Sunday, May 8, 2022
Roe v. Wade is Probably Going to the “Graveyard of the Forgotten Past”
Based on the stunning and unprecedented leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a slim majority of the Court may overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey and return the abortion issue to state legislatures – and the democratic process where it always belonged. Before discussing Roe in detail, a few developments from the last week warrant mention.
First, the leaker, who is possibly a misguided law clerk, is a disgrace. The idea that you can assert political pressure on the Court – an independent branch of government – is ridiculous. What’s shocking is that this leaker is likely from a top law school. And the incredible lack of judgment – apparently believing that such pressure would influence the Court’s decision – shows the leaker has no respect for the Court’s institutional role and no regard for the need to insulate the Court from political pressure,
Second, the misleading and, quite frankly, intellectually dishonest comments by some scholars, politicians, and journalists – along with threats to protests at the justices’ homes – misrepresent fundamentally the impact of reversing Roe, misapprehend the Court’s role in a constitutional democracy, and threaten to undermine severely the Court’s legitimacy. Put simply, the Court’s job is not to base its decisions on policy outcomes that the public deems desirable; its job is to interpret the Constitution.
Third, public discourse following the unprecedented leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion demonstrates a startling disregard for the fatal flaws in the Court’s abortion jurisprudence, which both liberal and conservative scholars, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, identified in the decades after Roe was decided. The fact that scholars, politicians, and journalists have so utterly misrepresented Roe and made unhinged attacks on the Court, shows how significantly this discourse has declined in quality and integrity.
I. The Reality of Abortion Jurisprudence
As a matter of constitutional law, Roe is one of the worst decisions in the last century (outside of, for example, Plessy and Korematsu). To begin with, Roe has no basis in the text of the Constitution. Furthermore, the right to abortion is not inferable from any textually-grounded right. Finally, the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions.
A. Abortion has no basis in the text of the Constitution.
In Roe, the Court based its decision on, among other things, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which provides in relevant part that “no state shall … any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Essentially, this means that states must afford citizens fair procedures (e.g., a trial) before citizens can be executed, imprisoned, or subject to property forfeiture. Nowhere in this language can any substantive constitutional right be discerned, particularly the right to abortion.
And the Court in Roe likely knew that.
However, the Court remained undeterred and instead relied on Griswold v. Connecticut to invent a fundamental right that no reading of the Constitution’s text could possibly support. In Griswold, the Court invalidated an admittedly-ridiculous law that banned contraception. In so doing, the Court held that, although no specific textual provision supported invalidating the law, the Bill of Rights contained invisible “penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees [in the Bill of Rights] that help give them life and substance" On the basis of these judicially-created “penumbras,” the Court discovered a substantive right to privacy in the Constitution, even though the majority could not identify exactly where in the Constitution this right “emanated.” In other words, the Court blatantly manipulated -- in fact, ignored – the Constitution’s text, to reach a result that no interpretation could support, but that their justices preferred based on their subjective values.
Subsequently, the Court in Roe relied on this nebulous and impossible-to-define (or limit) right to privacy, holding that this “right” was “broad enough” to encompass a right to abortion. To make matters worse, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court, in reaffirming Roe, held that the word “liberty” in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause encompassed various unenumerated and substantive liberty interests that cannot be found anywhere in the Constitution – but that the justices subjectively deemed necessary to protect citizens’ liberty. In so holding, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and the mystery of human life.”
One can hardly find decisions or language (the “mystery of life” passage) more anti-democratic and more untethered to the Constitution’s text.
It should come as no surprise that liberal and conservative scholars overwhelmingly condemned Roe’s reasoning. Even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believed that Roe was far too sweeping, such that “it seemed to have stopped the momentum on the side of change.” Additionally, as Professor John Hart Ely stated:
What is frightening about Roe is that this super-protected right is not inferable from the language of the Constitution, the framers’ thinking respecting the specific problem in issue, any general value derivable from the provisions they included, or the nation’s governmental structure. . . . And that, I believe . . . is a charge that can responsibly be leveled at no other decision of the past twenty years. At times the inferences the Court has drawn from the values the Constitution marks for special protection have been controversial, even shaky, but never before has its sense of an obligation to draw one been so obviously lacking.
Likewise, Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe stated that “one of the most curious things about Roe is that, behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it rests is nowhere to be found.” The list goes on and on, but you get the point.
It should also come as no surprise that, in current discourse, very few scholars defend Roe on its merits.
The Court should have never gotten involved in the abortion issue. Because the Constitution was silent on this issue, and because no provision could have possibly been interpreted to protect a right to abortion, this was a matter for the people to decide, not nine unelected judges.
B. Abortion is not inferable from any textually-based right.
The above argument is not meant to suggest that the Court cannot and should not create unenumerated constitutional rights, particularly where those rights are inferable from the text. Certainly, the First Amendment right to free speech implies a right to assembly. Likewise, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination implies that the prosecution cannot comment on a defendant’s refusal to take the stand at trial (this is not an implied right per se, but you get the point). Similarly, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel implies the right to effective assistance of counsel and the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment implies a right to be free from punishments that are disproportionate to the crime of conviction (or the defendant’s blameworthiness).
Nowhere in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, however, is the right to abortion even remotely inferable. And that is the point. There was no constitutional basis for creating this right.
C. Abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and tradition.
To the extent that scholars and some members of the Court support the substantive due process doctrine and the creation of unenumerated rights under this doctrine, it comes with two caveats: first, those rights must be deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions. For example, such rights include, but are not limited to, the right to travel and the right to educate and rear one’s children. The right to abortion, however, is not deeply rooted in our nation’s history and tradition and was widely outlawed for most of American history.
Additionally, the asserted unenumerated right must be carefully and narrowly described. In Washington v. Glucksberg, the Court emphasized this point when holding that the Constitution did not protect a right to assisted suicide. In so doing, the Court emphasized that its members should be hesitant to create unenumerated rights because doing prevents the people in each state from deciding these issues democratically and thus from determining from the bottom up, not the top-down, which unenumerated rights should be recognized.
The Court’s decisions in Roe and Casey underscore the problem with creating nebulous unenumerated rights, such as the right to “privacy” and “liberty,” and then creating new rights based on these broad formulations. Specifically, these so-called rights have no conceivable limitations and could theoretically encompass unenumerated rights (and policy outcomes) that the justices deem desirable, that have no relationship to the Constitution, and that reflect nothing more than subjectivity and arbitrariness. That is a prescription for anti-democratic governance because it allows nine unelected judges to impose their policy predilections on an entire nation – without any accountability whatsoever. After all, why doesn’t the right to privacy and liberty encompass a right to use illegal drugs, marry a family member, or commit suicide? That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Roe.
It's also the problem with relying on natural rights theory to create unenumerated rights. Such an approach would be equally, if not more, broad and limitless than privacy and liberty, and would cause the same problem: the justices could “discover” whatever right they want whenever they wanted. This would lead to a constitutional jurisprudence of the most undemocratic kind.
Ultimately, Roe and Casey are likely to be overturned despite principles of stare decisis. These decisions were, as Justice Alito said in his draft opinion, egregiously wrong.
II. Overturning Roe will not endanger other constitutional rights.
Some commentators have suggested that overturning Roe and Casey will lead the Court to overturn other decisions, such as Loving v. Virginia, which rightly invalidated bans on interracial marriage, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which rightly invalidated bans on same-sex marriage. This concern is misplaced. Unlike Roe, cases such as Loving and Obergefell were based in substantial part on the text, namely, the Equal Protection Clause.
Roe, however, was not – and that again is the problem. Indeed, a plausible argument could be made that abortion bans violate the Equal Protection Clause. Specifically, such bans prohibit women from participating equally in the social, economic, and political aspects of our society because they force women to bear the financial, emotional, and psychological burdens of an unwanted pregnancy. Had Roe been based on the Equal Protection Clause, it would have had a sounder and more justifiable constitutional basis.
III. The real threat that overturning Roe and Casey presents.
Despite Roe’s and Casey’s obvious flaws, overturning these decisions at this point – nearly fifty years after the Court decided Roe – will severely undermine the Court’s institutional legitimacy.
To be sure, the public’s opinion of the Court results, at least in part, from the perception that some decisions reflect the Court’s current ideological composition. When the justices’ votes conveniently and consistently align with their policy preferences – and constitutional meaning changes based on whether a majority of the justices is liberal or conservative – the perception is that politics, not law, and party affiliation, not principle, motivate the Court’s decisions. Of course, although the justices continually emphasize that their decisions are never motivated by policy preferences, the fact remains that perception matters more than reality. Indeed, it is reality. Any decision that denies Petitioners the ability to seek relief in federal court would re-enforce this perception. It would suggest that constitutional meaning can – and does – change simply because the political and ideological predilections of the justices change. It would suggest that constitutional rights, however, ill-founded, can be tossed in the proverbial garbage simply because there are more conservatives on the Court in 2022 than there were in 1973 or 1992. That is the point – and the problem – with overturning Roe and Casey now. In short, yes, Roe and Casey were terrible decisions, but at this juncture, overruling them is almost certain to cause more harm than good, particularly to the Court’s legitimacy and to women. On the merits, however, the downfall of Roe and Casey is understandable as a matter of constitutional law.
In any event, Roe and Casey are perfect examples of how not to create unenumerated rights. When you give the Supreme Court the right to identify enumerated rights for an entire nation based on broad standards that invite subjectivity and arbitrariness, and when you base your view of a decision’s legitimacy on whether it comports with your policy predilections, democracy truly is in danger. The Court’s job is to interpret the Constitution, not to reach outcomes that you like. Put simply, the process by which the Court reaches its decisions is equally, if not more, important than the outcomes themselves.
 U.S. Const., Amend. XIV.
 381 U.S. 479 (1965).
 505 U.S. 833 (1992).
 Meredith Heagney, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit (May 15, 2013), available at: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit | University of Chicago Law School (uchicago.edu)
 John Hart Ely, The Wages of Crying Wolf: A Comment on Roe v. Wade, 82 YALE L.J. 920 (1973).
 Laurence Tribe, The Supreme Court, 1972 Term–Foreword: Toward a Model of Roles in the Due Process of Life and Law, 87 Harvard Law Review 1, 7 (1973).
 See, e.g., Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923); Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).
 521 U.S. 702 (1997)
 388 U.S. 1 (1967); 576 U.S. 644 (2015).