Linda Greenhouse is one of my favorite Supreme Court reporters, and she recently published a commentary in the New York Times, titled “Is There Any Twinge Of Regret Among Anti-Abortion Justices?”
Marking the one-year anniversary of the decision in Dobbs, Greenhouse noted that the decision has propelled a crisis in reproductive health care that is “acute and growing,” leading to alarming consequences.
Greenhouse first shared the history of another case that had generated “alarming consequences”–consequences that, in that case, led to a speedy reversal.
Because Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that saluting the flag or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance amounts to worshiping secular authority, they prohibit their school-age children from engaging in the practice. In 1940, with war raging in Europe and patriotic fervor rising at home, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution provided no religious exemption from what many public schools deemed an essential civic duty. The decision upheld a Pennsylvania school district’s expulsion of a Jehovah’s Witness brother and sister. A single member of the court dissented.
A mere three years later, even though the United States itself was now at war, the court reversed itself. In a new flag-salute case from West Virginia, three members of the original majority switched sides and two justices who had joined the court since 1940 voted with them. One of those two, Robert Jackson, wrote the new majority opinion, strategically avoiding the contested question of religion in favor of an eloquent defense of free speech.
“Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard,” he wrote in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.
The first decision, in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, had unleashed a wave of violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses: in the wake of a ruling that many saw as evidence that Witnesses were anti-American, mobs attacked individuals and destroyed their churches. Some 2,000 Witness children were thrown out of school, and some of their parents were criminally prosecuted.
Greenhouse then enumerated some of the dire medical consequences of Dobbs, and then asked her question:
A year after sowing so much chaos and misery, are any of the five members in Justice Samuel Alito’s Dobbs majority sorry? Even a little? I’m not so naïve as to think there is even a slim chance they would reverse themselves. I just wonder whether they feel even a twinge of regret.
As she points out, the immense harm to women couldn’t have come as a surprise. “Valuing fetal life over the lives of women and girls was no doubt a feature, not a bug, in the majority’s view; that was, after all, the point of Dobbs.”
Greenhouse then proceeds to answer her own question, saying she doesn’t think the Dobbs Justices are sorry. As she notes, a difference between Barnette and Dobbs is that the justices who changed their minds after Gobitis were motivated by facts, not by ideology. These Justices were chosen because facts would not sway them: Trump announced during his presidential campaign that his Supreme Court appointees would overturn Roe, and all three of his nominees– Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett– did just that..
Although Greenhouse doesn’t explore the psyches of the anti-Roe justices, Jesse Wegman took a long, hard look at the author of the convoluted decision in Dobbs, focusing on the recent disclosures of Alito’s unethical behaviors. Wegman’s analysis of Alito’s personality and character–especially his arrogance– are equally applicable to other examples of the Justice’s disdain for settled constitutional analysis.
Wegman points to Alito’s decision to “devote time and energy to a newspaper essay defending himself against charges of ethical and legal violations that had not yet been published”–an essay that “epitomizes the bitterness and superciliousness that he has demonstrated in regular doses throughout his years on the Supreme Court.
Most judges, whether by temperament or fidelity, avoid the spotlight. They prefer to follow rules and let their opinions do the talking. That has never been Justice Alito’s way. For most of his 17 years on the court, he has appeared to relish playing the role of bare-knuckled partisan soldier, standing athwart history in loyal service to a vengeful, theocratic right-wing movement that elevates religious liberty for some over basic freedoms for all.
Wegman notes that one reason public trust in the court is in free fall is demonstrated by Justice Alito’s “smug, defensive reaction” to criticism.
The moral of this story is not that the highest court in the land should issue decisions consistent with public opinion. As legal scholars often note, the Bill of Rights is counter-majoritarian. The moral is that –in the absence of compelling evidence (a la Barnette)–Justices should respect precedent, and resist confusing their idiosyncratic, psuedo-religious commitments with constitutional principles.
Tune in tomorrow for the second lesson– the need for Supreme Court reforms.