Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, May 13, 2022

What's the ius in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization?

Sometimes the simplest questions are the easiest to answer. All federal judges take an oath to administer justice under the Constitution and laws of the United States. This is their promise, to render to each his or her lawful due. This thing lawfully due to each person in justice is his or her ius. The key question for a judge to ask in deciding any case should be: "What’s the ius?" Asking this question in every case can orient at the outset, channel throughout, and confirm at conclusion. 

“What’s the ius?” is also often a simpler and easier question to answer than “what’s all the potentially applicable law?” or “what are all the material facts?” All of the law and all of the facts may sometimes be necessary to know, but other times it is unnecessary to go into all of that. In the famous case of Marbury v. Madison, for example,  Marbury’s ius was his commission. The Court lacked jurisdiction to order Madison to render this ius to Marbury. It was therefore unnecessary for the Supreme Court to have gone into all that Chief Justice Marshall wrote in his opinion for the Court. 

We Catholics have been invited by our bishops to pray today in a special way for the Justices of the Supreme Court as they continue their deliberations in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, No. 19-1392

My prayers in particular have been drawn to Chief Justice John Roberts, who is a model judge for me and for many others. The Chief Justice of the United States takes the same judicial oath as every other federal judge. I pray that he fulfills this oath. What that requires in this precise case, I do not pretend to know in all its particulars. There are many ways of going wrong, and those are to be avoided. But there are also many ways of doing right, and I pray that he is drawn to those.

I hope that Chief Justice Roberts orients his deliberations with his colleagues around the question: What’s the ius? What is the thing that we are being asked to render as lawfully due?

The ius requested by Jackson Women’s Health Organization and other plaintiffs is an immunity. More precisely, these plaintiffs’ principal prayer for relief is an order allowing them to avoid prosecution in state court for anticipated violations of a state-law prohibition against aborting an unborn baby after fifteen weeks gestational age. They claim this immunity from state law as their due under federal law.

It seems very likely that Chief Justice Roberts has already decided to order denial of the requested relief. Through his questions at oral argument, the Chief Justice signaled that the viability line on which plaintiffs rely was an invention of the Court and not well-founded. The plaintiffs need the Court to hold that line in order to win. The Court will not hold that line and they will therefore lose. That is as it should be.

The harder issue that the Chief Justice seems to be wrestling with is what to say about drawing a new line. Some have noted the Chief Justice’s apparent attraction to articulating a constitutional requirement that individuals be permitted some shorter period of time before viability to seek an abortion in a regulated but otherwise open and legally protected market for abortion services.

The Chief Justice should resist this attraction. Apart from the lack of warrant in the Fourteenth Amendment for drawing such a line, there is no warrant in this case for doing so. The plaintiffs’ claimed injury comes from the inability to perform lawful abortions after fifteen weeks. That claim lacks merit. It would be gratuitous to volunteer a new line in this case. 

Justice Alito’s leaked draft does not volunteer a new line. It applies rational basis review and recognizes the legitimate interests of the state advanced by the law it has enacted. Chief Justice Roberts should do likewise. 

To draw a new temporal line in pregnancy before which federal law purportedly preempts state-law protections against intentional killing would be to continue the federal judiciary’s complicity in the denial of the equal protection of the laws to prenatal persons within the jurisdiction of each state. But the rights of these prenatal persons are not directly before the Court in this case, which pits the authority of the government against the interests of abortion providers. It is enough to decide that the law does not entitle the abortion providers to a federal judicial order shielding them from the consequences of violating the state law at issue.

On the question of line drawing regarding life-and-death protections for prenatal persons more generally, the Chief Justice’s opinion for the Court in Rucho v. Common Cause should be his guide. The federal judiciary may not order relief on any constitutional claim that the government has gone too far in protecting prenatal life unless that claim is grounded in judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it. These standards must rest on a “limited and precise rationale,” and must be “clear, manageable, and politically neutral.” These are the criteria identified by Chief Justice Roberts in his opinion for the Court in Rucho v. Common Cause. They are taken from Justice Kennedy’s concurrence in Vieth v. Jubelirer. These criteria cannot be satisfied when the question is how far along in pregnancy a prenatal person must have developed in order to be protected by the law. My prayer is that Chief Justice Roberts and his colleagues recognize that the federal courts cannot grant abortion providers’ prayers for relief from enforcement of prenatal-person-protecting laws like the one at issue in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization


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