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Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Of leaks and legitimacy

I am not as outraged by the leak as Paul is, although I agree it suggests something about the elevation of individual personalities over the institution. I want to weigh in on a couple points. (Update: Mark Graber argues that leaks, especially from the Court to the executive but also to the press, were common during the 19th century).

• Regardless of the source--Justice, clerk, court personnel--there are plausible arguments for the source coming from either side of the divide over reproductive freedom. A critic of the decision might leak hoping that public outrage might sway someone off the Alito opinion or, seeing that as a lost cause, to get an early start on generating political activism to prompt Senate action (a law codifying the right to reproductive freedom passed the House but is stuck behind the Senate filibuster*) or to get Democrats to the polls. A supporter of the decision might hope publicity surrounding the prospective opinion would shore-up Alito's majority; soften the public outrage when the opinion issues (closer to the election), so that the anger has dissipated by November; and distract from the story of the Court eliminating reproductive freedom (and perhaps other rights, more on that below) by offering the story of the leak, failed processes, and the Court-as-institution as a competing narrative. As a couple people have put it, the leak is a story, but not the story; the source might have hoped to make it the story, especially in the right-wing noise machine (which will suggest the source is from the other side). One person on the ConLawProf Listserv suggested Alito might be the source--knowing he will be forced to soften the language in the published opinion, he gets his raw thoughts into the world and becomes a Fed Soc rock star.

[*] Putting aside whether such a law is valid under the Commerce Clause or § 5, a question that the same five-Justice majority would likely answer in the negative two years from now.

• I do not understand the insistence that the decision is "illegitimate." I think it is wrong, uses (typically) bad history, and written with the usual Alito arrogance and causticity that grates on me (even when I agree with him). But it does not say anything that Roe/Casey critics have not been saying for years; it reads as the opinion overruling Roe that we have feared for years, at least as written by Alito or Scalia. But that should not make it "illegitimate" any more than Roe/Casey are illegtimate, as Alito suggests throughout the opinion.

What makes it illegitimate as a judicial decision--as opposed to wrong as a matter of substantive constitutional law--for people who do not subscribe to Eric Segall's view that the entire SCOTUS enterprise is illegitimate?

    1) It overrules precedent. No, because the Court has overruled or changed precedent in the past. It has standards for doing so. And disagreeing with how Alito applies those principles is a critique on the merits.

    2) It eliminates an existing constitutional right. That has never been part of the stare decisis or constitutional analysis. While perhaps a worthwhile constitutional principle (a judicial presumption of liberty, if you will), that again goes to correctness on the merits rather than structural legitimacy.

    3) Everything that went into how the five-Justice majority was formed--GWB and Trump losing the popular vote (such that 4/5 of the majority was appointed by a President who, at least initially, was a minority President); McConnell holding Gorsuch's seat open for more than a year; Kavanaugh perhaps perjuring himself; McConnell ramming the Barrett nomination through, Susan Collins Susan Collinsing, etc. But it seems to me that proves to much, rendering "illegitimate" any decision from this Court for the foreseeable future. And many might agree with that conclusion. But we cannot ignore the role of politics, a less "clean" process than the judicial is supposed to be, in the appointment process. Other Presidents and Congresses have gained or sought to gain political advantage through the Court. What makes this uniquely illegitimate.

I am not trying to downplay how bad this opinion is. I am concerned that "illegitimacy" is the new "judicial activism"--an illegitimate decision is any decision I disagree with written by a justice I do not like. That is not helpful to the discourse or to the functioning of any institution. Or it is the new obscenity--I know an illegitimate or judicial activist opinion when I see it (usually because I disagree with it).

• I cannot tell how much mischief the opinion can do in the future--whether it also takes out marriage equality, freedom of intimate association, contraception. Alito tries in several places to distinguish those rights as not involving potential life, although query whether that holds true for contraception, given some religious views about what constitutes abortion and the misunderstanding of how some contraception works. The rigid historical approach to substantive due process does not bode well for rights and interests that have developed in a modern, more open, more technologically advanced, and more accepting society.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 3, 2022 at 10:29 AM in Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink


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