Saturday, July 2, 2022
A Few Thoughts on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health
On June 24, 2022, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and, in so doing, sparked impassioned reaction in the United States.
Below are a few thoughts on the decision.
1. The majority was correct.
In today’s climate, particularly in some academic institutions, it’s not advisable to publicly criticize Roe – or praise Dobbs – if you want to advance in your academic career.
But the truth is the truth.
Roe was a terrible decision. The majority got it right.
The right to abortion was not based on any reasonable interpretation of the Constitution’s text. And it was not inferable from the text, particularly the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, unlike, for example, the right to effective assistance of counsel, which can be inferred from the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. It was not rooted in the nation’s history or traditions, which is a critical factor that constrains the Court’s power and prevents justices from creating whatever “rights” they subjectively deem desirable. Instead, the Roe Court created a constitutional right out of thin air, divining such right from the invisible “penumbras” that the Court in Griswold v. Connecticut likewise created out of thin air. And the nonsensical doctrine of substantive due process, which the Court invoked in Planned Parenthood v. Casey to uphold Roe’s central holding, is a legal fiction. Not surprisingly, constitutional scholars of both conservative and liberal persuasions, along with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, have recognized that Roe was incredibly, if not irredeemably, flawed.
The Court’s decision reflected a principle that is vital to a functioning democracy and the valuers of federalism, de-centralized governance, and bottom-up lawmaking: nine unelected and life-tenured judges should not have to right to decide for an entire country what unenumerated rights should or should not be recognized when such “rights” are neither contained in nor inferable from the text, or not deeply rooted in history and tradition. The reason for these constraints is obvious: without them, the justices would have the unfettered authority to create – or take away – whatever rights they wanted, whenever they wanted, and for whatever reason they wanted, which would reflect nothing more than their subjective policy predilections. That is antithetical to a democracy that vests power in the people, not philosopher kings. And for those who claim that the Ninth Amendment is a source of unenumerated rights, they are correct. But where in the Ninth Amendment does it state that the Court has the authority to create those rights, particularly where there is no basis in the Constitution to do so?
Ultimately, Roe was the perfect example of a raw exercise of judicial power. This does not necessarily mean, however, that the right to abortion lacked a textual basis in the Constitution. As stated below, to the extent that there is a constitutional basis to support a right to abortion, it is through the Equal Protection Clause (or possibly the Privileges and Immunities Clause).
2. Justice Roberts’ approach was sensible but not principled.
Chief Justice Roberts’ concurrence strikes a sensible but not necessarily principled balance between recognizing the fatal flaws in Roe yet respecting the fact that Roe has been the law for nearly half a century. For this reason, Roberts would have upheld the Mississippi law, which banned abortions after fifteen weeks, but not entirely overturned Roe and Casey.
This approach, although understandable given the practical impact of overturning Roe (and, as Roberts put it, the “jolt” to the legal system), is akin to taking a band-aid off slowly rather than ripping it off. Moreover, given the Court’s on-again, off-again relationship with stare decisis, with both liberal and conservative justices selectively applying the doctrine, Roberts’ concurrence appears more as a misguided attempt to preserve the Court’s legitimacy. Indeed, in this and other decisions, Roberts appears to lend more weight to perceptions about the public reaction’s reaction to a particular decision than the text of the Constitution itself. But basing decisions primarily on how the Court’s legitimacy will be affected invariably leads to political decisions and the precise result – a decline in the Court’s legitimacy – that Roberts is so intent on protecting. It should come as no surprise that the public opinion of the Court is now at twenty-five percent.
Put simply, interpreting the Constitution’s text reasonably is the key to the Court’s institutional legitimacy.
3. Justice Kavanaugh’s concurrence was surprisingly misguided.
In his concurrence, Justice Brett Kavanaugh argued that the decision in Dobbs returned the Court to a position of neutrality on abortion. It is difficult to believe that Kavanaugh believes this to be true.
