Nobody should be surprised that the Supreme Court’s conservative justices on Friday jettisoned nearly 50 years of precedent upon precedent in overturning Roe v. Wade. Heck, they didn’t even honor their own precedent articulated 24 hours earlier.
The Supreme Court radicals’ new precedent: Maximum chaos
Yet in their ruling Friday morning in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, setting women’s rights back half a century (and cracking the door to banning same-sex marriage and contraception), the conservative justices, led by Samuel Alito (who was also in the guns majority) and joined by Thomas, argued precisely the opposite. They justified abortion bans by citing, among others, “Henry de Bracton’s 13th-century treatise.” That was written circa 1250 and referred to monsters, duels, burning at the stake — and to women as property, “inferior” to men.
The right-wing majority’s selective application of history reveals the larger fraud in this pair of landmark rulings: Their reasoning is not legal but political, not principled but partisan.
Follow Dana Milbank‘s opinionsFollow
Still, there is a commonality to the rulings. Both decisions foment maximum chaos and were delivered with flagrant disregard for the instability and disorder they will cause.
The high court was meant to be the guarantor of law and order. But the conservative justices, intoxicated by their supermajority, have abandoned their solemn duty to promote stability in the law and are actively spreading real-world disruption.
Worse, this invitation to disorder comes as the nation is trying to restore the rule of law after a coup attempt led by a president who appointed three of the five justices in the abortion majority. The spouse of a fourth — Ginni Thomas, Clarence’s wife — aggressively pushed state legislators and the White House to overthrow the election. Yet Thomas, the senior associate justice, has refused to recuse himself from related cases.
After decades of crocodile tears over imagined “judicial activism,” the conservative supermajority has shed all judicial modesty and embraced radicalism. The liberal justices, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer, wrote in their Dobbs dissent that the majority’s brazen rejection of stare decisis, respect for precedent, “breaches a core rule-of-law principle, designed to promote constancy in the law.”
Even Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who joined the gun ruling, scolded fellow conservatives for blithely overturning the Roe v. Wade super-precedent. “Surely we should adhere closely to principles of judicial restraint here, where the broader path the court chooses entails repudiating a constitutional right we have not only previously recognized, but also expressly reaffirmed,” Roberts wrote. The majority’s “dramatic and consequential ruling is unnecessary,” he said, “a serious jolt to the legal system” that could have been avoided with a narrower decision that would have been “markedly less unsettling.”
Alito, in his (characteristically) sneering opinion in the abortion case, dismissed Roberts as unprincipled and public opinion as an “extraneous” concern. He likewise dismissed the pain the ruling would cause, writing that “this Court is ill-equipped to assess ‘generalized assertions about the national psyche.’ ” He washed his hands of answering the “empirical question” of “the effect of the abortion right … on the lives of women.”
The dissent said the majority’s refusal to address real-world consequences “reveals how little it knows or cares about women’s lives or about the suffering its decision will cause.” It is a “radical claim to power,” the dissent went on, to assert “the authority to overrule established legal principles without even acknowledging the costs of its decisions.”
The liberals described the bedlam to come, with suddenly unanswered legal questions about rape, incest, threats to a mother’s life, interstate travel for abortion, morning-after pills, IUDs, in vitro fertilization. “The majority’s refusal even to consider the life-altering consequences of reversing Roe and Casey is a stunning indictment,” they wrote.
Thomas’s gun ruling was much the same, 63 pages of a cherry-picked history of gun laws, with no concern for the real-life effect of allowing millions of people to carry handguns, with virtually no restriction, in the streets of New York or Los Angeles. Breyer, writing for the same liberal justices in dissent, upbraided the conservative majority for unleashing more guns “without considering the state’s compelling interest in preventing gun violence and protecting the safety of its citizens, and without considering the potentially deadly consequences of its decision.”
Alito added a concurring opinion to express contempt for Breyer’s points about gun violence, saying “it is hard to see what legitimate purpose can possibly be served” by his mentions of mass shootings and growing firearm mayhem.
The radicals have cast off any pretense of judicial restraint. Now the chaos begins.