One fascinating wrinkle in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health is the suppressed question of standing. This issue has a certain edge for Justice Thomas: given his past views, Thomas’s path to reaching the merits is a bit unclear and probably discretionary.
Originally included in the state’s petition for certiorari, the standing issue has to do with whether abortion providers can assert the rights of third-parties, namely, patients seeking abortions. The Court declined to grant review of this issue in Dobbs, perhaps because the issue had recently been resolved, in favor of standing, in June Medical (2020).
But Justice Thomas cannot ignore the third-party standing issue. Thomas was emphatic in June Medical that abortion providers lack Article III standing, which is an essential requirement of subject-matter jurisdiction. Bearing out that strong jurisdictional claim, Thomas insisted that this problem was not subject to waiver.
One might respond that Thomas could simply follow the precedent set in June Medical and similar cases. But there, too, lies a question, for Thomas has defended only a limited approach to stare decisis. In Gamble v. United States (2019), Thomas’s separate opinion argued that the Court had permission to follow precedent in two situations.
First, the Court may follow precedent when the justices have been given no reason to doubt a precedent’s validity, such as when no “previous opinion persuasively critiques the disputed precedent.” That principle does not apply in Dobbs, however, because Thomas himself criticized the third-party standing cases in June Medical.
Second, the Court may follow precedent that permissibly interprets the law. Here is how Thomas puts the point: “Federal courts may (but need not) adhere to an incorrect decision as precedent, but only when traditional tools of legal interpretation show that the earlier decision adopted a textually permissible interpretation of the law.”
This second principle could apply in Dobbs—but only if Thomas believes that the third-party standing cases adopted a “textually permissible interpretation.” And that conclusion is in tension with Thomas’s June Medical dissent, which was based on “a proper understanding of Article III’s case-or-controversy requirement.” So if Thomas sticks to his views on Article III, he might be obligated not to find jurisdiction in Dobbs.
Even if the second principle does apply, another question would arise. To repeat Thomas’s words with added emphasis: “Federal courts may (but need not) adhere to an incorrect decision” that is permissible. So even if the precedents are permissible and Thomas has the option to follow them, he would also have the option not to. How should he exercise that discretion?
That question relates to a third principle. In June Medical, Thomas voted to “remand with instructions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.” But he also noted: “Alternatively, if I were to reach the merits because a majority of the Court concludes we have jurisdiction, I would affirm, as the plaintiffs [abortion providers] have failed to carry their burden . . . even under our precedents.” This passage seems to extend the option to follow permissible precedents by recognizing a similar option to follow the majority’s current jurisdictional views. So the question again arises: how should Thomas exercise his discretion?
Thomas’s general commitment to judicial restraint might seem to counsel against exercising discretion to reach the merits. To again quote Thomas’s June Medical dissent: “In light of the ‘overriding and time-honored concern about keeping the Judiciary’s power within its proper constitutional sphere, we must put aside the natural urge to proceed directly to the merits of an important dispute and to “settle” it for the sake of convenience and efficiency’” (citations omitted). Given this view, it might be odd for Thomas to vote for major changes in precedent while simultaneously denying that the Court has jurisdiction to rule at all.
Yet Thomas is at ease with discretionary adjudication in many situations. Apart from the above principles recognizing discretion as to stare decisis, in cases like AT&T v. Concepcion Thomas has played a critical role in forming majority opinions, even when he disagreed with the resulting precedents. And Thomas might further argue that normal principles of judicial restraint, even as to issues of subject-matter jurisdiction, do not apply in Dobbs. Perhaps the Court, in Thomas’s view, may be unrestrained when dismantling the products of unrestrained decision-making.
It will be interesting to see if Thomas addresses these issues—not least because his vote will likely be key to how Dobbs is decided.