June 29 1972—In Furman v. Georgia, five justices vote to overturn a death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment but can’t agree on a rationale. Each of the five justices instead issues his own opinion. Despite the fact that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments expressly assume the existence of the death penalty, Justices Brennan and Marshall each assert that the death penalty is in every instance an Eighth Amendment violation. The Court’s per curiam declaration creates massive confusion and requires states to rewrite their capital-sentencing laws.
1992—By a vote of 5 to 4, the Supreme Court bungles an opportunity to dismantle the regime of Roe v. Wade and to restore abortion policy to the democratic processes. Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter combine to produce a joint opinion so breathtaking in its grandiose misunderstanding of the Supreme Court’s role that it makes one long for the modest incoherence of Justice Blackmun’s opinion in Roe v. Wade. The joint opinion is perhaps most infamous for declaring, “At 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.” What this gauzy New Age rhetoric obscures is that the justices are claiming the unconstrained power to define for all Americans which particular interests they think should be beyond the bounds of citizens to address through legislation. But it gets far worse. Consider, for example, these passages on stare decisis considerations:
“Where, in the performance of its judicial duties, the Court decides a case in such a way as to resolve the sort of intensely divisive controversy reflected in Roe and those rare, comparable cases, its decision has a dimension that the resolution of the normal case does not carry. It is the dimension present whenever the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution calls the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.”
“To all those who will be so tested by following [the Court], the Court implicitly undertakes to remain steadfast, lest in the end a price be paid for nothing. The promise of constancy, once given, binds its maker for as long as the power to stand by the decision survives and the understanding of the issue has not changed so fundamentally as to render the commitment obsolete.”
“Like the character of an individual, the legitimacy of the Court must be earned over time. So, indeed, must be the character of a Nation of people who aspire to live according to the rule of law. Their belief in themselves as such a people is not readily separable from their understanding of the Court invested with the authority to decide their constitutional cases and speak before all others for their constitutional ideals. If the Court’s legitimacy should be undermined, then, so would the country be in its very ability to see itself through its constitutional ideals. The Court’s concern with legitimacy is not for the sake of the Court but for the sake of the Nation to which it is responsible.”
“The Court’s description of the place of Roe in the social history of the United States is unrecognizable. Not only did Roe not, as the Court suggests, resolve the deeply divisive issue of abortion; it did more than anything else to nourish it, by elevating it to the national level where it is infinitely more difficult to resolve. National politics were not plagued by abortion protests, national abortion lobbying, or abortion marches on Congress, before Roe v. Wade was decided. Profound disagreement existed among our citizens over the issue—as it does over other issues, such as the death penalty—but that disagreement was being worked out at the state level.”
“Roe fanned into life an issue that has inflamed our national politics in general, and has obscured with its smoke the selection of Justices to this Court in particular, ever since. And by keeping us in the abortion umpiring business, it is the perpetuation of that disruption, rather than of any pax Roeana, that the Court’s new majority decrees.”
“The Imperial Judiciary lives. It is instructive to compare this Nietzschean vision of us unelected, life tenured judges—leading a Volk who will be ‘tested by following,’ and whose very ‘belief in themselves’ is mystically bound up in their ‘understanding’ of a Court that ‘speak[s] before all others for their constitutional ideals’—with the somewhat more modest role envisioned for these lawyers by the Founders: ‘The judiciary . . . has . . . no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society, and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither Force nor Will but merely judgment . . . .’ The Federalist No. 78.”