hampshire’s new law cannot stand.

Plunkett said that in her view, the court’s ruling relied heavily on the specific circumstances in Massachusetts that precipitated the state’s buffer zone law. The Supreme Court emphasized that the Massachusetts law was not narrowly tailored to address the issues created by protesters at abortion sites, she said.

“I think it is certainly possible to conceive of different kind of factual realities that could lead to a different outcome here,” she said.

The New Hampshire legislation came in response to protests held each week outside the Penacook Street clinic in Manchester that Planned Parenthood of Northern New England operates.

Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, prime author of the state law, said previously that there have been 60 patient complaints since the beginning of 2013 and police have responded to reported incidents of disorderly conduct, obstruction of patient access and trespassing on health center premises.

Jennifer Frizzell, vice president for public policy for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said the group is “extremely disappointed” by Thursday’s ruling, which shows a “troubling level of disregard for American women.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the new law in New Hampshire are already planning legal action in the wake of Thursday’s outcome.

“I can guarantee that you will see a legal challenge unless the statute is repealed before the effective date,” said Bryan McCormack, the director of New Hampshire Cornerstone, a conservative advocacy group.

If the New Hampshire law is challenged, Plunkett said the case would include a review of what types of problems spurred the legislation, what tools are available to law enforcement in New Hampshire, and what attempts have been made previously to resolve the issues without the new law.

“Here in New Hampshire, again, there’s going to be a different factual record about what types of protesting activities have created the need that the Legislature identified and the governor obviously agreed with when she signed the bill to have a buffer zone up here,” Plunkett said.

Hassan previously called the New Hampshire law a common sense, bipartisan measure to help ensure the privacy and safety of both patients and the public.

Meanwhile, Republican gubernatorial candidate Andrew Hemingway seized on the issue Thursday to criticize Hassan, calling her support for the new law an example of Hassan’s “extreme ideology.”

“This court unanimously put aside any political preferences on the issue of abortion and acknowledged this is simply a matter of the First Amendment -- something Maggie Hassan refused to recognize in her zeal to protect abortion providers, which is one protection not covered in the Constitution,” Hemingway said in a statement.

The measure had heavyweight support from both political parties in the Republican-controlled Senate as Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, was a co-sponsor along with Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton.

The New Hampshire House passed the bill 162-100 in May, following more than two hours of often-bitter debate as opponents claimed the restriction amounted to a constitutional violation of free speech for anti-abortion protesters and neighboring residents.

Associated Press writer Mark Sherman in Washington and Telegraph staff writer Kevin Landrigan contributed to this report.