What Is The Comstock Act?

During the recent Supreme Court argument over Mifepristone, Justices Alito and Thomas both raised the possibility that a case brought under the Comstock Act would be stronger than the one being argued. (Legal scholars have noted the multiple deficiencies in the current case, which–had Trump not appointed an intellectually-dishonest extremist to a Texas federal judgeship–would never have reached the Supreme Court.)

What, you may ask, is the Comstock Act?

Back in 1999, I edited “Free Expression in America: A Documentary History” for Greenwood Press. Producing the book required me to identify, reprint and explain documents that told the evolving story of America’s free speech jurisprudence. I began with “Foundations of Liberty”–the Magna Carta, Areopagitica and Cato’s Letters–proceeded through Common Sense, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the First Amendment and several others, and on through America’s various battles with censorship to the late 1990s.

In a section titled “1900-1950: A Half-Century of Paternalism” I included “Birth Control and Public Morals: An Interview with Anthony Comstock.” I introduced the interview by noting that contemporary readers might come away considering Comstock a caricature. (Even at his most influential, he was widely ridiculed.) Comstock founded the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and he saw vice pretty much everywhere he looked. He campaigned against the publication of “vile books,” which he argued were responsible for “debauching” young men, and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that he considered any publication dealing in any way with sex to be “vile.” He was particularly offended by then-current efforts to provide women with birth control information.

The Act reads as follows:

Every article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing which is advertised or described in a manner calculated to lead another to use or apply it for producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose; and

Every written or printed card, letter, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, or how, or from whom, or by what means any of such mentioned matters, articles, or things may be obtained or made, or where or by whom any act or operation of any kind for the procuring or producing of abortion will be done or performed, or how or by what means abortion may be produced, whether sealed or unsealed; and

Every paper, writing, advertisement, or representation that any article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing may, or can, be used or applied for producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose; and

Every description calculated to induce or incite a person to so use or apply any such article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing—

Is declared to be non-mailable matter and shall not be conveyed in the mails or delivered from any post office or by any letter carrier.” 

The Comstock Act was passed in 1873, and although it hasn’t been explicitly repealed, most lawyers believe that intervening case law has rendered it unenforceable. 

Justices Alito and Thomas are so intent upon banning abortion they have evidently overlooked the sweep of the Act, which would go far, far beyond preventing abortifacients from being mailed. Comstock was intent upon preventing the dissemination of anything and everything he found “vile,” including, in his own words “intemperance, gambling and evil reading.” He classed contraceptives with pornography, and when questioned about that, replied that “If you open the door to anything, the filth will pour in and the degradation of youth will follow.”

Even during his lifetime, Comstock was widely regarded as an unbalanced anti-sex zealot; his Society for the Suppression of Vice was intent upon censoring books, magazines or other materials describing or touching on sex, very much including medical information and information about contraception. (The Comstock Act at one time prevented the mailing of anatomy textbooks to medical students.)

In Comstock’s fanatic view, “Any indecent or immoral use” covered a lot of ground, much of it misogynistic. There’s a reason a recent biography of him is titled “The Man Who Hated Women.”

Trying to resuscitate Comstock’s “zombie law” will raise some interesting legal questions. Can the anti-abortion provisions be severed from the clearly unconstitutional censorship provisions of the Act? Does the prohibition against use of the U.S. mail extend to Federal Express and other private carriers? 

Are Alito and Thomas so desperate to control the lives and reproductive liberties of American women–so desperate to take us back to a time when women were breeding property– that they’re willing to revive Comstockery


Arrogance Is Never Having To Say “Sorry”

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.


Now Alito

There’s a lot to unpack about the ongoing disclosures about Supreme Court Justices,  beginning with the old adage that power corrupts. 

Digging a bit deeper, it’s interesting to note just who has been shown to be morally–and probably legally–corrupt. (Hint: it hasn’t been the liberal female justices. There are stories about Elena Kagan’s refusal to accept a gift of bagels on ethical grounds!) The culprits are the far-right Justices who sit on the Court courtesy of Leonard Leo and the Federalist Society.

It began with disclosures about Clarence Thomas and his appalling wife. If a lower-level judge accepted–and hid– lavish gifts and travel from a billionaire ideologue and failed to recuse himself from cases involving that billionaire–not to mention cases in which his wife was an interested party–that judge would soon be removed from the bench. 

Now we discover that Justice Alito shares more than ideology with Thomas. Pro Publica broke the story:

In early July 2008, Samuel Alito stood on a riverbank in a remote corner of Alaska. The Supreme Court justice was on vacation at a luxury fishing lodge that charged more than $1,000 a day, and after catching a king salmon nearly the size of his leg, Alito posed for a picture. To his left, a man stood beaming: Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire who has repeatedly asked the Supreme Court to rule in his favor in high-stakes business disputes.

Singer was more than a fellow angler. He flew Alito to Alaska on a private jet. If the justice chartered the plane himself, the cost could have exceeded $100,000 one way.

