Nearly six years of pro bono legal work boiled down to a single critical hour for Catholic University law school Professor Mark Rienzi as he argued McCullen v. Coakley before the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court on January 15th.
The case, which asks the high court to find unconstitutional a seven year-old Massachusetts law that requires anti-abortion counselors to stay at least 35 feet away from the front doors of abortion clinics in the state, has been percolating through the courts since 2008, the year Rienzi engaged with the plaintiff’s cause.
The constitutional law professor held a 90-minute practice moot (above) for his turn before the Supreme Court on Jan. 13 in the law school’s Slowinski Courtroom. Student onlookers were required to sign confidentiality agreements regarding what they witnessed. Qualified volunteers played the part of the Supreme Court justices, asking pointed questions and probing for weaknesses in Rienzi’s arguments to help him prepare for the real thing.
The case was brought by Eleanor McCullen, a Massachusetts grandmother who has spent years and over fifty thousand dollars of her own money to help pregnant women who decide not to get an abortion.
Her lawsuit contends that being forced to keep her distance on a public sidewalk, and thus unable to effectively communicate her offer of help to women entering an abortion clinic, is an impermissible infringement of free speech.
The state has cast the issue as one of public safety for clients of abortion services clinics.
Rienzi has said about the case, ““I represent peaceful pro-life grandmothers who want to stand on the sidewalk and offer alternative options to women going to the clinic.”
The court agreed last summer to hear McCullen v. Coakley. A decision is expected in June.
On Feb. 5, the law school will recognize Professor Rienzi’s achievement at an informal reception in the atrium.