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Court considers whether abortion-rights opponents can appeal dismissal of 'buffer zone' suit

A federal appeals court on Thursday considered whether abortion-rights opponents could appeal the dismissal of a lawsuit that challenged New Hampshire's "buffer zone" law (SB 319), the New Hampshire Union Leader reports (Hayward, New Hampshire Union Leader, 12/8).


The law, which took effect in July 2014, allows a 25-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics in the state. The state attorney general's office initially said it would not enforce the legislation pending the conclusion of a federal lawsuit challenging the law's constitutionality.

In the lawsuit, a Christian legal group alleged that the law violates antiabortion-rights protesters' right to free speech. The group, called the Alliance Defending Freedom, is the same organization that led a challenge resulting in the 2014 Supreme Court decision striking down a Massachusetts buffer zone law.

In April, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Laplante dismissed the challenge, ruling that the plaintiffs could not prove a violation of their rights because no clinics had yet established a buffer zone under the law. Following the ruling, clinics in the state weighed whether to establish the zones (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/8).

Latest developments

On Thursday, the appeals court considered whether the plaintiffs could appeal the previous ruling.

During arguments, Michael Tierney, an attorney representing seven antiabortion-rights protesters in the case, claimed the law undermined the protesters' free-speech rights by giving clinics the option of implementing a buffer zone.

In defense of the law, the state's assistant attorney general argued that the appeal is not warranted because no clinic in the state has yet established a buffer zone.

Separately, New Hampshire Attorney General Joseph Foster in an email said the case hinges on technicalities. "The issue presented was whether the (picketers) have standing to maintain a constitutional challenge to the so-called buffer zone law before a zone is actually created at any facility," he wrote.

Lawmakers will seek repeal

According to Tierney, the case could be decided in several months. However, by that time, the issue could be addressed in the state Legislature, the Union Leader reports.

State House lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation that would repeal the law, and Gov.-elect Chris Sununu (R) has said that he supports its repeal (New Hampshire Union Leader, 12/8).

Similar legislation (HB 1570) failed in a 12-12 state Senate vote earlier this year (Women's Health Policy Report, 5/9).