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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

May 4: We Don’t Know For Sure What the Supreme Court Is Doing On Abortion Rights

Amidst all the understandable uproar over the leaked Alito opinion in the Dobbs case, I offered a small note of caution at New York:

The stunning leak of a draft majority Supreme Court opinion from Justice Samuel Alito entirely reversing Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey has suddenly confronted Americans with the immediate prospect of life without constitutionally protected reproductive rights. Yes, many observers predicted that would be the outcome of this case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, particularly after the Court’s oral arguments last December. It’s also what Donald Trump, who appointed three of the justices in the purported majority, promised would happen back in 2016. And it’s the goal the anti-abortion movement and its wholly owned subsidiary, the Republican Party, have been working toward for decades. But it’s still shocking that normally tradition-bound and precedent-venerating justices are taking this fateful step despite widespread public opposition, at a time when a backlash could roil politics in unpredictable ways.

Or are they, for sure?

The Supreme Court said in a statement released the morning after the leak, “Although the document described in yesterday’s reports is authentic, it does not represent a decision by the Court or the final position of any member on the issues in the case.” The draft is dated February 10, 2022, when it was circulated to other justices for comment. It is also far from polished; there are redundancies in the text, just as there are in “first drafts” of a lot of important documents. It was presumably prepared because Alito was chosen to write an opinion reflecting the will of at least five justices, as expressed in a conference just after oral arguments. But we do not actually know if the final decision will be substantially the same as this draft, or might differ in significant respects — just as we do not know at this point who leaked it to Politico and with what intent.

What we do know is that post-conference changes in the position of justices once draft opinions start circulating do happen, if not that often. And in fact, one of the most famous shifts in the Court happened on this very issue 30 years ago. Planned Parenthood v. Casey was widely expected to produce a reversal of Roe and then it didn’t, as I explained recently:

“As Justice John Paul Stevens (a Ford appointee and Roe defender) later revealed in his 2019 memoir, a preliminary-draft opinion circulated by [Chief Justice William] Rehnquist that overturned Roe got five votes. But during the long period of time before the decision was formulated and announced, Reagan appointee [Justice Anthony] Kennedy flipped, succumbing to a plea from [Justices Sandra Day] O’Connor and [David] Souter to help them find a solution that would make state restrictions like Pennsylvania’s constitutionally acceptable without the disruptive counterrevolution that reversing Roe would represent. This development surprised the suddenly displaced anti-Roe majority, and then the country.”

According to Stevens, Rehnquist’s draft was circulated on May 27, 1992. The ultimate 5-4 decision maintaining the essential holding of Roe with a new standard designed to accommodate more state restrictions on abortions was announced on June 29, 1992. It appears that Rehnquist’s majority evaporated right under his nose.

Although we have no particular reason to imagine this kind of switch might have happened in Dobbs, we do know from abundant reporting and from his conduct during oral arguments that Chief Justice John Roberts seemed uneasy with overturning Roe and Casey in one fell swoop, clearly preferring to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban without opening the door to any and all abortion bans. Just a week ago, the Wall Street Journal speculated that Roberts wanted to flip one of the other conservatives to a more limited ruling:

“Chief Justice John Roberts tried during the oral argument to find a middle way. He appeared to want to sustain the Mississippi law on grounds that it doesn’t violate Casey’s test of whether there is an ‘undue burden’ on the ability to obtain an abortion. If he pulls another Justice to his side, he could write the plurality opinion that controls in a 6-3 decision. If he can’t, then Justice Thomas would assign the opinion and the vote could be 5-4. Our guess is that Justice Alito would then get the assignment.”

That appears to be exactly the course of events that produced the Alito draft. But what we don’t know is whether Roberts has continued his efforts towards a “middle way” during the nearly three months since then, and if so whether they have borne fruit. And for that matter, we also don’t know if any of the four justices originally on Team Alito have issues with the scope and breadth of his draft opinion.

It can be argued that the difference between what Alito wrote and what Roberts wants is a distinction without a difference. Both men want ultimately to abolish reproductive rights, and differ only over the pace of the constitutional counter-revolution that would be required. And indeed, it’s not clear how any “middle way” would work. How do you get rid of the constitutional protection of pre-viability abortions without allowing the states to enact more ruthless ban’s than Mississippi’s? I surely don’t know, but would observe that nobody anticipated Casey’s “undue burden” standard until it was announced. Justices and their clerks can be quite innovative when they are putting together coalitions on the Court.

The fate of reproductive rights certainly looks bad right now, but we’ve been here before. So it would be prudent not to be overly confident of what the Court will ultimately do in Dobbs, exactly how it will affect people in need of abortion services, and what the political fallout will be. There’s a slim chance that the right’s long crusade to abolish Roe entirely will be frustrated at the 11th hour once again — in which case, the fury among pro-choice Americans over the Alito draft will be matched in intensity by the outrage of the anti-abortion minority.

 

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