The fall out from the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v Wade published by Politico this week is getting a lot of richly deserved attention. While it is a February draft that is sure to change in some form or another, the basic tenets of the opinion will most likely remain — perhaps better refined, but still tendering the same basic argument. To date, much speculation centers on how the document was leaked. In a world where everything seems “unprecedented” this truly was. While Supreme Court decisions have been leaked before they were announced in the past, this is the first time in memory that an entire opinion was leaked. However, the why, who and when concerning the leak, although important in an institutional way for the integrity of the Court, is secondary to what is in the opinion.
I am not an attorney and I am not a Constitutional scholar, but it doesn’t take much more than an ability to read and to understand what is written to know that this opinion is a direct threat to way more than just the one case. Whatever one’s opinion on abortion may be, I recommend that you put aside those thoughts for a moment and think about what Justice Alito’s draft opinion means in a larger context.
For the the last year or two, my view is that the Supreme Court has, in a series of decisions large and small, been moving toward a very, very tight interpretation of our nation’s laws and Constitution. As this trend continues, it will move our country back at least one hundred years, and possibly back to life as it was under Reconstruction in the late 1800s.
For example, since the New Deal, and in keeping with rapidly developing complex technical developments, Congress increasingly gives authority to Executive Branch departments to regulate all manner of government and private enterprises. Recent district and appeals courts decisions have increasingly decreed that if a certain regulatory authority is not specifically written into the law, then that agency has no power to enforce it. For about one hundred years, we have assumed otherwise as long as it was reasonable and in keeping with the basic function of that agency. Chaos is likely to ensue should this trend continue as it would necessitate re-writing countless laws to specify powers that by the time the law is enacted are no longer relevant as technology and society move on.
The second trend that appears to be growing in numbers and reinforced by the Supreme Court is giving priority to the states over the federal government. Reconstruction, here we come. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were focused attempts to abolish slavery and to provide the same rights to formerly enslaved individuals as to those that enslaved them. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868 (a date which we will come back to shortly) in particular is relevant to this discussion. Section One of the amendment includes the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. Basically, the Due Process Clause extends the rights under the Bill of Rights to the states. The Equal Protection Clause says that every state must extend the protections of the law to every group equally. These clauses have been the basis for decisions such as Loving v Virginia which overturned laws prohibiting mixed race marriages allowing those marriages to be recognized in every state; Obergefell v Hodges which makes same sex marriages valid in every state of the Union, and of course, Roe v Wade, a right to abortion and the case now in question. Also relevant to this discussion is Griswold v Connecticut which hinged on marital privacy and the right to use contraceptives. The fact that the word “privacy” does not appear in the Constitution was a subject of debate in that case and is relevant in the Roe v Wade case as well.
From the last paragraph note that “abortion” “marriage” “privacy” “contraceptives” and many more modern activities and life style choices that we assume to be common in the course of everyday life are nowhere to be found in the Constitution. This is why Section One of the 14th Amendment is the source of arguments for and against many cases that reached the Supreme Court in the last 60 years or so.
This draft opinion is so upsetting to many Americans, beyond the impact of turning abortion laws over to the states, because it threatens other aspects of life that were considered settled. What other rights might states take away? It is not hyperbole. It is not hysteria. Several Republican members of the Senate raised similar questions as to why rights could not be “undone” during the hearings to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. If the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses were the basis for these decisions, and Justice Alito argues that they should not apply, then what is to stop states from taking away the rights of numerous groups based on marital status, race, gender identity or any other factor?
Do not be sanguine if you support a women’s right to choose that half of the states in our country still allow abortions. The Congress could pass a law institutionalizing the right to an abortion. Many Democrats have declared that they will work to pass just such a law before the mid-term elections. It will not happen. There are not enough votes in the Senate to break a filibuster and the Democrats will not or cannot overcome that rule. I guarantee, however, that if in 2024 the Republicans control the Congress and the White House that they will pass a law that does away with abortion in all fifty states — and they will ignore the filibuster if needed.
Several things jump out to me, a lay man, in the Justice Alito draft opinion. Most glaring perhaps, is that he says that a right decided nearly fifty years ago should be taken away. This is the first time that this has happened in our history. Justice Alito argues that the Supreme Court has changed their opinions several times throughout history. In particular, he mentions the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson case that established in law the “separate but equal” doctrine that institutionalized racism in our country. That ruling was overturned in the 1954 Brown v Board of Education of Topeka. Please note that the Brown ruling gave equal rights to a group of Americans. It did not take away a right.
