Tuesday, May 10, 2022
Justice Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has vast cultural implications for a country mired in starkly divisive political rhetoric. The leak of that opinion also undermines the Supreme Court’s institutional integrity at a time when the public’s trust in the Court was already at an all-time low. But there is another crucial and often overlooked way in which the draft opinion undercuts the Court’s prestige and the public’s reliance upon its opinions: the approach it takes to stare decisis.
Justice Alito’s draft opinion devotes nearly 30 pages to a discussion of whether the doctrine of stare decisis—the concept that courts should generally uphold prior decisions rather than overrule them—requires following the Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and it’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey reaffirming Roe. Alito begins by offering a few platitudes on the importance of precedent and a list of examples where the Court has previously overruled despite the force of stare decisis. Alito then identifies the “factors” in the stare decisis analysis by relying upon his own recent opinion in Janus v. AFSCME. Just as I have previously predicted, Alito’s draft opinion demonstrates that Janus is now the new loadstar for a version of stare decisis so weak as to be practically meaningless.
In his Janus opinion, Justice Alito created a new zenith in the “weak” stare decisis tradition. The weak tradition posits that “poor reasoning” in a prior decision is not merely a condition precedent to stare decisis analysis, but is also a substantive consideration in that analysis that may itself justify a reversal. That view stands in stark contrast with the strong version of stare decisis that led the Court to reaffirm Roe in Casey. Under that “strong” stare decisis tradition, a precedent, regardless of the quality of its reasoning, should stand unless there is some “special justification” to overrule it—including whether the precedent defies practical workability, is subject to special reliance interests, is a mere remnant of abandoned doctrine, or is based upon facts that have changed so significantly that the precedent’s rule is no longer applicable.
Just the Janus opinion did, the draft opinion in Dobbs placed the substantive accuracy of the precedents—the “nature of the Court’s error” and the “quality of the reasoning”—as the first consideration for justices unsatisfied with a precedent. The draft Dobbs opinion then spends eleven pages decrying the reasoning of Roe and Casey, saving far shorter passages for discussions of traditional stare decisis factors like workability. Poor reasoning in a prior decision is thus more than just a reason to turn to stare decisis analysis; it is instead a sufficient condition to overturn decisions.
The draft Dobbs opinion confirms that a precedent’s reasoning is the only factor that matters when it dismisses, in a little over two pages, society’s reliance interests in a half-century-old opinion. The opinion claimed there was a lack of concrete evidence of societal reliance on Doe and Casey, despite their decades-old vintage. Reliance interests, long the acme of stare decisis concern, thus play almost no role in determining whether to uphold a precedent.
This elevation of the Janus approach to stare decisis is a grave danger to the stability of our legal system and the reliability of our courts. As I have argued before, poor reasoning provides an ever-present justification for overturning decisions. Conversations about stare decisis only arise, after all, when current Justices believe that a prior decision was substantively incorrect and might warrant a change of direction. Janus and the draft Dobbs opinion, however, tout a version of stare decisis that would be unable to settle disputes independent of the Justices’ views about the substantive correctness of a decision. This significantly undermines doctrinal stability, making it harder for the public to know and understand the law. It also undermines judicial legitimacy in a hyper-polarized society. And it may also undermine legal consistency as lower courts freely deviate from Supreme Court precedent that appears substantively incorrect.
Arguably, this form of weakened stare decisis is itself so incoherent and unworkable that it could hardly be considered a doctrine at all. That lack of coherence may allow Justices to change their approach to stare decisis over time. A new Justice can begin her career by claiming fidelity to a weak stare decisis tradition that allows her to rapidly overrule cases with which she substantively disagrees, only to transition to a strong stare decisis tradition later in her career in an effort to protect her perceived gains from overrule by subsequent judicial generations. Such waves in stare decisis are intellectually inconsistent, as the Justice who ascribes to changing conceptions of stare decisis over time in fact ascribes to no real, binding version at all. Furthermore, the constant churn in legal doctrine would render stare decisis so malleable as to become meaningless, rendering all precedents vulnerable to overrule at any time.
In the Dobbs draft opinion, Justice Alito is careful to note that the ruling does not threaten precedents that do not concern abortion. But the draft opinion suggests far more malleability in all forms of precedent than Alito’s assurances. The draft opinion perpetuates a weakened version of stare decisis that undermines the finality of any decision, at great risk to a politically divided nation.