Monday, July 4, 2016

The Despotic Branch

Did you hear about the recent Supreme Court decision in the case WHOLE WOMAN’S HEALTH v. HELLERSTEDT?  Also known as "the Texas abortion case"?

In case you missed it, here is the full decision:

Yeah, read the opinion, don't just listen to biased coverage on the news.

If you don't have much time, skip directly to page 48 (as numbered by the PDF file).  Read Clarence Thomas' dissent in the case.  It is important, not just for this case but for legal jurisprudence as a whole.  It addresses much of what is wrong with our legal system in general.  Read Thomas' full dissent, if not the whole ruling.  But I'll summarize what I believe Thomas is trying to say.

Our legal system is less a blind weighing of the facts than a biased justification for the results certain justices want.  This starts by bending the rules for which cases to accept, agreeing to hear cases from plaintiffs that do not have standing.
Ordinarily, plaintiffs cannot file suits to vindicate  the  constitutional  rights of  others. But  the  Court employs a different approach to rights that it favors.  So in this  case  and  many  others,  the  Court  has  erroneously allowed  doctors  and  clinics  to  vicariously  vindicate  the  putative constitutional right of women seeking abortions.
 The court also is able to select which level of scrutiny to apply to various cases.  Thomas gives a summary of why all of this is a problem.
Ultimately, this case shows why the Court never should have  bent  the  rules  for  favored  rights  in  the  first  place.  Our  law  is  now  so  riddled  with  special  exceptions  for special  rights  that  our  decisions  deliver  neither  predictability nor the promise of a judiciary bound by the rule of law.
Now he delves into the issue of "standing."
Driving this doctrinal confusion, the Court has shown a particular  willingness  to undercut restrictions on third-party standing when the right to abortion is at stake.  And this case reveals a deeper flaw  in  straying from our  normal  rules:  when  the  wrong  party  litigates  a  case,  we  end  up  resolving disputes that make for bad law.
This suit is possible only because the Court has allowed abortion clinics and physicians to invoke a putative constitutional  right  that  does  not  belong  to  them—a  woman’s  right  to  abortion.
For  most  of  our  Nation’s  history,  plaintiffs  could  not  challenge  a  statute  by  asserting  someone  else’s  constitutional rights.  ...  This Court would “not listen to an
objection made to the constitutionality of an act by a party whose  rights  it  does  not  affect  and  who  has  therefore  no interest  in  defeating  it.”  ...  And for  good  reason:  “[C]ourts  are  not  roving  commissions  assigned  to  pass  judgment  on  the  validity  of  the  Nation’s  laws.”
Those  limits  broke  down,  however,  because  the  Court  has  been  “quite  forgiving”  in  applying  these  standards  to  certain  claims.  ...  Some  constitutional  rights remained  “personal  rights  which  .  .  .  may  not  be  vicariously asserted.”   ...  But  the  Court  has  abandoned  such  limitations  on  other  rights,  producing  serious  anomalies  across  similar  factual scenarios.
Above  all,  the  Court  has  been  especially  forgiving  of third-party standing criteria for one particular category of cases:   those   involving   the   purported   substantive   due process  right  of  a  woman  to  abort  her  unborn  child.
Here  too,  the  Court  does  not  question  whether  doctors and  clinics  should  be  allowed  to  sue  on  behalf  of  Texas  women  seeking  abortions  as  a  matter  of  course.    They should  not.    The  central  question  under  the  Court’s  abortion precedents is whether there is an undue burden on a woman’s  access  to  abortion.   ...   But  the  Court’s  permissive  approach  to  third-party  standing  encourages  litigation  that  deprives  us  of  the  information  needed  to resolve  that  issue.    Our  precedents  encourage  abortion  providers  to  sue—and  our  cases  then  relieve  them  of  any
obligation  to  prove  what  burdens  women  actually  face.    I  find  it  astonishing  that  the  majority  can  discover  an  “undue  burden”  on  women’s  access  to  abortion  for  “those [women] for whom [Texas’ law] is an actual rather than an irrelevant   restriction,”  ...  without  identifying  how  many  women  fit this  description;  their proximity  to  open  clinics;  or  their  preferences  as  to  where  they  obtain  abortions,  and  from whom.   “[C]ommonsense  inference[s]”  that  such  a  burden  exists, ...  are  no  substitute  for  actual  evidence.   There  should  be  no  surer  sign  that  our  jurisprudence  has  gone off the rails than this: After creating a constitutional right  to  abortion  because  it  “involve[s]  the  most  intimate and  personal  choices  a  person  may  make  in  a  lifetime,  choices  central  to  personal  dignity  and  autonomy,”  ...    the  Court  has  created special rules that cede its enforcement to others.
Strong stuff.  Abortion clinics should not be allowed to sue since they're not the ones purportedly suffering.