In the years that followed, Singer’s hedge fund came before the court at least 10 times in cases where his role was often covered by the legal press and mainstream media. In 2014, the court agreed to resolve a key issue in a decade-long battle between Singer’s hedge fund and the nation of Argentina. Alito did not recuse himself from the case and voted with the 7-1 majority in Singer’s favor. The hedge fund was ultimately paid $2.4 billion.

Alito–like Thomas–failed to report the trip on his required annual financial disclosure form. Ethics experts tell Pro Publica  that the omission violates federal law. Those experts also report being unable to identify another instance of “a justice ruling on a case after receiving an expensive gift paid for by one of the parties.”

ProPublica’s investigation sheds new light on how luxury travel has given prominent political donors — including one who has had cases before the Supreme Court — intimate access to the most powerful judges in the country. Another wealthy businessman provided expensive vacations to two members of the high court, ProPublica found. On his Alaska trip, Alito stayed at a commercial fishing lodge owned by this businessman, who was also a major conservative donor. Three years before, that same businessman flew Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016, on a private jet to Alaska and paid the bill for his stay.

Such trips would be unheard of for the vast majority of federal workers, who are generally barred from taking even modest gifts.

Alito claims he and Singer never discussed business, and that when Singer’s cases came before the court, he’d been unaware of his connection to them.

Right. And I have a bridge to sell you…..

Talking Points Memo points to the larger issue:  justices groomed and chosen by the Federalist Society “remain ‘kept’ in perpetuity” by the Right-wing donor network that got them there … “Sugar Justices, if you will.”

What is especially infuriating about these disclosures is that they involve Justices who posture as moral arbiters and issue judicial opinions based upon religious dogma rather than constitutional precedent. 

I have previously characterized Alito’s decision in Dobbs as profoundly dishonest, because he cherry-picked and misrepresented both history and legal precedent in order to achieve his desired (paternalistic) result.  Given Pro Publica’s report, it seems Alito’s dishonesty isn’t limited to his jurisprudence.

Thomas insisted that Harlan Crowe (whom he met after he joined the Court) was a “dear friend.” Alito says he had “no idea” that Singer was connected to ten cases before the Court. Neither allegation passes the smell test. According to Pro Publica, Alito and Singer have appeared together at public events, and Singer introduced Alito’s speeches on at least two occasions– the annual dinner of the Federalist Society (where Singer told an anecdote about their fishing trip) and a dinner for donors to the equally far-Right Manhattan Institute. 

The disclosures are profoundly depressing. They should also be a wake-up call.

It is past time to apply binding ethical standards to the Court. Imposing term limits, and adding Justices to the Court would dilute the influence exercised by corrupt culture warriors doing Federalist Society bidding..


Originalism And Corruption

At what point does an ideological lens morph into dishonesty and corruption? I don’t know the answer to that, but it is a pressing question raised by some highly dubious and arguably corrupt behaviors by two current Supreme Court Justices. 

In the case of Clarence Thomas, highly questionable behavior has been obvious–and criticized–for years. More recently, with the revelations about his wife Ginni and her deep involvement in Trump’s attempted coup, his refusal to recuse himself in cases that might well implicate her is nothing short of scandalous. Now, there are growing, serious concerns about the degree of dishonesty characterizing Samuel Alito’s jurisprudence and (if recent accusations are found to be accurate) improper behaviors.

The purported basis upon which these justices have based controversial opinions goes under the rubric of “originalism.”

So what, exactly, is “originalism”? As a recent post to the History News Network began,


That’s the touchstone of constitutional jurisprudence over which Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett obsess.

It makes them feel righteous to do it, because for people like themselves the doctrine is faith. 

They presume that the words of the Constitution possess essentially one “original” meaning.  And they also presume they have the power to determine this meaning and then lord it over everyone else.

They believe this.

As the post proceeds to note, historians, linguists, and anyone possessing an ounce of intellectual integrity consider that iteration of  originalism to be simple-minded dogma.

As an article about Amy Comey Barrett put it, arguments for originalism have always rested on flimsy foundations–and conservative judges have routinely ignored the doctrine when it interfered with a desired result.

It turns out that originalism’s real utility is its transactional value as a vehicle for other legal principles. The deeper structure of constitutional jurisprudence is the pervasive and foundational but largely unacknowledged influence of Catholic natural law moral philosophy. Barrett represents more than simply the latest link in the chain of custody for originalist jurisprudence that extends from her mentor, and one of originalism’s founding fathers, former Justice Antonin Scalia, to the present day.

The article argues that a medieval form of Catholicism, rather than Evangelical fundamentalism, permeates the judiciary–and especially the current Supreme Court. The article asserts that it is Catholicism that today forms the linchpin of culture-war conservatism in the United States.

The underlying organizational and intellectual impetus for this influence derives from Thomist Catholic perspectives—on natural law, in particular—that have achieved resurgence in the last 50 years and have infused conservative foundations and think tanks alongside vast amounts of donor money.

