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The Supreme Court That Transforms Right-Wing Grievances Into Law

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Conservative justices are using dubious historical analysis and legal interpretation to reshape American society.
About the author: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic. The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, allowing state governments to force women to give birth, is the result of decades of right-wing political advocacy, organizing, and electoral victory. It is also just the beginning of the Court’s mission to reshape all of American society according to conservative demands, without fear of public opposition. Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson contains a classic Alito disclaimer—an explicit denial of the logical implications of his stated position. In this case, Alito declares that “nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion,” even as he argues that when it comes to rights “not mentioned in the Constitution,” only those “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” are protected. If you’re asking yourself who decides which rights can be so described, you’re on the right track. This will not end with the determination, as the dissenters write, that states may decide that “from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of.” The conservative movement’s control of the Supreme Court, its success in skewing the electoral process in their favor through voting restrictions and gerrymandering, and the Democrats’ likely collapse in the coming midterms have bolstered their confidence that they can drastically reshape American society on their terms without losing power. As the three Democratic-appointed justices note in their Dobbs dissent, more constitutional rights now are on the chopping block. “Either the majority does not really believe in its own reasoning. Or if it does, all rights that have no history stretching back to the mid-19th century are insecure,” the dissenters wrote. “Either the mass of the majority’s opinion is hypocrisy, or additional constitutional rights are under threat. It is one or the other.” It seems to be the latter: In his concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas writes that precedents establishing access to contraception, legalizing same-sex marriage, and striking down anti-sodomy laws should be “reconsidered.”
Setting aside the record of insincerity from Alito himself and the other conservative justices, the reason not to trust his disclaimer is that the Supreme Court has become an institution whose primary role is to force a right-wing vision of American society on the rest of the country. The conservative majority’s main vehicle for this imposition is a presentist historical analysis that takes whatever stances define right-wing cultural and political identity at a given moment and asserts them as essential aspects of American law since the Founding, and therefore obligatory. Conservatives have long attacked the left for supporting a “living constitutionalism,” which they say renders the law arbitrary and meaningless. But the current majority’s approach is itself a kind of undead constitutionalism—one in which the dictates of the Constitution retrospectively shift with whatever Fox News happens to be furious about. Legal outcomes preferred by today’s American right conveniently turn out to be what the Founding Fathers wanted all along. The 6–3 majority has removed any appetite for caution or restraint, and the justices’ lifetime appointments mean they will never have to face an angry electorate that could deprive them of their power. It has also rendered their approach to the law lazy, clumsy, and malicious, and made the right-wing justices’ undead constitutionalism all the more apparent.

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