Kevin Walsh and I have this year’s Supreme Court roundup at First Things: Kennedy’s Last Term. In the piece we cover some of the major decisions of the last term, including First Amendment cases (Masterpiece, NIFLA, Janus), cases concerning what we call “the influence of social, technological, and moral change on Supreme Court doctrine” (Wayfair, Carpenter, Murphy v. NCAA), and political gerrymandering/judicial limits cases (Gill, Benisek), as well as a short comment on Trump v. Hawaii.
Something from the conclusion:
What, then, should we expect from the post-Kennedy Court? Perhaps more of the same. There was not a single 5–4 decision this term in which Justice Kennedy joined with the more liberal wing of the Court. That has never before happened on the Roberts Court. And there were fourteen 5–4 cases in which Kennedy joined with the four more conservative justices to form a majority, including First Amendment cases such as Janus and NIFLA, separation of powers cases like Trump v.Hawaii, political process cases involving political and racial gerrymandering, and a range of statutory interpretation and business cases. This record suggests that, should Judge Brett Kavanaugh be confirmed, we ought to expect a fair amount of continuity rather than radical change.
But in other major areas—areas that happen not to have been addressed this term—the change may be more substantial. Consider, for example, the constitutional law of abortion. Here, Kennedy’s replacement might make a difference, particularly if there is a possibility that a Justice Kavanaugh might join with four colleagues in ending the regime of constitutional abortion law initiated by Roe v. Wade.
Social conservatives have been disappointed before. The Court’s first major abortion case after Justice Kennedy joined the Court was the 1989 decision Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, where it seemed there might be five votes to overrule Roe. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote an opinion for four justices that purported to “modify and narrow” Roe, but Reagan-nominated Justice Sandra Day O’Connor went her own way, introducing the “undue burden” standard that has remained the law until today. Scalia, meanwhile, lamented that this missed opportunity to reverse Roe meant that “the mansion of constitutional abortion law, constructed overnight in Roe, must be disassembled doorjamb by doorjamb, and never entirely brought down, no matter how wrong it may be.” Scalia was farseeing. Four years later, in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, Kennedy joined with O’Connor and Justice David Souter to preserve what they called “the central holding” of Roe.
We are guardedly optimistic that Kavanaugh’s confirmation will eventually result in the rejection of Roe v. Wade. But nobody should expect a quick or complete demolition of constitutional abortion rights. Caution is in order because of both internal Court dynamics and external pressure on the institution.
The shift on the new Court should be measured not by the distance between Kennedy and Kavanaugh, but between Kennedy and Roberts. On a multi-member Court, the views of the median justice matter most in the close cases implicating the culture wars. And Roberts cares deeply about public perceptions of the Court’s legitimacy. The same concerns that motivate Roberts to embrace minimalism more broadly, as in the cases this term about partisan gerrymandering and sales taxes, will likely mean even greater caution in these hotter and angrier areas of constitutional law.
Neither should we forget that the result of overruling the Roe/Casey regime is no panacea. It would simply lift restrictions on state legislation. But that is hardly always desirable. We can surely expect some, perhaps many, states to follow the lead of Massachusetts, where legislators passed a NASTY (Negating Archaic Stereotypes Targeting Young) Women Act that repealed abortion restrictions that might in theory have come back into force if Roe/Casey were overturned. New York’s governor has made extensive abortion rights a rallying cry of his campaign for reelection.
Just as the damage done by Roe/Casey is not exclusively legal, neither will it be undone by legal means alone. The Court and dominant cultural opinion shape each other, and the arrow of influence runs in both directions. However much “the mansion of constitutional abortion law” may be dismantled, the constitutional rot at its foundation is the result of powerful cultural forces. Let us not put our trust in judges any more than princes, not only because they are fallible, but also because judges are meant to judge, not to save us from ourselves.