Supreme Court's abortion ruling amplifies progressives' call for reform

Supreme Court's abortion ruling amplifies progressives' call for reform
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court's refusal to block a Texas law that would effectively ban most abortions has incensed progressives and provided new fuel to calls to reform the court. 

For critics of the court, this week's news has heightened concern that Roe v. Wade is increasingly threatened by the conservative majority. 

Progressives are now doubling down on their efforts to expand the number of seats on the bench or implement reforms like term limits in order to safeguard the landmark abortion rights decision.

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Late Wednesday night, the court ruled 5-4 to keep Texas’s law in place, a massive decision that came after just a few days of consideration from the justices and little in the way of legal explanation from the majority.

The state law bans abortions after six weeks, which critics say is one of the most restrictive in the country because it often takes that long for people to find out that the are pregnant. It also empowers residents in the state to take legal action against facilities and medical personnel who perform abortions after six weeks and even those who drive people to receive prohibited abortions. 

“The Court’s order is stunning,” Justice Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorSotomayor says recent changes were made because male justices interrupted female colleagues Why Latinos need Supreme Court reform NBC justice correspondent: SCOTUS appears poised to 'blow a big hole' in abortion rights MORE wrote in a dissent. “Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand.”

Democrats have roundly condemned the decision and vowed to take action to protect reproductive rights. House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCongress is hell-bent on a spooky spending spree  Pelosi on addressing climate through reconciliation package: 'This is our moment' House progressives lay out priorities for spending negotiations MORE (D-Calif.) promised a vote when lawmakers return this month on legislation that would protect abortion access across the country, though the bill would face an uphill battle if it were to reach the Senate.

"This ban necessitates codifying Roe v. Wade," Pelosi said this week.

And the chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees have announced hearings on the court’s ruling and its controversial “shadow docket” decisions. These decisions are orders that come after quick deliberation and circumvent the typical oral argument and briefing processes, but have increasingly decided consequential policy matters.

“Decisions like this one chip away at our democracy," House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerMore than 200 women, transgender inmates to be transferred from Rikers Island Alabama using COVID funds to build new prisons — is that Biden's vision? Alabama clears plan to use COVID-19 relief funds to build prisons MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a statement this week.

Progressives have intensified their calls to reform the Supreme Court, either through court-packing – expanding the number of seats on the court and adding justices who would nullify the conservative majority – or imposing term limits for those on the bench.

Reform advocates say that the momentous ruling is the latest example illustrating the need to implement changes to a court that has become dominated by conservatives and is tilting away from longstanding precedents and popular opinion.

Christopher Kang, the co-founder of the progressive group Demand Justice, said the court’s ruling this week effectively overturned Roe and could provide an inflection point for the reform movement.

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“I think it really magnifies for a lot of people what we've been saying for a long time, which is this Supreme Court is illegitimate and has to be reformed,” Kang said. “And I think that, you know, a lot of court watchers and legal elites have been trying to suggest that the court is more moderate than we've been saying it is...I think this rips off the veil and it really exposes the court for the hyperpartisan institution it is. And really now I think people understand that court reform has to be part of any long-term durable solution to protect our rights.”

The efforts have seen some buy-in from Democratic lawmakers. 

A group of House Democrats, led by Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaHouse Oversight Committee expects big oil executives to testify this month Pfizer applies to FDA for COVID-19 vaccine authorization in children 5-11 Attacks on Sinema turn increasingly personal MORE (Calif.), introduced legislation this week to impose term limits on the life-tenured justices, ensuring that every administration has the opportunity to make appointments to the Supreme Court.

“The high-stakes confirmation hearings that occur every time there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court undermine the reputation of our highest judicial body,” Khanna said in a hearing. “There is broad support among the American people for reform and this bill would be a meaningful step towards standardizing and democratizing the Supreme Court.”

On Thursday, Sen. Tina SmithTina Flint SmithBuilding back better by investing in workers and communities Overnight Energy & Environment — Biden set to restore national monuments rolled back by Trump Markey: Senate must pass reconciliation package before global climate summit MORE (D-Minn.) expressed support on Twitter for expanding the court if the Democrats could expand on their majorities in Congress. 

“Republicans stole two Supreme Court seats and as demonstrated by this decision, much of the current Court is dangerously unmoored from any reasonable principles of legal analysis,” Smith wrote. 

Gabe Roth, the executive director of the group Fix The Court, argued that proposals like term limits would allow Congress to impose guardrails on a branch of government that has become overpowered.

“This is part of a larger strategy to take power away from the court at a time when I think most Americans realize that that outsized power from an unelected branch is problematic,” Roth said.

“So I am concerned that we're going [to continue] to have these sort of haphazard, slapdash orders coming out that have major impacts on the law and on our rights,” he added. “But I feel fairly confident that we've reached a tipping point and more folks with power are going to be paying attention to this and looking to do something about it.”