BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — A Salem lawyer went before the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday fighting to overturn a state law that mandates a 35-foot buffer zone around health clinics that perform abortions.
Attorney Phil Moran was in Washington, D.C., as part of a five-member team of lawyers headed by Mark Rienzi, a Catholic University law professor who was lead counsel and argued the case before the nine justices.
They argued that the buffer zone is unconstitutional.
“The sidewalk has been a quintessential public forum for free speech since the beginning of the United States,” Moran said after returning home last night from Washington, D.C.
The 35-foot buffer zone violates free speech rights by making it difficult, if not impossible, for pro-life advocates to be heard by women going into the clinic, Moran said.
“This is a real First Amendment case,” he said.
Two lawyers in the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley defended the state law.
“I thought that both (sides) made good arguments, but I thought Rienzi was better,” Moran said. He said he is “cautiously optimistic” the state law will be overturned.
Coakley contends the current law protects public safety and patient access to reproductive health clinics while preserving opportunities for communication outside.
“I am proud that Massachusetts passed the buffer zone law to help people access reproductive health care free from harassment,” Coakley said in a statement. “I also am proud of our office’s defense of this important law ...
“...I thought the justices asked insightful questions about the constitutional balance that this law must, and we believe does, strike. I am hopeful that they will conclude that the buffer zone statute appropriately protects speech, health care access and public safety, and should remain law.”
The case was brought on behalf of seven plaintiffs, led by Eleanor McCullen, a pro-life advocate who has stood outside a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Boston for the past 13 years.
Buffer zones were created in Massachusetts after a 1994 tragedy in which a gunman, John Salvi, killed two clinic employees and wounded five others.
Massachusetts passed its first buffer-zone law in 2000, establishing an 18-foot zone. That law included a “floating zone” that allowed anti-abortion advocates to move closer, Moran said.
The distance was increased to 35 feet several years later.
The Supreme Court will issue a ruling by June.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.