Tuesday, July 28, 2020
Much of the initial commentary on the Supreme Court’s fractured opinion in June Medical Services v. Russo focuses on the future of abortion rights, delving into the analytical choices made by Justices Breyer, Roberts, and Alito. But one overlooked theme from the opinion came from Justice Gorsuch’s brief discussion of justiciability. In his dissenting opinion, Gorsuch alluded to a broad requirement for manageable standards—even in cases not previously considered political questions—that could render the Court’s footprint in constitutional litigation significantly smaller over time.
Justiciability was not the only focus in Justice Gorsuch’s dissent. He primarily critiqued the plurality for improperly equating the factual record in June Medical Services with the factual record in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, decided four years earlier. Gorsuch argued that Whole Woman’s Health included a fully-developed factual record specific to the medical and economic realities of Texas; the plurality erred by relying on that same record to find that the admitting privileges law at issue offered no benefit to the health of women in Louisana.
But Gorsuch’s critique went beyond the way the plurality applied the wrong facts to a legal test that required states to show that their laws accrued some benefit to women’s health. Instead, he critiqued that test directly as one that was so malleable as to be hardly a legal test at all, or at least not the sort of test that the Supreme Court should promulgate in good conscience.
Justice Gorsuch argued that any legal test created by the Court should at least be “replicable and predictable,” making it easier for lower courts to follow the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. Gorsuch then noted that “an administrable legal test even lies at the heart of what makes a case justiciable.” The plurality’s test was not sufficiently manageable; Gorsuch equated its “all-things-considered balancing of benefits and burdens” to a “hunter’s stew,” whereby judges with wide discretion would combine any factual details that “look interesting” into a decision. Driving home his point, Gorsuch quoted last term’s opinion in Rucho v. Common Cause—where the Court found that extreme partisan gerrymandering is a non-jusiticable political question because allegedly there are no “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving” the issue. This component of the political question doctrine, which the Court typically deploys to avoid deciding issues the Justices feel are best resolved by other branches, was thus central even to constitutional questions concerning individual rights under Gorsuch’s formulation.
If the Court deploys a strict understanding of the political question doctrine’s manageability requirement to any legal test, it could undermine many of the Court’s malleable, yet effective, legal standards. Gorsuch’s manageability requirement would seem to prohibit any test that examines the totality of the circumstances or even a wide array of nuanced factors sure to vary from case to case. The manageability requirement urges the Court to generate more bright-line rules that remove discretion from the lower courts, possibly at the expense of carefully-constructed rulings that improve accuracy in individual cases.
A broad manageability requirement could quickly take hold on the Court. In his own dissent in June Medical Services, Justice Thomas argued that stare decisis did not apply to Roe v. Wade and its progeny, in part, because “poorly reasoned precedents that have proved themselves to be unworkable” are ripe for overruling. Though Thomas’s workability language varies slightly from Gorsuch’s manageability requirement, the sentiment is the same; the Court should not intervene in issues where the only legal tests available are too malleable for lower courts to implement in “replicable and predictable” decisions.
The Supreme Court should strive to give the clearest directives possible to lower-level actors. But a broad manageability requirement in all cases would seemingly preclude the Court from resolving many of the pressing problems on its docket, even when the questions they present are in no way political. Whether Justice Gorsuch and others press for such a manageability requirement should be at the forefront of court-watchers’ minds, both in abortion litigation and elsewhere, for years to come.
 June Medical Serv. v. Russo, 591 U.S. __ (2020) (Gorsuch, J., dissenting) (slip op. at 14-15).
 Id. at 14-15
 Id. at 16-18.
 Id. at 16.
 Id. at 17.
 Id. at 16 (quoting Rucho v. Common Cause, 588 U.S. ___ (2019) (slip op. at 11)).
 Id. (Thomas, J., dissenting) (slip op. at 18).
 Id. (Gorsuch, J., dissenting) (slip op. at 16).