The Irrational, Misguided Discourse Surrounding Supreme Court Controversies Such as Roe v. Wade
The Court, like the U.S. Constitution, was designed to be a limit on the excesses of democracy. Roe denied, not upheld, the rights of citizens to decide democratically.
Politico on Monday night published what certainly appears to be a genuine draft decision by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito that would overturn the Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. Alito's draft ruling would decide the pending case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which concerns the constitutionality of a 2018 Mississippi law that bans abortions after fifteen weeks of pregnancy except in the case of medical emergency or severe fetal abnormalities. Given existing Supreme Court precedent that abortion can only be restricted after fetal viability, Mississippi's ban on abortions after the 15th week — at a point when the fetus is not yet deemed viable — is constitutionally dubious. To uphold Mississippi's law — as six of the nine Justices reportedly wish to do — the Court must either find that the law is consistent with existing abortion precedent, or acknowledge that it conflicts with existing precedent and then overrule that precedent on the ground that it was wrongly decided.
Alito's draft is written as a majority opinion, suggesting that at least five of the Court's justices — a majority — voted after oral argument in Dobbs to overrule Roe on the ground that it was “egregiously wrong from the start” and “deeply damaging.” In an extremely rare event for the Court, an unknown person with unknown motives leaked the draft opinion to Politico, which justifiably published it. A subsequent leak to CNN on Monday night claimed that the five justices in favor of overruling Roe were Bush 43 appointee Alito, Bush 41 appointee Clarence Thomas, and three Trump appointees (Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett), while Chief Justice Roberts, appointed by Bush 43, is prepared to uphold the constitutionality of Mississippi's abortion law without overruling Roe.
Draft rulings and even justices’ votes sometimes change in the period between the initial vote after oral argument and the issuance of the final decision. Depending on whom you choose to believe, this leak is either the work of a liberal justice or clerk designed to engender political pressure on the justices so that at least one abandons their intention to overrule Roe, or it came from a conservative justice or clerk, designed to make it very difficult for one of the justices in the majority to switch sides. Whatever the leaker's motives, a decision to overrule this 49-year-old precedent, one of the most controversial in the Court's history, would be one of the most significant judicial decisions issued in decades. The reaction to this leak — like the reaction to the initial ruling in Roe back in 1973 — was intense and strident, and will likely only escalate once the ruling is formally issued.
Every time there is a controversy regarding a Supreme Court ruling, the same set of radical fallacies emerges regarding the role of the Court, the Constitution and how the American republic is designed to function. Each time the Court invalidates a democratically elected law on the ground that it violates a constitutional guarantee — as happened in Roe — those who favor the invalidated law proclaim that something “undemocratic” has transpired, that it is a form of “judicial tyranny” for “five unelected judges” to overturn the will of the majority. Conversely, when the Court refuses to invalidate a democratically elected law, those who regard that law as pernicious, as an attack on fundamental rights, accuse the Court of failing to protect vulnerable individuals.
This by-now-reflexive discourse about the Supreme Court ignores its core function. Like the U.S. Constitution itself, the Court is designed to be an anti-majoritarian check against the excesses of majoritarian sentiment. The Founders wanted to establish a democracy that empowered majorities of citizens to choose their leaders, but also feared that majorities would be inclined to coalesce around unjust laws that would deprive basic rights, and thus sought to impose limits on the power of majorities as well.
The Federalist Papers are full of discussions about the dangers of majoritarian excesses. The most famous of those is James Madison's Federalist 10, where he warns of "factions…who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” One of the primary concerns in designing the new American republic, if not the chief concern, was how to balance the need to establish rule by the majority (democracy) with the equally compelling need to restrain majorities from veering into impassioned, self-interested attacks on the rights of minorities (republican government). As Madison put it: “To secure the public good, and private rights, against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our enquiries are directed.” Indeed, the key difference between a pure democracy and a republic is that the rights of the majority are unrestricted in the former, but are limited in the latter. The point of the Constitution, and ultimately the Supreme Court, was to establish a republic, not a pure democracy, that would place limits on the power of majorities.