As Ruth Marcus noted in a recent column,

When originalist arguments favor a result the conservative justices dislike, they’re content to ignore them, or to cherry-pick competing originalist interpretations that comport with their underlying inclinations. Originalism doesn’t serve to constrain but to justify. This is not a fair fight — or an honest one.

Marcus’ column is lengthy, but well worth reading; she traces the evolution of the doctrine and its embrace by conservatives unhappy with the Warren Court’s approach, which I would characterize as a correct understanding of “original intent”–namely, looking to the values the Founders were trying to protect, and endeavoring to protect those values–free speech, freedom of religion, etc.–from previously unanticipated threats emerging from an environment the Founders could never have envisioned. (The Founders said nothing about free speech on the Internet…)

Multiple historians have objected to Alito’s highly inaccurate historic references in Dobbs, and recently a former leader of the anti-abortion movement has alleged that Alito leaked his equally troubling decision in the Hobby Lobby case to one of that leader’s colleagues..

To return to my initial question: when does a fervently held ideology become a corrupt enterprise? There is, after all, a difference between bringing a particular philosophical “lens” to the law and facts of a case (as any lawyer will confirm, it is impossible not to do so) and distorting and/or fabricating those facts and mischaracterizing that law in order to reach a desired result.

Corruption is not always financial. The dictionary defines corruption as “the process by which something is changed from its original use or meaning to one that is regarded as erroneous or debased.” Alito’s jurisprudence–which many lawyers, including this one, have criticized over the years–has arguably devolved into precisely such debasement. 

Senator Durban has announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee will investigate the allegations of that former leak, and there are renewed calls for the Court to adopt a binding code of ethics, which–unlike lower courts–it currently lacks. 

Both that investigation and an undertaking to abide by the ethical principles that bind the rest of the legal profession are long overdue.


Women And The Law

The final part of my “War on Women” argument is mercifully short.


A Constitutional U-Turn

In addition to the First Amendment’s prohibition against legislating religious doctrine, for the past fifty years Americans have relied upon a constitutional doctrine known as substantive due process, often called the “right to privacy.” That doctrine has strengthened the conviction of most Americans that certain “intimate” individual decisions—including one’s choice of sexual partners or the decision to use contraception– are none of government’s business.

The right to privacy was explicitly recognized in a 1965 case titled Griswold v. Connecticut. The Court was considering the constitutionality of a Connecticut law prohibiting the use of birth control by married couples. (The law also prohibited doctors from prescribing or pharmacists from selling contraceptives.) William O. Douglas’s majority opinion reflected the logic of its conclusion. He wrote “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship.”

The majority recognized that a right to personal autonomy was necessary to the enforcement of several of the amendments, which Douglas noted would be difficult or impossible to respect without the implicit recognition of such an underlying right. In a concurrence, Justice Goldberg found that same right in the Ninth Amendment, and Justices White and Harlan argued that privacy is protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—hence the doctrinal title “substantive due process.” Wherever it resided–in a “penumbra” or the 14th Amendment–a majority of the Justices agreed on its presence and importance.

Procedural due process protects Americans’ right to a fair process—a fair trial or other governmental proceeding. Substantive due process distinguishes between decisions that government has the legitimate authority to make, and decisions which must be left to each individual. In the fifty years since Griswold, the recognition that the U.S. Constitution protects personal autonomy and respects the right of each individual to self-determination has powerfully influenced American culture. Much of the anger over the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs can be traced to shock over Justice Alito’s assault on what most Americans had come to consider a bedrock principle:

Government has the right–indeed, the obligation–to intervene when a person’s behaviors are harming people who haven’t consented to that harm. (Mask mandates to protect public health are an example.) Otherwise, government must leave us alone. Secular and religiously tolerant Americans who had dismissed warnings about growing fundamentalist assaults on that principle, confident that their right to self-determination was secure, reacted to the conservative Christian overtones in Dobbs, justifying an invasion of that right, with predictable shock.

As the foregoing discussion has made clear, different religions—and different denominations within those religions– have very different beliefs about women and procreation, and what amounts to the Court’s elevation of a particular version of Christianity has engendered an enormous and negative reaction. Survey research has confirmed that a majority of Americans, including a majority of religiously-affiliated Americans, disagree with the Court’s decision, and are even more opposed to emerging efforts to make access to contraception difficult or impossible. Large numbers of Americans see the overturning of Roe and cases like Hobby Lobby[ as part of an escalating war on women.


On November 8th, the American people need to send an unmistakable message to the arrogant theocrats and paternalists on the Court. A massive vote for Democrats–BLUE NO MATTER WHO–will send that message, in three parts: it will be a repudiation of the Court’s current trajectory; a signal that the Court’s legitimacy has dangerously eroded; and it will convey a willingness to make significant changes to the Court’s composition and jurisdiction.

A failure to send that message will be seen as acquiescence to the Court’s retrograde direction, with very negative consequences for all Americans, not just women.