Next Thomas turns his attention to the "undue burden" standard used in a case like this.  He points out that the undue burden standard was introduced in an abortion decision, as a new level of judicial scrutiny.  Yet in this case the majority changes the standard to apply stricter scrutiny to the law in question, so that they can arrive at the desired outcome.  This is precisely backwards.
I remain fundamentally opposed to the Court’s abortion jurisprudence.  ...  Even taking Casey as the baseline, however, the majority radically rewrites the undue-burden test in three ways.   First,  today’s  decision  requires  courts  to  “consider the  burdens  a  law  imposes  on  abortion  access  together with the benefits those laws confer.”  ...   Second, today’s opinion tells the courts that, when the law’s justifications are medically uncertain, they need not defer to the legislature, and must instead assess medical justifications for  abortion  restrictions  by  scrutinizing  the  record  themselves.  ...  Finally,  even  if  a  law  imposes  no  “substantial  obstacle”  to  women’s  access  to  abortions,  the  law  now  must  have  more  than  a  “reasonabl[e]  relat[ion]  to  .  .  .  a  legitimate state interest.”  ...   These precepts are nowhere to be found in Casey or  its  successors,  and  transform  the  undue-burden  test  to  something much more akin to strict scrutiny.
Thomas goes on to expand on those three points, and point out how confusing this will be in the future.
Today’s  opinion  does  resemble Casey in  one  respect: After  disregarding  significant  aspects  of  the  Court’s  prior jurisprudence,   the   majority   applies   the   undue-burden  standard in a way that will surely mystify lower courts for years  to  come.
Meanwhile,  the  majority’s  undue-burden  balancing  approach  risks  ruling  out  even  minor, previously   valid   infringements   on   access   to   abortion.   Moreover,  by  second-guessing  medical  evidence  and  making its own assessments of “quality of care” issues ...  the  majority  reappoints  this  Court  as  “the  country’s  ex  officio medical  board  with  powers  to disapprove medical and operative practices and standards throughout  the  United  States.”     ...   And  the  majority seriously  burdens  States,  which  must  guess  at  how  much more  compelling  their  interests  must  be  to  pass  muster  and  what  “commonsense  inferences”  of  an  undue  burden  this Court will identify next.
Finally Thomas explains why all of this is so damaging to the judicial system.  He throws in a little history lesson first.  He reminds us that there are various levels of scrutiny applied in certain cases .... but they simply don't matter because the court can apply whatever standard it likes, as it chose to do in this case.
The majority’s furtive reconfiguration of the standard of scrutiny applicable to abortion restrictions also points to a deeper  problem.    The  undue-burden  standard  is  just  one variant of the Court’s tiers-of-scrutiny approach to constitutional  adjudication.    And the  label  the  Court  affixes  to  its  level  of  scrutiny  in  assessing  whether  the government can  restrict  a  given  right—be  it  “rational  basis,”  intermediate, strict, or something else—is increasingly a meaningless formalism.  As the Court applies whatever standard it likes  to  any  given  case,  nothing  but  empty  words  separates our constitutional decisions from judicial fiat.
Though  the  tiers  of  scrutiny  have  become  a  ubiquitous feature  of  constitutional  law,  they  are  of  recent  vintage.  Only in the 1960’s did the Court begin in earnest to speak of  “strict  scrutiny”  versus  reviewing  legislation  for  mere rationality, and to develop the contours of these tests.