The Court did not return to a position of neutrality. Roe was decided 7-2, and in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court by a 5-4 margin affirmed Roe’s central holding. Thus, the Court had previously – and in numerous other cases – affirmed Roe and protected the fundamental right of women to access abortion services. In other words, it had already taken a position – repeatedly – on whether the Constitution protected abortion.
So, what changed since Planned Parenthood? Nothing – except the composition of the Court, namely, the confirmation of three conservative justices.
This is not to say that appointing conservative justices – and originalists – is a bad thing. Given the Court’s abortion precedent, however, and the known political affiliations of Justices Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, and Barrett, the notion that the Court returned to a position of “neutrality,” without acknowledging that, since Casey reaffirmed Roe, nothing changed but the Court’s composition, is ridiculous. That’s why Chief Justice Roberts’ approach was arguably the most sensible, although not the most principled, way to decide Dobbs.
Of course, this does not change the fact that, as a matter of constitutional law, Roe was one of the worst decisions in the twentieth century (not as bad, though, as Plessy and Korematsu), that Casey too was profoundly wrong, and that the Court was correct as a matter of constitutional law. The original sin was Roe itself, and the flaws in Roe were compounded by Court’s decision in Casey, which reaffirmed Roe based on untenable constitutional grounds, and on nonsensical justifications such as, “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That’s what you get when you subscribe to “living constitutionalism," which makes about as much sense as substantive due process or the belief that Elvis is still alive.
Having said that, the optic is not good – Dobbs suggests that constitutional rights change based on the political ideologies of the current justices. Kavanaugh’s concurrence displayed a startling disregard of this reality.
4. Justice Thomas went too far.
With all due respect, Justice Clarence Thomas went too far in his concurrence. Yes, Thomas is correct that substantive due process is a nonsensical legal doctrine, and that Roe and Griswold were constitutionally indefensible decisions.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you revisit and overrule every flawed legal precedent that substantive due process produced. The truth is that, in many instances, the justices must consider the practical consequences of their decisions, and if the Constitution’s text can be reasonably interpreted to support a particular outcome, the Court should reach outcomes that will expand rights and promote, among other things, equality and the equal dignity of all persons. And in some instances, even if a precedent is irreparably flawed, the resulting “jolt” to the legal system and the material harm to citizens that may result can support letting the precedent stand on stare decisis grounds (or, as in the case of abortion, justifying it based on the Equal Protection Clause).
This analysis applies directly to Griswold, which was equally, if not more, flawed than Roe, because the majority, despite recognizing that the text didn’t support invalidating Connecticut’s ridiculous contraception ban, nonetheless decided to invent invisible “penumbras” from which it could single-handedly invent unenumerated constitutional rights.
But that doesn’t mean that Griswold should be overruled. If it was, you can be sure that misguided legislators would try to outlaw contraception. After all, imagine a world where women cannot access contraception and cannot access abortion services. That’s not a world that most reasonable people want to imagine.
Additionally, Thomas is wrong about Obergefell, which was defensible – and rightly decided – because, like the Seventh Circuit held in Baskin v. Bogan, same-sex marriage bans (and interracial marriage bans) violate the Equal Protection Clause.
Thankfully, there is no support for Thomas’s position on the Court, as the majority explicitly and repeatedly stated that precedents such as Griswold and Obergefell were not implicated by the decision because they did not involve the state’s interest in protecting fetal life. And there is reason to believe the justices in the majority because their reputations would be forever tarnished if they betrayed what they had explicitly written in a prior opinion.
5. Justice Ginsburg was right – if abortion can be justified by any provision in the text, it is in the Equal Protection Clause.
