Much has rightly been made of the Texas anti-abortion law’s granting bounties to anti-choice vigilantes and of the Supreme Court's abuse of its “shadow docket” to green-light the law in defiance of Roe v. Wade.
But in addition to the harms to women’s rights in this law, the court’s Sept. 1 decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson reveals something dangerous to lawful society writ large: the 5-4 ultra-partisan, conservative majority has, in its haste to gut Roe, eviscerated the rule of law it is supposed to stand for and diminished the court’s own authority.
The decision adds fuel to the already strong arguments for reforming the Supreme Court and urgency to the work of President BidenJoe BidenHow 'Buy American', other pro-US policies can help advocates pass ambitious climate policies Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Photos of the Week: Manchin protestor, Paris Hilton and a mirror room MORE’s Commission on the Supreme Court.
It concedes, perhaps even celebrates, the fact that states, and individuals, can engage in legally questionable action and evade judicial scrutiny. By allowing Texas to flout Roe’s clear meaning, the court undermines an ordered society and may be paving the way for authoritarian rule.
The decision is a radical departure from the institutional history of the Supreme Court, which previously has been marked by efforts to assert and preserve the court’s exclusive prerogative to “say what the law is.” That was the crux of Chief Justice John Marshall’s famous 1803 opinion in Marbury vs. Madison, the case that established the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution’s meaning.
Over time, the court has jealously guarded its authority against those who have challenged it. It is the court’s right to have the last word on constitutional questions that has secured for it a central place in our system of government. As Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once explained, “We are not final because we are infallible. We are infallible only because we are final.”
And the court has time and again insisted that everyone abide by its rulings no matter how much they might disagree with them.
This was vividly demonstrated in the civil rights era during the middle of the last century when southern states refused to respect the court’s constitutional decisions and when demonstrators took to the streets to promote racial integration in defiance of court orders. The court responded by insisting to both sides: obey the laws first, and only then can you challenge our views of what the Constitution means.
When Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists ignored an Alabama state court injunction in the belief that the order to desist from a planned protest was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court upheld their arrest and conviction.
In his majority opinion in the 1967 case of Walker v. Birmingham, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart recognized the “substantial constitutional questions” that a challenge to that injunction would have raised. But he firmly rejected the marchers’ contention that they were free to ignore a law they believed to be unconstitutional and condemned their decision to take the law into their own hands:
“This Court cannot hold that the petitioners were constitutionally free to ignore all the procedures of the law…. [I]n the fair administration of justice, no man can be [the] judge in his own case, however exalted his station, however righteous his motives, and irrespective of his race, color, politics, or religion.”
And the U.S. Supreme Court has not been alone in that view nor has it been alone in striking down attempts by citizens or governments to disobey existing law.
In 2004, the California Supreme Court invalidated then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Ivory poaching changes evolution of elephants California regulator proposes ban on oil drilling near schools, hospitals, homes Biden says he would tap National Guard to help with supply chain issues MORE’s declaration that the city would marry same sex couples in defiance of an existing voter-approved law that declared “Marriage shall be restricted to a man and a woman.”
Justice Sotomayor’s dissent in Whole Women’s Health makes precisely the same point about courts’ exclusive role in deciding on the law’s meaning. Calling the Texas anti-abortion law a “breathtaking act of defiance,” she labelled the court’s failure to act “stunning.” In her view, it “rewards tactics designed to avoid judicial review and inflicts significant harm on the applicants and on women seeking abortions in Texas.”
Until last week, defense of the judiciary’s role in saying what the law is and insisting that others defer to its judgments has united conservative and liberal justices.
But, in Whole Women’s Health, only one conservative, Chief Justice Roberts, joined with the court’s three liberal justices in standing up for such nonpartisan jurisprudential principles. His five conservative colleagues seem so eager to gut Roe that they are willing to disembowel the judiciary’s own authority.
The risk of legal chaos from the Supreme Court’s inaction on Sept. 1 may soon be realized in a kind of Cold War between the states.
Imagine blue states reacting to Whole Women’s Health with laws permitting private lawsuits against anti-vaxxers who help someone evade a business’s COVID vaccination mandate, or against owners of banned guns whose prohibition is the subject of federal court challenges.
When the current conservative majority on the Supreme Court trashes its own authority to tilt the scales in the current culture wars, it endangers the liberty of all, no matter which side of the cultural wars they are on.
And it sends an unmistakable signal that reform is needed to preserve the court’s legitimacy and its vital role in protecting the rule of law.
As the Commission on the Supreme Court goes about its work, it should judge every proposal by a single standard — whether it will decrease the now rampant politicization of the Supreme Court of the kind that led to the decision in the Texas abortion case.
The commission should only entertain reforms that promise to create more moderating influences on the court or, as the Center for American Progress recently said, “reduce the influence of justices who pursue a purely partisan agenda.”
Only those kinds of reforms can save the Court from its current crop of judicial radicals and secure continuing public respect for it.
In all of its work the commission should be guided by Justice Stewart’s wise admonition that “[R]espect for judicial process is a small price to pay for the civilizing hand of law, which alone can give abiding meaning to constitutional freedom.”
Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is author of numerous books on America's death penalty, including "Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty." Follow him on Twitter @ljstprof.
Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, who has successfully argued before the Supreme Court. He is currently of counsel at the Renne Public Law Group in San Francisco.