The  illegitimacy  of  using  “made-up  tests”  to  “displace longstanding  national  traditions  as  the  primary  determinant  of  what  the  Constitution  means”  has  long  been  apparent.  ...   The  Constitution  does  not  prescribe   tiers   of   scrutiny.      The   three   basic   tiers—“rational basis,” intermediate, and strict scrutiny—“are no more  scientific  than  their  names  suggest,  and  a  further element  of  randomness  is  added  by  the  fact  that  it  is  largely  up  to  us  which  test  will  be  applied  in  each  case.” 
But  the  problem  now  goes  beyond  that.    If  our  recent cases illustrate anything, it is how easily the Court tinkers with  levels  of  scrutiny  to  achieve  its  desired  result.   This  Term,  it  is  easier  for  a  State  to  survive  strict  scrutiny despite  discriminating  on  the  basis  of  race  in  college  admissions  than  it  is  for  the  same  State  to  regulate  how abortion  doctors  and  clinics  operate  under  the  putatively less stringent undue-burden test.  All the State apparently needs to show to survive strict scrutiny is a list of aspirational educational goals (such as the “cultivat[ion of] a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry”) and a “reasoned, principled explanation” for why it is pursuing them—then this Court defers.  ....   Yet  the  same  State  gets  no  deference  under  the undue-burden  test,  despite  producing  evidence  that  abortion  safety,  one  rationale  for  Texas’  law,  is  medically debated.
These  labels  now  mean  little.    Whatever  the  Court  claims  to  be  doing,  in  practice  it  is  treating  its  “doctrine referring  to  tiers  of  scrutiny  as  guidelines  informing  our approach to the case at hand, not tests to be mechanically applied.”    ...    The  Court  should  abandon  the  pretense   that   anything   other   than   policy   preferences underlies  its  balancing  of  constitutional  rights  and  interests in any given case.
 Thomas then discusses how some rights became more preferred than others, and concludes with this:
Eighty  years  on,  the  Court  has  come  full  circle.    The Court  has  simultaneously  transformed  judicially  created rights  like  the  right  to  abortion  into  preferred  constitutional rights, while disfavoring many of the rights actually enumerated  in  the  Constitution.    But  our  Constitution  renounces  the  notion  that  some  constitutional  rights  are  more  equal  than  others.    A  plaintiff  either  possesses  the constitutional right he is asserting, or not—and if not, the judiciary  has  no  business  creating  ad  hoc  exceptions  so  that  others  can  assert  rights  that  seem  especially  important  to  vindicate.    A  law  either  infringes  a  constitutional  right,  or  not;  there  is  no  room  for  the  judiciary  to invent  tolerable  degrees  of  encroachment.    Unless  the Court  abides  by  one  set  of  rules  to  adjudicate  constitutional  rights,  it  will  continue  reducing  constitutional  law to  policy-driven  value  judgments  until  the  last  shreds  of its legitimacy disappear.
 And the scathing final paragraph, ending by quoting Scalia:
Today’s  decision  will  prompt  some  to  claim  victory,  just as  it  will  stiffen  opponents’  will  to  object.    But  the  entire  Nation  has  lost  something  essential.    The  majority’s  embrace  of  a  jurisprudence  of  rights-specific  exceptions  and balancing  tests  is  “a  regrettable  concession  of  defeat—an acknowledgement  that  we  have  passed  the  point  where ‘law,’  properly  speaking,  has  any  further  application.”   Scalia,  The  Rule  of  Law  as  a  Law  of  Rules,  56  U.  Chi. 
L. Rev. 1175, 1182 (1989).  I respectfully dissent.