In the 1992 film My Cousin Vinnie, Joe Pesci, as the New-Jersey-mechanic-turned-lawyer Vincent Gambini, appears in a rural Alabama courtroom in his customary garb of blue jeans, cowboy boots, and leather jacket. The trial judge, played by the immortal Fred Gwynne, tells him to come to court the next day in a suit “made out of some kind of...cloth.”
The next morning, Gambini is back in court still in his Jersey car-lot finery. “Now, didn’t I tell you next time you appear in my courtroom that you dress appropriately?” the judge asks.
Vinnie is gobsmacked: “You were serious about that?”
For a lower federal court to treat an opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court as a joke is the judicial equivalent of showing up for court in jacket and jeans. Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the blockbuster abortion case the Court will hear this week, is a test of whether the Roberts Court is serious about precedent, and indeed about law, in this area. The Fifth Circuit plainly thinks it is not; if the Court affirms the lower court, it will signal open season on the availability of legal abortion across the country.
Hellerstedt is a challenge to a 2013 Texas law that will have the effect of closing 34 of the 40 clinics providing abortions in the state. If that happens, legal abortion will be available only in the state’s four major cities. As a result, nearly 1 million women of reproductive age would find themselves more than 150 miles from a facility that could perform an abortion, and would need to wait more than three weeks for an appointment to receive one.