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Abortion Rights Group Taps Legal Chief Amid ‘Trigger’ Law Fights

June 28, 2022, 9:30 AM

The abortion rights advocacy group on the losing side of last week’s landmark US Supreme Court ruling has a new top lawyer as it looks to stem the fallout from the decision.

Travis “T.J.” Tu has taken over as general counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights Inc., the group said Monday. He replaces outgoing legal chief Andrew Sommer, the center’s first-ever legal chief, who has retired.

The center was co-counsel to the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, which unsuccessfully challenged a state law restricting access to the procedure. The Supreme Court wiped out the constitutional right to an abortion in its sweeping Jan. 24 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Abortion rights organizations are shifting their attention to laws in states across the US that would impose tight new restrictions on abortions. The center—and a group of outside lawyers from Boies Schiller Flexner and other firms—obtained a temporary restraining order Monday in Louisiana barring that state from banning abortions.

“We will be fighting to restore access in Louisiana and other states for as long as we can,” Nancy Northup, a former federal prosecutor who serves as the center’s president and CEO, said a statement. “Every day that a clinic is open and providing abortion services can make a difference in a person’s life.”

Tu is a former partner at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor when she was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He joined the New York-based nonprofit in 2018 after nearly 18 years as a litigator at Patterson Belknap, where he made partner in 2012.

CRR spokeswoman Kelly Krause confirmed Tu’s ascension to its general counsel role. She said the move happened “last week,” before the high court ruling.

Tu and Sommer, the center’s retiring top lawyer, who previously spent 35 years at Debevoise & Plimpton, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Restrictions ‘Onslaught’

A court in Utah put a “trigger” law similar to that in Louisiana on pause Monday, ruling in a lawsuit filed by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

The law, passed in 2020, imposes new restrictions on abortions and criminal penalties for service providers. It was designed to immediately take effect in the event the Supreme Court ever overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision securing the constitutional right to an abortion.

Big Law firms Morrison & Foerster, Jenner & Block, WilmerHale, Dechert, and O’Melveny & Myers are challenging similar laws in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, and Kentucky on behalf of abortion rights groups.

Tu was drawn to the CRR by Northup, the advocacy group’s leader, whom he first met as a law student at the New York University School, according to a profile on the law school’s website.

“When I spoke to her and realized what the center was facing in terms of the onslaught of anti-abortion restrictions that were coming, and certainly the changed Court … I said, ‘This is the right place and the right time,” Tu told the NYU publication about his decision to join the CRR in 2018.

Tu’s new role will see him continue to work closely with Julie Rikelman, the CRR’s senior litigation director. Rikelman, along with senior staff attorney Hillary Schneller, was co-lead counsel in the Dobbs case along with lawyers from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, O’Melveny & Myers, and the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Paul Weiss is also representing the center in a challenge it filed Monday to a trigger ban in Mississippi.

The CRR’s most recent federal tax filing shows that it paid roughly $213,500 to Rikelman and $552,500 to Northup during its 2019-20 fiscal year. Sommer was hired the following year.

Tu was active in pro bono and public interest matters before joining the center. He represented the American Bar Association and a coalition of elected officials, respectively, as amicus curiae in United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges, a pair of Supreme Court cases governing the rights of same-sex couples.

Bloomberg News reported last week that the court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell, which legalized same-sex marriage, is among several precedents now at risk after the Supreme Court’s controversial abortion decision.

Additional reporting by Meghan Tribe.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com