Ely, Roe, and the Wages of Judicial Recklessness

Will Baude has a new post on John Hart Ely’s fascinating precedent-based defense of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Part of what makes Ely’s defense so interesting is that he had strongly criticized Roe v. Wade, arguing that it was “not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be.” You should read the whole post, including Will’s commentary, but I want to focus on this paragraph by Ely:

I don’t have a well-developed theory of stare decisis, that is, of when courts should defer to precedent rather than reconsider it afresh; I’m actually not sure anyone does. My fear, of course, is that I don’t think Roe should be overruled because I approve of it politically if not constitutionally, and there may indeed be something there. I also think, as the letter suggests, that Roe has contributed greatly to the more general move toward equality for women, which seems to me not only good but also in line with the central themes of our Constitution. I don’t think a principled opinion along those lines could have been written at the time— “We don’t know exactly how, but somehow this holding will importantly help undergird a more general movement toward women’s equality, which movement is mandated by the Constitution” obviously doesn’t make it—but I am clear that overruling it now would wreak havoc on that constitutionally legitimate movement.

Ely is not saying that Roe engendered reliance and so we are stuck with a legally meritless ruling. Rather, Ely seems to be describing a constitutionally good outcome that could not have been achieved through constitutionally good methods. How can that be?

Here is one possibility. The justices may have a general duty to promote constitutional “themes” or values, subject to the following side-constraint: they must credibly ground their decisions in relatively determinate and identifiable legal sources, like constitutional texts. This side-constraint might be essential to preserving the Court’s overall legitimacy, even though the side-constraint’s application in any given case would prevent full realization of constitutional values. In this way, the demands of legal reasoning and judicial craft would give rise to a kind of constitutional underenforcement.

That account can explain Ely’s dueling views. In the first instance, Ely thought Roe was wrong because it flunked the side-constraint. But if the ultimate effect of Roe was to enhance overall constitutional values, such as by promoting gender equality, then Casey would look quite different. Because stare decisis supplied the determinate legal source that Roe lacked, Casey could satisfy the side-constraint.

On this view, stare decisis operates primarily as a permission or enabler, rather than as a constraint. The fact of supportive case law essentially gives the Court access to a set of reasons that would otherwise be out of bounds. For Ely, direct reflection on constitutional “themes” evoked “fear,” namely, the fear of being “politically” motivated. A similar thought might help explain some pragmatic approaches to precedent. For instance, Justice Scalia famously cast stare decisis as an exception to the rule that the Court must eschew openly pragmatic reasoning.

But does this account really allow for Ely’s continued condemnation of Roe? Perhaps Ely should have come to view Roe as an exceptional act of genius: while the justices normally have to engage in cogent legal reasoning to reach good outcomes, Ely apparently believed that the Roe Court was able to skip that step and intuit a constitutionally optimal holding. And why should we evaluate moments of judicial inspiration based on rules meant for normal cases?

Still, I don’t think that Ely had to view the Roe Court warmly because of its assertedly salutary legacy. Instead, Ely or someone like him could make use of the distinction between a harmful action and a reckless one. If Roe was reckless in the sense of being a dangerous bet with long odds, then Ely could continue to criticize the Court and warn against similar rulings in the future—even as he celebrated the gamble’s long-term pay off. The permission that precedent afforded Casey would not necessarily apply elsewhere.

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