Despite Roe’s indefensible reasoning, there is arguably a basis, as Justice Ginsburg argued, to justify a right to abortion under the Equal Protection Clause. Abortion bans relegate women to second-class citizens. If a woman gets pregnant, she – and she alone – must often bear the financial, emotional, and psychological burdens of pregnancy, not to mention the medical issues (perhaps life-threatening) that some women may face if they are forced to carry a pregnancy to term. The burden on men, however, is not comparable and, in many cases, non-existent. Think about it: a woman who gets pregnant while in college, while pursuing a graduate degree, while starting a job, or while impoverished, must now bear the financial, emotional, and psychological burden of an unwanted pregnancy, which may cause that woman to drop out of school, lose her job, or sink further into poverty. The result is that some women will be prohibited from participating equally in the economic and social life of this country. That is wrong – and that is why the Equal Protection Clause arguably provides a basis to justify a constitutional right to abortion.
The problem is that neither Roe nor Casey was based primarily on the Equal Protection Clause. They were based on a right to privacy found nowhere in the Fourteenth Amendment and, later, on a substantive liberty interest that no reasonable interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment can support. That is in part why Roe created such a backlash and, ultimately, was overruled.
6. Imagine where we’d be if the Court had embraced judicial restraint and deference.
If liberals had embraced the concept of judicial restraint, and of deferring more frequently to the decisions of federal and state legislatures, the world might look very different now.
New York’s law regulating who could carry a gun in public would still be on the books. The high school coach who prayed on the fifty-yard line after his high school’s football games would still be fired (although he shouldn’t have been fired). And abortion would still be accessible in every state, albeit with a fifteen-week limitation. For liberals, that sounds like a much better situation than they are in now.
That highlights the problem with judicial activism, which both conservative and liberal justices have embraced at various periods in the Court’s history. As stated above, when you rely on the Court to effectuate social change and disregard the constraints on judicial power, you give nine unelected judges the power to identify and define unenumerated rights for an entire nation based on their subjective policy preferences. And what the Court gives, it can certainly take away. In other words, advocates for an activist Court – conservative or liberal – will see their luck run out when the Court’s composition changes. That is precisely what happened in Dobbs.
7. Stop criticizing the Court
Predictably, after Dobbs was released, some in the media, and even some scholars, brought out all the usual buzzwords, such as characterizing the decision as misogynistic, white supremacist, racist, and the like. Even President Biden made disparaging comments about the Court that undermined his and the Court’s legitimacy. Biden had the audacity to state during a conference in Madrid, Spain, that “[t]he one thing that has been destabilizing is the outrageous behavior of the Supreme Court of the United States, in overruling not only Roe v. Wade, but essentially challenging the right to privacy.” He should be ashamed.
Few, if any, however, including Biden, defended Roe on its merits. How could they? As Laurance Tribe stated, “one of the most curious things about Roe is that, beyond its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it rests is nowhere to be found.” Ultimately, the Court’s job is to interpret the Constitution, not reach the outcomes that you like. And even when you disagree with a decision, it’s wrong to hurl insults at the justices. At this juncture, time would be better spent lobbying state legislatures across the country to protect women’s bodily autonomy and provide access to abortion services.
 381 U.S. 479 (1965).
 505 U.S. 833 (1992).
 See 381 U.S. 479 (1965).
 576 U.S. 644 (2015); 766 F. 3d 648 (2014).
 See Opinion, How Liberals Should Rethink Their View of the Supreme Court (June 21, 2022), available at: Opinion: Liberals should rethink view of Supreme Court - CNN
 See, e.g., Ramesh Ponnuru, The Times Distorts Alito’s Draft Opinion, (May 5, 2022), available at: New York Times Distorts Alito's ‘Dobbs’ Opinion | National Review
 Alex Gangitano, Biden Calls Supreme Court Overturning Roe v. Wade ‘Destabilizing’ (June 30, 2022), available at: Biden calls Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade ‘destabilizing’ | The Hill
 See, Opinion, Roe Was Wrong the Day It Was Decided. The Supreme Court Did the Right Thing (June 24, 2022), available at: Roe Was Wrong the Day it Was Decided. The Supreme Court Did The Right Thing | Opinion (newsweek.com)