WASHINGTON — Raising the suspense over the most closely watched case of the decade, the Supreme Court failed to announce its decision on the fate of legalized abortions today but instead extended its 1988-89 term until Monday.
The court's lack of action disappointed the scores of abortion opponents and advocates who had waited in line overnight for one of the few seats available in the courtroom. Others milled outside the historic court building in anticipation of a decision that could overturn or retain a woman's right to an abortion.
The justices are being asked to use the Missouri case to reverse the court's 1973 landmark Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said from the bench, "On Monday, July 3, the court will announce all the remaining opinions during this term of the court."
In addition, the court left hanging its decision in an important case on church-state relations.
That case stems from the holiday displays of a Christmas Nativity scene and a Hanukkah menorah at government buildings in Pittsburgh. Lower courts said the displays represented an impermissible promotion of religion by government.
The court announced just two rulings from the bench during a brief public session. The Missouri case, called Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, was not one of them.
People on either side of the emotional abortion issue were left with another weekend of anticipation.
"It is difficult to wait for the court to hand down these decisions, of course it is difficult, but we remain optimistic," said Olivia Gans of the National Right to Life Committee.
Potential for Delay
Faye Wattleton, president of Planned Parenthood, spoke of the potential for a delay into next year and said it would be "an indication of the turmoil that this court is willing to create in the country."
The Webster case is one of three separating the court from its three-month summer recess, which reporters previously had been led to believe would begin today.
Despite rumors that some justices are still writing opinions on the highly controversial abortion and religious cases, the delay could have an administrative explanation. For example, the court's computer print shop could be having trouble producing enough copies of the abortion ruling to meet what will surely be a flood of requests.
The case has become the most closely watched Supreme Court controversy of the 1980s.
The court must say something about the case, in which oral arguments were conducted April 26, before ending its current term.
But instead of announcing a decision, the justices could choose to order another round of arguments during the term that begins in October. That would delay a decision until sometime in 1990.
Roe vs. Wade itself was a case that had to be argued twice before a decision was announced. Such orders are not rare. The court hears arguments in about 150 cases each term, and since 1977 has held over at least one case for reargument the following term.
In the 1973 decision, the court said women have a constitutional right, based on their right to privacy, to seek and obtain abortions.