Pro-Life Judges

I was recently asked my opinion of the list of the President-Elect’s potential Supreme Court nominees. I don’t have any personal knowledge of any of the people on the list, so I can’t really say anything useful about them. But I do have some observations about whether these people, or any judges, can be said to be “pro-life”.

In most cases, it is extraordinarily difficult to divine the personal views, and even at times the judicial philosophy, of lower-court judges based on isolated judicial opinions. Conscientious lower court judges are bound by precedent and are not free to overrule or widely diverge from it, even if they disagree with it. It is not good practice for lower court judges to openly criticize precedent. So even if a lower court judge rules against the “pro-life” side in a case, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about their personal views or their judicial philosophy. It could just mean that the judge is doing his job.

Plus, sitting judges generally avoid writing law review articles or giving substantive talks on issues, since that might be considered pre-judging cases. There is also a phenomenon in the legal world where a person who hopes to be appointed to the bench deliberately declines to speak openly about controversial topics, to preserve their confirmability. So most sitting judges are a bit Sphinx-like when it comes to their actual views.

It is also a fact that there is probably not more than a handful of sitting federal or state high court judges who are “pro-life” in the sense that I would use the term — namely, they believe that unborn human beings are “persons” within the meaning of the 14th Amendment and are entitled to full legal protection. No Justice of the Supreme Court has ever taken that position — not even Justices Scalia or Thomas — and I would doubt that any sitting state judge has done so either.

So I would be very reluctant to call any judge “pro-life”, lest the word lose its real meaning.

In the absence of such persons, our best bet at this point is a “constitutionalist” or “originalist”, who would hold with Justice Thomas (and the late Justice Scalia) that there is no right to abortion guaranteed in the Constitution, and that the issue is therefore reserved to the states to permit and regulate or prohibit. I am not satisfied with that view, but I think it is just about as good as we can get in the current legal climate.

My general impression, from what I have read, is that the people on the President-Elect’s list would likely fit that description. Since I have no confidence whatsoever that the President-elect would recognize constitutionalism if it hit him over the head, I take some comfort in the probability that he is getting advice from the Federalist Society, which is committed to that view of the law.

Of course, one never knows what a person will do once they’re on the Court (as we have seen from Warren, Brennan, Souter, Kennedy, O’Connor, Roberts and many, many more examples). The Court is generally reluctant to overturn major precedents, and instead prefers to adjust or adapt them (see Casey). So I am not particularly sanguine about any reversal of Roe/Casey in the near term. I think that if a couple of constitutionalist Justices are appointed, we might get a ruling that backs away from the expansive application of Casey’s “undue burden” standard that we saw used to devastating effect in Whole Women’s Health to strike down Texas’ health and safety regulations for abortion clinics. That would be a tremendous accomplishment in itself because it would open up the field for further state restrictions, and it could lay the groundwork for an eventual direct attack on Roe/Casey.

One thing that I particularly fear is a sense of pro-life over-confidence that might lead to a premature assault on Roe/Casey. Pushing flawed and risky cases too fast (e.g., heartbeat bills) could produce a disastrous reaffirmation of Roe/Casey, perhaps with an even stronger constitutional justification based on the (spurious) idea that the Equal Protection Clause requires abortion rights to ensure the ability of women to fully participate in society. That is a position long proposed by Justice Ginsberg, and given the tenor of recent Court decisions like Obergefell, it may appeal to a majority of other justices as well.

At this point, I’m more concerned with the Executive Branch appointments, since that’s where most of the action is right now — regulations, enforcement actions, etc. I also fear that too much attention will be paid to DC, and not enough to the states where the pro-death movement will be very active in expanding abortion rights and promoting assisted suicide. State legislatures and courthouses are the battlefront right now, and our movement needs to focus on them, and less on crystal-ball gazing about potential judicial appointments.

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