The Supreme Court Nominee’s Error about Roe v. Wade

We are once again in the midst of the circus leading up to confirmation hearings for the new Supreme Court nominee. Judge Brett Kavanaugh is making the rounds of the Senate, speaking to the Senators who will consider his nomination, and seeking to woo some of the potential swing votes in his favor. It’s the standard ritual, with all the usual photo ops, pre- and post-meeting press comments, etc. Little of any substance usually comes of these things.

But today, something of significance came out of the meeting between the nominee and a Republican Senator who considers herself to be “pro-choice”. After the meeting, the Senator said that the nominee called the infamous Roe v. Wade decision to be “settled law”. Presumably this is an accurate account of their conversation, because neither the nominee nor his handlers have disputed the Senator’s account.

This is very unsettling to hear from a Supreme Court nominee. We have heard it before, and it is a clear indication that the nominee has no real interest in overruling Roe. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Gorsuch both called Roe “settled law” during their own confirmation hearings, and Justice Alito has said that it has added strength as a precedent because it has survived prior challenges and people have come to rely on it.

This is a terrible way of thinking, and it fails to recognize the fundamental duty of a judge to do justice and to decide cases correctly. An unjust law, or one that is clearly wrongly decided, can never be considered “settled”. And there is no question that Roe v. Wade was wrong as a matter of morality and legal reasoning, and that it is profoundly unjust. Its progeny, Planned Parenthood v. Casey (which really is the controlling law now, not Roe), was also wrongly decided. Both of these cases ruled that there is an entire class of human beings who have no constitutional rights – they have been judicially defined as non-persons, in effect outlaws, and they can be subjected to violence and killing with impunity. It is deeply troubling that the nominee has signaled that he would uphold such a law.

The nominee likes to consider himself an “originalist”, meaning that he believes that the Constitution should be interpreted according to its original public meaning at the time of its ratification. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to understand that judges of that time would never have viewed a wrongly-decided case as “settled”. Instead, they would have understood it to be their duty to correct the injustice.

The giant of English legal thinking, William Blackstone, wrote that prior decisions are not controlling if they are “flatly absurd or unjust” or “contrary to reason”. In the words of an great American legal scholar, Chancellor James Kent, “If, however, any solemnly adjudged case can be shown to be in error, it is no doubt the right and the duty of the judges who have a similar case before them, to correct the error”. Throughout our history, the Supreme Court has overruled prior decisions when it is clear that they were wrong or poorly reasoned. Judge Kavanaugh’s originalism clearly is not in keeping with these “settled” legal principles.

In another interview with a Senator, the nominee declined to say whether he thought Roe and Casey were correctly decided. One can understand his reticence, given the politicization of the confirmation process. But his failure to take a stand is incoherent. To believe that a case is “settled law” necessarily means that one believes that it was correctly; if one does not believe that a case was correctly decided, then it cannot be “settled law”. The nominee’s failure to take a stand is simply illogical – it violates the Law of Contradiction (a thing can’t be both A and not-A at the same time) that even lawyers understand very well. In any event, the nominee’s non-position certainly does not show any burning desire to overturn Roe.

So what is the final significance of all this? I have long been certain that the Supreme Court is not going to overrule Roe any time soon. Only Justice Thomas has ever said that he would do so, and all the other “conservatives” are now all on record saying that they believe Roe to be “settled law” or binding precedent. So, regardless of the assurances and wishful thinking of his supporters, I don’t believe that the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh brings us to the verge of Roe’s much-deserved demise.

That is not to say that I think Judge Kavanaugh will make things worse. I fully expect that he will show respect for the separation of powers and federalism, and that he will vote to permit states to have greater leeway in regulating abortion. That may begin the process of at least limiting the malign effects of RoeCasey. It may also contribute, in the long term, to the rebuilding of a culture of life in the law.

But in the meantime, the idea that the abortion decisions are “settled law” is an awful way of thinking, one that violates the fundamental duty of everyone – including judges – to do justice and act in accordance with the universal natural moral law. That law is “settled” – one may never deliberately take the life of an innocent person and the government has a solemn duty to ensure that all lives are protected from unjust violence.

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