I’ve been on the email list of the Brookings Institution for a number of years. It was–and is– an excellent source of thoughtful, balanced policy analyses, and it provided me with valuable background for my classes when I was teaching Law and Policy.
Over the years, I’ve become accustomed to the language and style of Brookings publications–very consistent with that of academic discourse and a variety of other highly credible, scholarly resources. (Not like the snark you often get here.) So I was bemused–to put it mildly– by the opening paragraphs of a recent essay.
“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected.” With those chilling words an illegitimately obtained Supreme Court majority tore up the lives of Americans & the Constitution in the Dobbs opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito. The votes for this opinion were only available because Merrick Garland was wrongly blockaded at the end of the Obama administration and Amy Coney Barrett hypocritically jammed through at the end of the Trump one.
The Alito opinion comes in the midst of congressional hearings exposing the sickness of Trump’s style of governance—Trumpery, as we term it in a new book. The Dobbs opinion also exemplifies Trumpery, and its features provide a useful framework for understanding just how bad the opinion is. The Court should be known from here on out as the Trump Court.
Perhaps the single most defining characteristic of Trumpery is its disdain for the rule of law. The Alito opinion in the Dobbs case has that in spades. A central tenet of Supreme Court jurisprudence is stare decisis, the idea that once the Supreme Court has ruled on something, it is settled law and is entitled to permanence, even if later courts may disagree with it. That is particularly true where you have a decades long established precedent like Roe.
It is certainly true that past Courts have overruled settled precedents when it has become blindingly obvious that they are unjust and/or inconsistent with contemporary science and mores–Plessy v. Ferguson and Bowers v. Hardwick come to mind. But the thrust of the quoted paragraph is accurate; until the elevation of theocratic jurists intent upon the destruction of jurisprudence equating liberty with a significant degree of personal autonomy, precedents were accorded a high level of deference.
The essay proceeded to compare the current iteration of the Supreme Court to Trump’s incessant assaults on democratic norms– assaults that the January 6th Committee hearings are meticulously documenting.
As we are being painfully reminded in the Jan. 6 hearings, that assault over time undermined and weakened the executive branch and Americans’ faith in it. Alito and the five justices who joined with him are sending the Supreme Court down that same slippery slope.
The authors make a point that I have made repeatedly in the wake of this deeply dishonest decision–it didn’t just take aim at abortion. It was a point that Justice Thomas acknowledged in his concurrence:
“in future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.” Americans’ right to contraception, to make consensual choices in the bedroom and to same-sex marriage are all up for grabs. How long before states are also free to re-criminalize premarital sex and interracial relationships?
There are other parallels: Trump was shameless, and the authors point out that–like Trump–Alito displays absolutely no embarrassment about the rampant dishonesty of his opinion, dishonesty that was necessary in order to reach a result he personally favored. Nor does this Court care about the social consequences of a predictably divisive opinion. Alito wrote “We cannot allow our decisions to be affected by any extraneous influences such as concern about the public’s reaction to our work.”
Of course, concern about public reaction is one reason for the doctrine of stare decisis, which aims to avoid abruptly upsetting long-settled rules and expectations. Intensifying social divisions was also a Trumpian trademark, and as the authors note, “this opinion smacks of a similar approach.”
It’s hard to disagree with the authors’ conclusion that this decision–one of this term’s string of shocking and damaging departures from settled jurisprudence– will decimate what is left of the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.
Although it was news to Alabama’s current Senator, the U.S. has three branches of government. Unfortunately, none are currently functional.
We have a gridlocked Congress, immobilized by lawmakers putting fealty to party over loyalty to country; an Executive whose agenda is obstructed by that Congress; and now, a rogue Court disdained and distrusted by a majority of citizens.
That’s a description of a failed state.
No wonder the language employed by Brookings these days is less restrained.