Category Archives: Stare Decisis

Who’s Afraid of Gradualism in Dobbs?

The Supreme Court may be poised to overrule Roe v. Wade and eliminate all constitutional abortion rights. That sweeping result is teed up in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case to be argued on Wednesday. Yet whether to overrule nearly 50 years of precedent is not a question that the Court is prepared to answer. Even though both parties and many observers are eager for a final reckoning with abortion rights, the public and the Court itself would be far better served by a more gradual, judicious approach.

The initial problem is that, in Dobbs, the Court has not followed its normal deliberative process. Instead, Mississippi asked the justices to review an abortion prohibition that posed no disagreement among lower courts or any other conventional basis for review. After sitting on the case for nearly a year, the justices finally agreed to consider a single issue: “Whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional.” That question focuses on viability, is concerned with whether “all” relevant restrictions are categorically unlawful, and identifies no specific precedent to be overruled. Onlookers were accordingly left to debate just what the Court had in mind in granting the case. 

Mississippi then seized the initiative by submitting a merits brief that primarily argued for overruling all precedents recognizing abortion rights—a possibility that the state’s certiorari petition had raised, if at all, only in a half-hearted footnote. So what had seemed like an important but limited challenge to abortion rights suddenly became a broadside attack on decades of case law. In response, the abortion providers objected to Mississippi’s bait-and-switch and briefly asked for dismissal of the case; but they also agreed that “There are no half-measures here.” So the parties ultimately offer the same unyielding choice between two starkly opposing options.

Yet advocates have strategic reasons for framing certain options for the Court while excluding others. Lawyers might avoid offering a half measure for fear of undermining their main argument, particularly when they are left to guess about the justices’ views. And political activists might prefer that the Court issue a precipitous ruling so that they can better mobilize against the judiciary. A partial defeat in court might be far less useful for politicos precisely because it would appear more legitimate or non-partisan. For these reasons, litigants do not necessarily speak for all affected people, and the fact that both sides pose a stark choice may only prove that the adversarial system has given way to political polarization. 

Normal caution might seem unnecessary in Dobbs because the issue of abortion rights is already so familiar to the justices. What law school graduate, after all, has failed to think about Roe? But partial knowledge is often the most confident, and deliberation has a way of revealing things we didn’t expect. Gradualism can also allow the Court to learn from experience rather than armchair speculation. The Dobbs briefs are full of predictions about what would happen—doctrinally, practically, and politically—if abortion case law changed. By moving incrementally, the Court can begin to replace those predictions with facts and ultimately make a more informed decision at a later date. 

The Roberts Court has repeatedly shown a similar instinct for gradualism. Before major decisions on issues like campaign finance regulation and same-sex marriage, for instance, the Court signaled its interest in issuing a transformative ruling long before actually doing so. In the meantime, the Court moved slowly, taking only small steps before bold action. The idea that the Court should give notice before issuing a disruptive decision, which I have called “the doctrine of one last chance,” has many benefits. Giving the losing side one last chance to make its case can clarify how the justices are reasoning through the issue, expose that reasoning to sustained scrutiny and criticism, and prompt the Court to adjust course. Even if the Court follows through on its initial views, providing notice can prompt action by the political branches and help smooth out disruptive legal changes. 

The Court’s newest justices have continued the one-last-chance approach. Earlier this year, the Court considered whether to overrule a major precedent on religious liberty. Justice Barrett, joined by Justice Kavanaugh, declined to do so—not because they thought the precedent was correct, but rather because they were unsure just how to replace it. There is no doubt that these justices have thought deeply about religious liberty, yet they still saw wisdom in proceeding cautiously. And that intuition may already have been borne out, given the “difficulty” of later cases. In Dobbs, a similar approach could support a limited holding, a request for additional briefing and argument, or dismissal of the case.

In an indirect way, the Court has already produced something like incrementalism on abortion rights. By allowing Texas’s SB8 to operate for several months, the justices have essentially allowed a major state to create a post-Roe world. But while that experience has fostered public debate and been informative in some ways, litigation over SB8 has so far focused on complex procedural issues, not the substantive and precedential questions pertinent to Dobbs. Given those differences, and the fact that the briefing in Dobbs was well underway when SB8 came into effect, the events in Texas are no substitute for caution in Dobbs itself. 