If you happen to read the draft opinion (the link is in the first sentence above) you will notice a disturbing tone in his writings. I will not dwell on that, but he essentially calls his predecessors on the court morons and says that their decision, upheld in other cases since the original 1973 ruling, is “egregiously wrong.”
Digging deeper into his draft opinion, he seems to claim that the 14th Amendment only applies to things known in the year that it was ratified — 1868. Anything after that such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and countless other elements of modern life should not be included because they were unknown or unaddressed in that time. He says that “a fundamental right must be ‘objectively, deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.'” One could argue that racism, misogyny and bigotry are “deeply rooted” in our history, although the Justice may disagree. He goes on to argue that what people want (he uses liberty as an example) is not the same as what the 14th Amendment protects. Therefore, he continues, the Court should be “reluctant” to “recognize rights that are not in the Constitution.” And there we are. Apparently, we should live and act like it is the 1700s or 1800s.
Keep in mind that the majority of Americans favor no changes to Roe v Wade. Polls vary, but all show a majority favors keeping the government out of what may be the most personal of decisions. Remember also that many of the recent state laws make no exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother. When that is factored into polling, 80% or more of Americans are opposed to such restrictions. It seems like a single opinion is overwhelming what the majority of Americans want. Justice Alito addresses that fact by saying, in essence, “too bad.” He is not swayed by public opinion.
When this interpretation is tied to increasingly favoring states rights over the federal government, we are living in very regressive times. One would think that such an issue was solved with the Civil War, but apparently, I was wrong. We can already see in states like Texas and Florida what an over zealous legislature subservient to an autocratic governor can do to undermine the rights of those citizens.
In my mind, it gets worse.
The fallout from the Supreme Court rulings comes in the context of an ex-president that is still raising money and holding the party formerly known as the Republican Party hostage. There are very few traditional Republicans left that have not fallen into the MAGA Party. In way too many local, state and Congressional primaries, to win an election one must agree with the Big Lie and vow to overturn any election that a Republican does not win. That is where many, many states are headed. If your guy or gal does not win, then it could only be because the election was rigged, and the results should be overturned. I guess in many states, only Republican candidates are allowed to win elections.
In addition, looking at the Supreme Court which many would hope would be a bastion of defense against such un-American activities, we see a tendency to follow political beliefs rather than the rule of law.
Apparently here too, only Republicans can name Supreme Court Justices. Remember that the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell packed the Court with his nominees (I say his because the then president did not care about the Court, only that he got credit from his base). He blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland for nearly a year because of an upcoming election. Then, after voting for a presidential race had begun, he crammed Amy Coney Barrett through the Senate. Even as the president that nominally nominated them lost the popular vote twice. (Fun fact: A Republican presidential nominee has only won the popular vote once in the last 30 years.) To pour salt on the wounds, when asked recently whether any future Supreme Court nominees would go forward under President Biden’s last two years in office should the Republicans regain the Senate in 2022, Leader McConnell demurred, implying that it was unlikely. So, it is amazing that Judge Jackson’s nomination process went forward because it seems that only Republicans are supposed to be able to nominate Justices.
It is enough to make me wonder if our Republic can survive much past 2024.
Few people truly believed that Roe v Wade would actually be overturned. Primarily because in our history, rights had only be restored, never rescinded. Even Republican Senators such as Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski did not think that it would be overturned as they were personally assured — assured — in public and in private by nominees Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett that it was “settled law” or “stare decisis” meaning that the precedent had been set and there was no reason to change it. So, both Senators came as close to calling those Justices “liars” as is possible to do in polite company.
As has been noted, this is a draft opinion for the majority of the Justices. It could change. Some speculate that it was leaked in order to force a change — others argue it was leaked to solidify the vote of a wavering Justice currently in the majority who might change his/her vote. Time will tell. The final decision should be handed down in late June or early July.
My advice to all Americans that do not agree with this course of events is to do something about it. Demonstrating in the streets is great, it makes people aware and allows for a release of emotion. Unfortunately the only thing that will change things is to vote. Organize, get out the vote, and cast a ballot. Otherwise, the crazies will take over.