Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

Overturn Roe and Casey

In light of the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari on Mississippi’s defense of its general ban on abortion after 15 weeks of gestation, please indulge me as I highlight my Senate Judiciary Committee testimony from 2005 (just a month before President George W. Bush announced his nomination of John Roberts) explaining why Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey should be overturned.

Here is an excerpt from early in the testimony:

Roe v. Wade marks the second time in American history that the Supreme Court has invoked “substantive due process” to deny American citizens the authority to protect the basic rights of an entire class of human beings. The first time, of course, was the Court’s infamous 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case. There, the Court held that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in the northern portion of the Louisiana Territories, could not constitutionally be applied to persons who brought their slaves into free territory. Such a prohibition, the Court nakedly asserted, “could hardly be dignified with the name of due process.” Thus were discarded the efforts of the people, through their representatives, to resolve politically and peacefully the greatest moral issue of their age. Chief Justice Taney and his concurring colleagues thought that they were conclusively resolving the issue of slavery. Instead, they only made all the more inevitable the Civil War that erupted four years later.

Roe is the Dred Scott of our age. Like few other Supreme Court cases in our nation’s history, Roe is not merely patently wrong but also fundamentally hostile to core precepts of American government and citizenship. Roe is a lawless power grab by the Supreme Court, an unconstitutional act of aggression by the Court against the political branches and the American people. Roe prevents all Americans from working together, through an ongoing process of peaceful and vigorous persuasion, to establish and revise the policies on abortion governing our respective states. Roe imposes on all Americans a radical regime of unrestricted abortion for any reason all the way up to viability—and, under the predominant reading of sloppy language in Roe’s companion case, Doe v. Bolton, essentially unrestricted even in the period from viability until birth. Roe fuels endless litigation in which pro-abortion extremists challenge modest abortion-related measures that state legislators have enacted and that are overwhelmingly favored by the public—provisions, for example, seeking to ensure informed consent and parental involvement for minors and barring atrocities like partial-birth abortion. Roe disenfranchises the millions and millions of patriotic American citizens who believe that the self-evident truth proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence—that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with an unalienable right to life—warrants significant governmental protection of the lives of unborn human beings.

So long as Americans remain Americans—so long, that is, as they remain faithful to the foundational principles of this country—I believe that the American body politic will never accept Roe.

And here is my conclusion:

Despite the fact that the abortion issue was being worked out state-by-state, the Supreme Court purported to resolve the abortion issue, once and for all and on a nationwide basis, in its 1973 decision in Roe. Instead, as Justice Scalia has correctly observed, the Court “fanned into life an issue that has inflamed our national politics” ever since. In 1992, the five-Justice majority in Casey “call[ed] the contending sides [on abortion] to end their national division by accepting” what it implausibly claimed was “a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.” Thirteen years later, the abortion issue remains as contentious and divisive as ever.

As Justice Scalia suggested in his dissent in Casey, Chief Justice Taney surely believed that his Dred Scott opinion would resolve, once and for all, the slavery question. But, Scalia continued:

“It is no more realistic for us in this case, than it was for him in that, to think that an issue of the sort they both involved—an issue involving life and death, freedom and subjugation—can be ‘speedily and finally settled’ by the Supreme Court, as President James Buchanan in his inaugural address said the issue of slavery in the territories would be.… Quite to the contrary, by foreclosing all democratic outlet for the deep passions this issue arouses, by banishing the issue from the political forum that gives all participants, even the losers, the satisfaction of a fair hearing and an honest fight, by continuing the imposition of a rigid national rule instead of allowing for regional differences, the Court merely prolongs and intensifies the anguish.

“We should get out of this area, where we have no right to be, and where we do neither ourselves nor the country any good by remaining.”

As increasing numbers of observers across the political spectrum are coming to recognize, Justice Scalia’s prescription in Casey remains entirely sound, both as a matter of constitutional law and of judicial statesmanship. If the American people are going to be permitted to exercise their authority as citizens, then all Americans, whatever their views on abortion, should recognize that the Supreme Court’s unconstitutional power grab on this issue must end and that the political issue of whether and how to regulate abortions should be returned where it belongs—to the people and to the political processes in the states.

While I’m at it, I’ll also recommend to you law professor (and occasional Bench Memos contributor) Michael Stokes Paulsen’s law-review article about Casey (“The Worst Constitutional Decision of All Time”), which he also presents in a shorter version in these two essays.

For the reasons Paulsen and I spell out, the question whether Roe and Casey should be maintained on grounds of stare decisis (adherence to precedent) strikes me as frivolous, as it is difficult to imagine any rulings that are less worthy of respect as precedent.

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We had substantial disagreements but recognize that he will be remembered for a long, consequential career of service to a country that he loved.