Of course, judicial gradualism can only achieve so much. Because the nation is divided by starkly conflicting legal and policy views on abortion, Dobbs will be met with second-guessing, if not condemnation, no matter how it comes out. Criticism, as they say, comes with the territory. What the Court can control, however, is whether it treats the issue of abortion rights with the care it deserves. Roe itself was famously faulted, including by Justice Ginsburg, for moving too fast. It would be ironic if Roe’s latest critics have failed to learn that lesson.

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Stare Decisis as Crying Wolf

Stare decisis is in the news again as the Supreme Court begins to consider requests to overrule abortion-rights precedents. To a great extent, the justices have spent years preparing for this moment, as every recent debate over precedent has seemingly had abortion rights looming in the background. Dissenting justices have adopted certain rhetorical strategies, and majority justices have had to respond. 

I explore this rhetorical dynamic in a forthcoming paper (Reason and Rhetoric in Edwards v. Vannoy) and reproduce a slightly edited excerpt below:

Imagine that you are a justice who generally hopes to protect existing case law from erosion or repudiation. You might think it is a good idea to complain about each and every instance of overruling, so as to keep stare decisis salient and make the majority coalition pay an ever-increasing “price” in professional and public esteem. But you would also worry about coming across as Chicken Little, or the Boy Who Cried Wolf. It isn’t always a big deal to overrule, even when doing so is wrong. And, sometimes, overruling is positively the right thing to do. Much as the Court would lose face by overruling too freely, as though precedent were legally irrelevant, dissenters can sacrifice their credibility by acting as though every new overruling is a fresh End of Days. So, what’s a dissenter to do?

One way of squaring the rhetorical circle is to try and have it both ways at different points in time. This solution requires selective forgetting: the importance of stare decisis is trumpeted in dissent after dissent, but the doom-and-gloom rhetoric attending each dissent is instantly swept under the rug. The point of this strategy is to make each transgression of stare decisis seem unprecedented, as though stare decisis had been eroded for the first time. A less helpful understanding of events, namely, that stare decisis has proven to be quite flexible, is thus kept out of view. This approach counts on the reader’s short memory—and, ironically, on the forgettability of the dissenter’s earlier rhetorical flourishes. 

All this raises the question of how the majority coalition might respond to our imagined dissenter’s rhetorical strategizing. The majority might do just what the dissenter hopes: wince at each rhetorical lashing, try to avoid the next one, and generally think hard before overruling. But there is another salient possibility: much as the public could come to wonder whether the dissenter is overdoing it, the majority might decide that there is no satisfying the opposition. Someone who cannot see that overrulings are sometimes justified—or just not a big deal—might not be worth appeasing. Thus, the majority could become numb to the lashing, and unafraid to overrule. The strong rhetoric against overruling would have defeated itself.

That reasoning can be taken still further. A cynical majority might put itself on the lookout for precedents to overrule. Not just any precedent will do, of course. Overruling cases that are either too important or too sound would tend to feed the dissenter’s critical flame. But when precedents are contrary to the would-be dissenter’s view of the merits, or else not terribly important, a decision to overrule can put the dissenter in a bind: she would have to moderate her rhetoric or else risk coming across as crying wolf. Notably, Ramos and Edwards respectively fit each half of that strategy, with Ramos, which established a right to unanimous criminal jury verdicts, appealing to (and splintering) the Court’s left wing and Edwards, which declined to apply Ramos retroactively in habeas cases, “overruling” only a never-used exception.

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Blaming Dissents in Gant and Lightfoot

The Supreme Court sometimes abandons longstanding or widespread readings of its own precedents by blaming a dissenting opinion. “Our previous majority was fairly clear,” the Court effectively says, “except that the dissent in the relevant case cast a spell over readers, leading them astray.” This practice of blaming dissents is both interesting and consequential, appearing for example in Gant as well as the recent decision in Lightfoot.

