Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Explaining Justice Powell's Decision on Abortion

Samuel Wolfe Calhoun (Washington & Lee), has posted Justice Lewis F. Powell's Baffling Vote in Roe v. Wade, 71 W&L Law Rev. 925 (2014):

This article explores Justice Powell’s vote with the majority in Roe v. Wade. The piece builds upon the unissued 1970 abortion opinion of Judge Henry J. Friendly, who, although personally pro-choice, concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment does not require abortion freedom. The article also presents research from the Powell Archives at Washington and Lee University School of Law. On its face, Powell’s Roe vote is perplexing due to its inconsistency with his stated philosophy of judicial restraint.

Calhoun quickly dismisses what seems to me to be the most pursuasive explanation: that Powell voted based on his own personal experience.   As I noted in my recent article, Back to the Future of Regulating Abortion Rights in the First Term , 29 Wis. J. L, Gender & Soc'y 47, 70 (2014), that's how Powell himself explained it.  

 When the conservative Justice Powell was later asked why he supported abortion, he answered based on personal experience rather than constitutional theory. Linda Greenhouse, Lewis Powell, Crucial Centrist Justice, Dies at 90, N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 26, 1998, at A1; David Westin, Eulogy: Lewis Powell, TIME, Sept. 7, 1998. He told the story of a young, black messenger at his old law firm in Richmond, Virginia who was terrified that he would be arrested for the death of his girlfriend, for whom he had helped get an illegal abortion from a “back-alley butcher.” Greenhouse, supra. Powell helped negotiate with the city prosecutor and no charges were ever brought. Id. Powell gained an appreciation for the practical implications of the legal issue of abortion and its impact of people of different races and economic class. Id.

This is familiar as a basic precept of feminist legal theory--that realities and personal experiences do matter to the interpretation of law.   And reminds me of the conclusion of a recent study that conservative judges vote for women's rights in discrimination cases when they have a daughter.  


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