On the eve of his retirement, the nation’s first Black justice and constitutional giant, Thurgood Marshall, took a moment to denounce the Supreme Court of the United States over its “radical” path of abandoning past decisions for no other reason than the court’s membership had changed. Owing to these shifts in personnel, Marshall charged, now “scores of established constitutional liberties” hung in the balance, the powerless were left defenseless, and the court’s own authority and legitimacy were diminished. “Power, not reason, is the new currency of this Court’s decisionmaking,” Marshall warned in 1991, in what turned out to be his final dissenting opinion.
The dissenting justices in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the watershed case that discarded nearly 50 years of American jurisprudence protecting a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, felt the need to quote from Marshall’s decades-old warning because power, indeed, is the only sensible explanation for the Supreme Court’s present course. The seismic end of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, two pillars of a much larger structure of unenumerated constitutional rights the high court has erected over almost a century, was neither legally necessary nor a product of profound changes in American society. Instead, five justices tore these precedents off the law books, ushering in a new era of abortion criminalization and second-class citizenship for half the nation, simply because they could—and had the numbers to do so. “Neither law nor facts nor attitudes have provided any new reasons to reach a different result than Roe and Casey did,” wrote Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan in their anguished Dobbs dissent. “All that has changed is this Court.”
As radical and destabilizing as the fall of Roe is for our most intimate personal decisions, beyond just abortion rights, its ripples will extend to other areas where the conservative justices are already smelling blood. Not satisfied with the erasure of just one constitutional right, Clarence Thomas, writing separately in Dobbs, indicated that contraception and same-sex marriage could be next. That future begins now. These actions and other signals make abundantly clear what Marshall foresaw: The Supreme Court is on a collision course with democracy itself. Dobbs merely sets the stage.
Every new justice creates a new court, the maxim goes. Yet for much of their time on the bench, Justice Samuel Alito, long a soldier in the Republican holy war to curtail abortion rights, and Thomas, an avowed Roe antagonist, had the will but not the votes to impose their antiabortion vision on the majority of the Supreme Court, much less on the rest of the country. Their fortunes, and power, changed with the election of Donald Trump, whose own marriage of convenience with white evangelicals and social conservatives paved the way for his presidency and the installation of three new justices of a different mold, all of them more extreme and lacking the moderation of Republican appointees of the past, including those who made Roe and Casey possible.
Next to this “restless and newly constituted Court,” as Sotomayor branded this new majority in June, Chief Justice John Roberts looks as weakened as ever. The Supreme Court may bear his name, and the chief may have come of age during the abortion wars of the 1980s and ’90s, but neither his title nor institutionalist bent could convince the reactionaries to his right that their power grab in Dobbs represented “a serious jolt to the legal system” that he simply could not join in full. Too much, too soon. To the Trump justices, plus Thomas and Alito, this shock to the nation could not come soon enough.
Nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and narrowly confirmed by a Senate plagued by minority rule, these justices—Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett—were all groomed for this moment. All of them were grown in the test tube of the Federalist Society, the conservative legal brain trust that for decades has been a judicial pipeline for Republican administrations and state governments, which since the time of Ronald Reagan have made the fall of Roe a white whale of their politics.
In theory, interpretative judicial tools like originalism and textualism, which this movement held up as a goal, were meant to keep judges restrained, beholden to policy choices made by the political branches. In practice, they’ve become Republican orthodoxy, embraced by party officials, scholars, and activists to wield power. When Alito writes, as he does in Dobbs, that the right to an abortion is nowhere in the Constitution, and thus the issue must return to the states, his sleight of hand allows his majority to ignore that women, enslaved or free, had no say in the content of our founding document, let alone to set the course of their own lives and livelihoods—a brutal “history and tradition” the Supreme Court fails to confront.