by Eric J. Segall, Professor of Law, Georgia State University College of Law. Professor Segall is author of Supreme Myths: Why the Supreme Court is not a Court and its Justices are not Judges. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on Hollingsworth v. Perry and U.S. v. Windsor.
Progressives and liberals in favor of same sex marriage need to be careful what they wish for when the Court decides the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8 cases later this term. It would be easy to argue that the Court should overturn DOMA and invalidate Proposition 8 on the grounds that governmental classifications based on sexual orientation require heightened scrutiny, and neither California nor the federal government can satisfy that standard. The problem with the Court imposing a national rule, however, may be a serious backlash against the decision resulting in long term pain for everyone on the left. The lessons of Roe v. Wade might be instructive.
In the years preceding Roe, there was a popular momentum flowing through the states to make the right to choose a bit easier but legislative efforts to secure the right were blocked by the efforts of a strong and well-funded Catholic minority. There is a similar momentum now (albeit only recently) on the issue of same-sex marriage. The Court’s decision in Roe, however, not only slowed the momentum but created a significant backlash though not in the traditional way most people think. In ground breaking work, Professors Reva Siegel and Linda Greenhouse have suggested that, when it comes to the right to choose, women truly are better off today than they would have been without Roe, and that the case for backlash after Roe is overstated. They may be right when it comes to the right to choose, but they did not purport to ask another related but equally important question. Although the backlash on abortion specifically may be overstated, the use of the Court’s decision in Roe by right wing groups on issues other than abortion has been a major problem for the left. The rise of the New Right in the 1970’s led by Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schaffly, the emergence of brash, young, and conservative anti-choice republicans and judges in the 1980’s, and the difficulty of confirming liberal judges in the Senate, can in significant part be traced to the criticism of the Court’s decision in Roe. As Cass Sunstein has argued, the rise of the Moral Majority was certainly assisted by opposition to Roe. Meanwhile, as far as the long-term effectiveness of Roe is concerned, not only does the case currently hang by the thread of Justice Kennedy’s robes, but in many states between the two coasts poor women still have an enormously difficult time securing safe, affordable abortions. This is not to say that the Court erred in Roe, but it is a fair question whether the backlash to the decision across a broad range of important issues was worth the somewhat limited abortion rights gained by the decision.