Jackson Women's Health Organization Clinic in Jackson, Miss.
Jackson Women’s Health Organization Clinic in Jackson, Miss. (Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

A federal appeals court panel on Tuesday struck down a Mississippi law that would have had the effect of closing the state’s only remaining abortion clinic.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled, 2-1, in Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Currier against the law, which required abortion clinic doctors to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital.

The decision found that the law was unconstitutional as applied because it in effect shunted the state’s constitutional obligations to other states. Mississippi had defended the law, stating that even if the abortion clinic in Jackson closed, state residents could obtain abortions in Tennessee, Louisiana or Alabama.

In striking down the law, the panel invoked a relatively obscure 1938 U.S. Supreme Court precedent, State of Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada. The high court said then that Missouri could not justify denying admission to an African-American at a state law school by giving him a tuition stipend to attend an out-of-state school.

“The obligation of the state to give the protection of equal laws can be performed only where its laws operate, that is, within its own jurisdiction,” the 1938 ruling stated. “That obligation is imposed by the Constitution upon the states severally as governmental entities—each responsible for its own laws establishing the rights and duties of persons within its borders. It is an obligation the burden of which cannot be cast by one state upon another, and no state can be excused from performance by what another state may do or fail to do.”

The Fifth Circuit ruling on Tuesday limits the effect of the decision to the case and facts before it. The panel said the law itself had a rational basis for being passed, but because it interfered with a woman’s established constitutional right to an abortion at the state’s only remaining clinic, it violated the Gaines precedent.

Gaines simply and plainly holds that a state cannot lean on its sovereign neighbors to provide protection of its citizens’ federal constitutional rights, a principle that obviously has trenchant relevance here,” wrote Judge E. Grady Jolly, joined by Judge Stephen Higginson. Judge Emilio Garza dissented.

Contact Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com. On Twitter: @Tonymauro.