Thus, the purpose of the Bill of Rights is fundamentally anti-democratic and anti-majoritarian. It bars majorities from enacting laws that infringe on the fundamental rights of minorities. Thus, in the U.S., it does not matter if 80% or 90% of Americans support a law to restrict free speech, or ban the free exercise of a particular religion, or imprison someone without due process, or subject a particularly despised criminal to cruel and unusual punishment. Such laws can never be validly enacted. The Constitution deprives the majority of the power to engage in such acts regardless of how popular they might be.
And at least since the 1803 ruling in Madison v. Marbury which established the Supreme Court's power of "judicial review” — i.e., to strike down laws supported by majorities and enacted democratically if such laws violate the rights guaranteed by the Constitution — the Supreme Court itself is intended to uphold similarly anti-majoritarian and anti-democratic values.
When the Court strikes down a law that majorities support, it may be a form of judicial tyranny if the invalidated law does not violate any actual rights enshrined in the Constitution. But the mere judicial act of invalidating a law supported by a majority of citizens — though frequently condemned as “undemocratic" — is, in fact, a fulfillment of one of the Court's prime functions in a republic.
Unless one believes that the will of the majority should always prevail — that laws restricting or abolishing free speech, due process and the free exercise of religion should be permitted as long as enough citizens support it — then one must favor the Supreme Court's anti-democratic and anti-majoritarian powers. Rights can be violated by a small handful of tyrants, but they can also be violated by hateful and unhinged majorities. The Founders’ fear of majoritarian tyranny is why the U.S. was created as a republic rather than a pure democracy.
Whether the Court is acting properly or despotically when it strikes down a democratically elected law, or otherwise acts contrary to the will of the majority, depends upon only one question: whether the law in question violates a right guaranteed by the Constitution. A meaningful assessment of the Court's decisions is impossible without reference to that question. Yet each time the Court acts in a controversial case, judgments are applied without any consideration of that core question.
The reaction to Monday night's news that the Court intends to overrule Roe was immediately driven by all of these common fallacies. It was bizarre to watch liberals accuse the Court of acting “undemocratically" as they denounced the ability of "five unelected aristocrats” — in the words of Vox's Ian Millhiser — to decide the question of abortion rights. Who do they think decided Roe in the first place?
Indeed, Millhiser's argument here — unelected Supreme Court Justices have no business mucking around in abortion rights — is supremely ironic given that it was unelected judges who issued Roe back in 1973, in the process striking down numerous democratically elected laws. Worse, this rhetoric perfectly echoes the arguments which opponents of Roe have made for decades: namely, it is the democratic process, not unelected judges, which should determine what, if any, limits will be placed on the legal ability to provide or obtain an abortion. Indeed, Roe was the classic expression of the above-described anti-majoritarian and anti-democratic values: seven unelected men (for those who believe such demographic attributes matter) struck down laws that had been supported by majorities and enacted by many states which heavily restricted or outright banned abortion procedures. The sole purpose of Roe was to deny citizens the right to enact the anti-abortion laws, no matter how much popular support they commanded.
This extreme confusion embedded in heated debates over the Supreme Court was perhaps most vividly illustrated last night by Waleed Shahid, the popular left-wing activist, current spokesman for the left-wing group Justice Democrats, and previously a top aide and advisor to Squad members including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Shahid — who, needless to say, supports Roe — posted a quote from Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address, in 1861, which Shahid evidently believes supports his view that Roe must be upheld.
But the quote from Lincoln — warning that the Court must not become the primary institution that decides controversial political questions — does not support Roe at all; indeed, Lincoln's argument is the one most often cited in favor of overruling Roe. In fact, Lincoln's argument is the primary one on which Alito relied in the draft opinion to justify overruling Roe: namely, that democracy will be imperiled, and the people will cease to be their own rulers, if the Supreme Court, rather than the legislative branches, ends up deciding hot-button political questions such as abortion about which the Constitution is silent. Here's the version of the Lincoln pro-democracy quote, complete with bolded words, that Shahid posted, apparently in the belief that it somehow supports upholding Roe:
It is just inexplicable to cite this Lincoln quote as a defense of Roe. Just look at what Lincoln said: “if the policy of the government, upon vital questions affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, [then] the people will have ceased to be their own rulers.” That is exactly the argument that has been made by pro-life activists for years against Roe, and it perfectly tracks Alito's primary view as defended in his draft opinion.
