Federal Court Preliminarily Blocks Local Tennessee Anti-Abortion Ordinance in ACLU Case

May 4, 2020

The ruling comes in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Tennessee, and Willkie on behalf of carafem, a national network of reproductive health care clinics.

On May 1, a Federal Court issued an order preliminarily blocking a zoning ordinance passed by the city of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee that bans the provision of procedural abortion care within the city limits.

The ruling comes in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Tennessee, and Willkie Farr & Gallagher on behalf of carafem, a national network of reproductive health care clinics. Carafem currently provides medication abortion care in Mt. Juliet, and had intended to expand its practice to include surgical abortion. When the city learned of these plans, municipal officials quickly passed a zoning ordinance to directly obstruct the clinic’s ability to provide the care. Since passed, the law forced carafem to turn many patients away, pushing abortion access further out of reach for Tennesseans.

In its 42-page opinion, the court wrote: “In the United States, individuals are generally free to oppose the practice of abortion, hope that women do not choose to have an abortion, work towards minimizing the frequency of abortion in the community, hope for a change in the Supreme Court’s substantive due process jurisprudence regarding abortion, and so forth. And states and municipalities can impose relatively broad post- viability restrictions on abortion rights, as well as pre-viability restrictions that do not amount to what precedential case law has called or would call an undue burden. But under that undue burden standard, states and municipalities cannot do what, based on the current record, the City likely did here: enact an ordinance (as amended) that had the purpose, and alternatively the effect, of placing a substantial obstacle in the way of women seeking abortions (including pre-viability abortions) in Mt. Juliet.”

Elizabeth Gray, who co-led the Willkie team, said: “We are so proud to have partnered with the ACLU in achieving what we believe will be a very impactful decision. In granting the injunction, the Court rendered a comprehensive decision that Willkie and the ACLU established a likelihood of success on the merits for carafem. The Court found that both the purpose and the effect of the ordinance were to create an undue burden on the constitutional rights of women seeking pre-viability surgical abortions. ”

Heather Schneider, who co-led the Willkie team with Ms. Gray, commented: “This case has involved numerous hurdles, including a need for us to refile all of the papers and brief the matter again after the city amended its ordinance one month after we filed our original complaint. Our team worked incredibly hard and we are very pleased with the result.”

The case is before the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee – Nashville Division. In addition to partners Elizabeth Gray and Heather Schneider, the Willkie team includes associates Tara Thieme, Vanessa Richardson, Devon Edwards and Sruti Swaminathan.

The ACLU press release can be found here and the decision can be found here.