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Narrowing During Oral Argument in Caulkett

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard argument in Bank of America, N.A. v. Caulkett, which substantially concerned the viability of the 1992 precedent Dewsnup v. Timm. The resulting conversation ranged far and wide on the subject of precedent, including reflections about when to overrule and about what I’ve called personal precedent. In this post, I’ll focus on the justices’ extensive ruminations on the subject of “narrowing,” or interpreting a precedent not to apply in a situation where that precedent is best read to apply. (Many of my points stem from my recent article on the subject.)

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Justice Thomas on Signaling in SSM Cases

In a few posts, I’ve discussed Supreme Court “signals,” defined as instances when “the Justices undertake official actions that don’t establish conventional precedent or resolve ultimate merits issues, but nonetheless suggest, perhaps deliberately, some aspect of how lower courts should decide cases.” One of my examples had to do with the  Court’s unusual cert orders in same-sex marriage cases, which seemed like a signal that the challengers had very strong cases indeed. Today, the idea of a “signal” in this area became quite salient, as Justice Thomas expressly referred to signals in criticizing the Court’s latest same-sex marriage order.

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On Not Creating Precedent in Plumley v. Austin

A couple weeks ago, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, issued a dissent from denial of cert in Plumley v. Austin, a criminal justice case. In the main, Thomas’s opinion argued that the decision below was wrong on the merits and conflicted with other circuit decisions. But, in a passage that has sparked some debate, Thomas also argued that the Fourth Circuit below had erred in declining to publish its opinion, allegedly in order to “avoid creating binding law for the Circuit.” Thomas’s opinion may be a signal about circuit publication practices and, more specifically, about the proper direction of future Fourth Circuit jurisprudence.

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Can Justice Kagan Narrow Heien v. North Carolina?

Yesterday, the Court decided Heien v. North Carolina by an 8-1 vote. Both the holding–that police act constitutionally when they make certain mistakes of law–and the lopsided outcome in Heien call to mind Davis v. United States, which involved the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule and was resolved 7-2. Heien provides the most recent example of the “other” rule of lenity–that is, the newly ascendant principle that police should get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to ambiguous laws. Heien also shrinks the gap between Fourth Amendment rights and remedies, which now both include consideration of the police’s “good faith.” And then there’s the historical dimension of Heien. So, as expected, Heien is a big decision.

For now, I’d like to focus on how lower courts will construe Heien in light of Justices Kagan’s concurrence, which was joined by Justice Ginsburg. Because she asked the government several skeptical (and characteristically insightful) questions at argument, Justice Kagan’s decision to join the majority may seem somewhat surprising. But the content of Justice Kagan’s concurrence, along with the fact that her vote was unnecessary for the creation of a majority, suggests that she might have been motivated to concur to put her own spin on the decision for the Court. In other words, Justice Kagan’s concurrence might be an example of “aspirational narrowing.” It’s less clear that Justice Kagan’s efforts will be successful.

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More Supreme Court Signals

A couple weeks ago, I discussed “Supreme Court Signals.” The main vehicles for signaling that I identified were certiorari denials and Justices’ statements during oral argument. This week, Justices sent what look like two more signals, this time in statements respecting denial.

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Is Fisher v. University of Texas a Precedent on Jurisdiction?

As Lyle Denniston recently explained over at SCOTUSBlog, the important affirmative action case Fisher v. University of Texas may soon be headed back to the Supreme Court. This possibility raises an interesting issue of precedent and jurisdiction. The last time that the Court heard Fisher, its published decision ignored certain jurisdictional concerns and remanded for a new merits determination. Could these concerns prove decisive in a sequel decision, or did the Court silently settle the question of jurisdiction in Fisher? 

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Narrowing Precedent and the Digital Fourth Amendment

My new paper, “Narrowing Precedent in the Supreme Court,” is now posted online. (Thanks to LTB for publicizing it!)  The basic idea is that the Supreme Court frequently narrows its precedents, including in “liberal” directions, and that doing so is often both legitimate and desirable. In this post, I’d like to make a prediction: in the near future, we are going to see a lot of narrowing in the area of digital surveillance and the Fourth Amendment.

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