Alito's decision, if it becomes the Court's ruling, would not itself ban abortions. It would instead lift the judicial prohibition on the ability of states to enact laws restricting or banning abortions. In other words, it would take this highly controversial question of abortion and remove it from the Court's purview and restore it to federal and state legislatures to decide it. One cannot defend Roe by invoking the values of democracy or majoritarian will. Roe was the classic case of a Supreme Court ruling that denied the right of majorities to decide what laws should govern their lives and their society.
One can defend Roe only by explicitly defending anti-majoritarian and anti-democratic values: namely, that the abortion question should be decided by a panel of unelected judges, not by the people or their elected representatives. The defense of democracy invoked by Lincoln, and championed by Shahid, can be used only to advocate that this abortion debate should be returned to the democratic processes, which is precisely what Alito argued (emphasis added):
Abortion presents a profound moral issue on which Americans hold sharply conflicting views. Some believe fervently that a human person comes into being at conception and that abortion ends an innocent life. Others feel just as strongly that any regulation of abortion invades a woman's right to control her own body and prevents women from achieving full equality. Still others in a third group think that abortion should be allowed under some but not all circumstances, and those within this group hold a variety of views about the particular restrictions that should be imposed.
For the first 185 years after the adoption of the Constitution, each State was permitted to address this issue in accordance with the views of its citizens. Then, in 1973, this Court decided Roe v. Wade….At the time of Roe, 30 States still prohibited abortion at all stages. In the years prior to that decision, about a third of the States had liberalized their laws, but Roe abruptly ended that political process. It imposed the same highly restrictive regime on the entire Nation, and it effectively struck down the abortion laws of every single State. As Justice Byron White aptly put it in his dissent, the decision Court represented the “exercise of raw judicial power,” 410 U. S., at 222….
Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences…..It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people's elected representatives. “The permissibility of abortion, and the limitations, upon it, are to be resolved like most important questions in our democracy: by citizens trying to persuade one another and then voting.” Casey, 505 U.S. at 979 (Scalia, J, concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part). That is what tho Constitution and the rule of law demand.
Rhetoric that heralds the values of democracy and warns of the tyranny of “unelected judges” and the like is not a rational or viable way to defend Roe. That abortion rights should be decided democratically rather than by a secret tribunal of "unelected men in robes" is and always has been the anti-Roe argument. The right of the people to decide, rather than judges, is the primary value which Alito repeatedly invokes in defending the overruling of Roe and once again empowering citizens, through their elected representatives, to make these decisions.
The only way Roe can be defended is through an explicit appeal to the virtues of the anti-democratic and anti-majoritarian principles enshrined in the Constitution: namely, that because the Constitution guarantees the right to have an abortion (though a more generalized right of privacy), then majorities are stripped of the power to enact laws restricting it. Few people like to admit that their preferred views depend upon a denial of the rights of the majority to decide, or that their position is steeped in anti-democratic values. But there is and always has been a crucial role for such values in the proper functioning of the United States and especially the protection of minority rights. If you want to rant about the supremacy and sanctity of democracy and the evils of "unelected judges,” then you will necessarily end up on the side of Justice Alito and the other four justices who appear ready to overrule Roe.
Anti-Roe judges are the ones who believe that abortion rights should be determined through majority will and the democratic process. Roe itself was the ultimate denial, the negation, of unrestrained democracy and majoritarian will. As in all cases, whether Roe's anti-democratic ruling was an affirmation of fundamental rights or a form of judicial tyranny depends solely on whether one believes that the Constitution bars the enactment of laws which restrict abortion or whether it is silent on that question. But as distasteful as it might be to some, the only way to defend Roe is to acknowledge that your view is that the will of the majority is irrelevant to this conflict, that elected representatives have no power to decide these questions, and that all debates about abortion must be entrusted solely to unelected judges to authoritatively decide them without regard to what majorities believe or want.
For those interested, I've given numerous speeches over the years about the anti-majoritarian and anti-democratic values embedded in the Constitution and the Court, including this 2011 lecture at the University of Maryland, this 2012 speech at the University of Indiana/Purdue University, and this 2013 lecture at Yale Law School.
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