Supreme Court allows New Jersey’s subpoena of pregnancy help centers’ sensitive information

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The Supreme Court turned away, on May 13, a request from a New Jersey-based network of pro-life pregnancy help centers to halt a subpoena from the pro-choice state that would compel it to disclose information about its donors.

Donor information is a closely guarded secret in the nonprofit community. Donors generally expect their identities to be protected so they will not be subject to harassment by political opponents and hostile governments.

The ruling came two weeks after a coalition of pro-life pregnancy help organizations in neighboring New York state sued New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, in state court over her efforts to prevent them from promoting abortion pill reversal procedures. The lawsuit was filed by the Thomas More Society, a public interest law firm that focuses on religious freedoms.

New York state claims the groups that help pregnant women also misinform the public about the abortion pill reversal protocol used when women who have begun the medication abortion process change their minds. The groups say the protocol has been proven safe and one of their lawyers described the crackdown on their free speech as a “political witch-hunt.” The state counters that the protocol is not universally accepted and has not been approved by federal regulators.

The Supreme Court denied the petition for a writ of mandamus in the case, known as In Re First Choice Women’s Resource Centers Inc., in an unsigned order on May 13. No justices dissented. The court did not explain its decision. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a public interest law firm, represents the group.

Mandamus is an order issued by a higher court instructing governments, lower courts, corporations, or public authorities to either perform an action required by law or to refrain from actions not permitted by the law.

First Choice Women’s Resource Centers says its mission is “to encourage and equip women and men to make informed pregnancy decisions.”

Some pregnant clients choose to give birth, while others opt for adoption, and some have abortions, the organization says.

“We do not benefit financially from any decision a client makes and we do not charge for our services. We believe that women and men are capable of making their own choices when given accurate information.”

Late last year, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin, a Democrat, issued a subpoena to First Choice demanding donor lists and private correspondence as part of an investigation into whether the group was breaking the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act.

Mr. Platkin was among the 16 Democrat attorneys general who signed a letter in October 2023 claiming pregnancy help centers spread “misinformation and harm” by “misleading consumers and delaying access to critical, time-sensitive reproductive healthcare.”

The attorneys general said they have watched “with increasing concern in recent years as anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) have proliferated in our states, outnumbering abortion clinics by a three-to-one ratio[.]”

These centers “do not provide full-scope reproductive healthcare and often use deceptive tactics to lure in patients seeking reproductive healthcare. These tactics can have dire health consequences and rob patients of their healthcare choices.”

First Choice sued Mr. Platkin in December 2023, arguing the subpoena was overly broad in scope and unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp, who was appointed in 2012 by President Barack Obama, ruled against First Choice in January, finding its legal complaint was “not ripe” and that the court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction.

In February, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit also declined to block the subpoena.

In its petition to the Supreme Court, First Choice argued that the case raises “an important and recurring question regarding federal jurisdiction over section 1983 suits to enjoin unlawful state investigatory demands: whether such a challenge is ripe only after a state court has enforced the demand.”

Section 1983 refers to Title 42, U.S. Code, Section 1983, which allows people to sue government actors for deprivation of civil rights.

Federal courts of appeal are split 4-1 on the ripeness issue and the district court “clearly erred,” the group said.

The petition urged the Supreme Court to “grant mandamus to prevent irreparable harm from that ruling and to preserve its own jurisdiction to decide this important question.”

In this case, Mr. Platkin worked with Planned Parenthood to come up with a “novel theory that pregnancy centers, which provide free services, violate New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act because they ‘do NOT provide abortion care.’”

Based on that theory, and without providing evidence that false statements had been made, Mr. Platkin served subpoenas on pregnancy help centers in New Jersey, including First Choice. He demanded that First Choice produce years of sensitive internal information, including the names of donors and the amounts they gave, along with any correspondence with them, the petition stated.

He also demanded that First Choice come up with every solicitation and advertisement it has placed online, or in print or broadcast media, as well as the identities of the group’s staff, volunteers, directors, and board members, and information about its associations with other faith-based, pro-life, nonprofits.

Mr. Platkin filed a reply brief opposing the petition.

First Choice’s petition is premature “unless and until the state court decides to enforce the subpoena.” Until that happens, First Choice “has not been injured and there is no ripe dispute at all. Petitioner cannot justify its extraordinary demands for these already extraordinary writs.”

The matter could return to the Supreme Court in the future.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared May 14, 2024, in The Epoch Times.