Men stumble over the truth from time to time, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened. -- Winston Churchill

All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them. -- Galileo Galilei

I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's hell. -- Harry Truman

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Abortion is the Supreme Court's Gordian Knot

The conundrum of abortion decisions in the courts is an insoluble one. That is because the federal courts are an inappropriate place to fight this one out in the first place. The Constitution of the United States simply does not address the issue. It took an activist court to create the legal grounds for Roe vs. Wade, and that creation reflected the personal views of the Justices, not well founded constitutional principle. That is always trouble.

Both sides on abortion would like the Supreme Court to decide that all Americans must adhere to their respective views, imposing it's will as it has since Roe vs. Wade on us all. Neither outcome would reflect the views of most Americans.

A little over half of Americans support the availability of abortion in general. A little over half also oppose abortion when it is solely for the purpose of terminating an unwanted pregnancy. Both sides of the abortion zealots are unhappy with this. They want either completely unfettered abortion as a “constitutional right” or they want all abortions to be illegal.

The courts and congress need to get out of this thicket of thorns and turn the issue back to where it belongs – to state legislatures or ballot initiatives. That would make the lobbies on both sides unhappy, and the American people the winners. A novel proposition.

As a practical matter, it will take a long time, if ever, before common sense prevails. You may recall the endless questions in confirmation hearings regarding stari decisis. Why all this attention to a Latin term most people have never heard of? Because it boils down to the principle that previous court decisions should be respected and rarely overturned. It was a code word for “Will you leave Roe Vs. Wade alone?” It makes reversing even bad decisions of unduly activist courts difficult.

The larger the issue in a case, the less likely a conservative court is to throw it out. Even when the decision is horribly pernicious, the court often feels compelled to follow stari decisis. The classic example was the famous Dred Scott decision on slavery, that in the words of Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes, was a “self-inflicted wound” from which it took the court at least a generation to recover.

Dred Scott v. Sandford was never overturned by the Supreme Court, it was overturned by the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves. The lesson is that even the worst decisions die hard.

The late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in his book “The Supreme Court”, discussed “when the court is working within the bounds of the Constitution and when it is going beyond these bounds to impose on the country its own views in the guise of constitutional doctrine..” Roe Vs. Wade is just such an excess, but we will likely have to live with it for some time to come.

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