High Court Rules in Dispute Over Immigrant Teen's Abortion

State Bar & Other Associations

The Supreme Court ruled Monday in a case about a pregnant immigrant teen who obtained an abortion with the help of the ACLU, siding with the Trump administration and wiping away a lower court decision for the teen but rejecting a suggestion her lawyers should be disciplined.

The decision is about the teen's individual case and doesn't disrupt ongoing class action litigation about the ability of immigrant teens in government custody to obtain abortions. The justices ruled in an unsigned opinion that vacating a lower court decision in favor of the teen, who had been in government custody after entering the country illegally, was the proper course because the case became moot after she obtained an abortion.

Government lawyers had complained to the Supreme Court that attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union didn't alert them that the teen's abortion would take place earlier than expected. The administration said that deprived its lawyers of the chance to ask the Supreme Court to block the procedure, at least temporarily. The Trump administration told the court that discipline might be warranted against the teen's attorneys. The ACLU said its lawyers did nothing wrong.

The Supreme Court said it took the government's allegations "seriously" but the court declined to wade into the finger-pointing between the sides.

"Especially in fast-paced, emergency proceedings like those at issue here, it is critical that lawyers and courts alike be able to rely on one another's representations. On the other hand, lawyers also have ethical obligations to their clients and not all communications breakdowns constitute misconduct," the justices wrote in a 5-page opinion, adding that the court "need not delve into the factual disputes raised by the parties" in order to vacate the decision for the teen.

The teen at the center of the case entered the U.S. illegally in September as a 17-year-old and was taken to a federally funded shelter in Texas for minors who enter the country without their parents. The unnamed teen, referred to as Jane Doe, learned while in custody that she was pregnant and sought an abortion. A state court gave her permission, but federal officials — citing a policy of refusing to facilitate abortions for pregnant minors in its shelters — refused to transport her or temporarily release her so that others could take her for the procedure.

The ACLU helped the teen sue the Trump administration, and after a federal appeals court sided with her, the government was preparing to ask the Supreme Court to step in and block the procedure, at least temporarily.

But the teen, allowed out of the shelter by court order, had an abortion first, about 12 hours after a court gave her the go-ahead. In response, the Trump administration, in a highly unusual filing with the Supreme Court, cried foul. The ACLU has defended its attorneys' actions, saying government lawyers made assumptions about the timing of the teen's abortion.

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