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Brett Kavanaugh's assertion that Roe v. Wade is 'settled' will mean nothing once he's on the Supreme Court

Susan Collins' concerns may have been assuaged by the nominee's statement, but women shouldn't rest easy.
Image: Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Meets With Democratic Senators On Capitol HIll
Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh meets with Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) in her office on Capitol Hill on Aug. 21, 2018 in Washington, DC. The confirmation hearing for Judge Kavanaugh is set to begin September 4.Zach Gibson / Getty Images

Whether Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me., want to admit it or not, the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court will be the effective end of reproductive freedom for many American women.

But, having met with Kavanugh on Tuesday, the pro-choice Collins — whose no-vote is the only chance Democrats have of stopping Kavanaugh from getting a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court –— admitting the obvious doesn’t appear to be part of the plan. Collins asserted after the meeting that Kavanaugh agreed with Chief Justice John Roberts that Roe v. Wade was “settled precedent.”

On the surface, the statement appears to contradict the popular understanding of Kavanaugh’s credentials: Movement conservatives and pro-life groups have strongly supported him, and the overruling of Roe is their top priority. After Collins’ statements, though, Americans United for Life President Catherine Glenn Foster reiterated her support for Kavanaugh’s nomination. Is she being, from her perspective, excessively optimistic?

Not at all: The opponents of legal abortion who supported Trump and Kavanaugh know exactly what they’re doing and what they’re getting in Kavanaugh. Neither he nor Roberts supports the maintenance of Roe v. Wade, and Collins is grossly misleading her constituents.

First of all, Roberts’s claim, now echoed by Kavanaugh, that Roe was settled precedent is technically true, but not very meaningful. Roberts also correctly observed that the Court is not always bound by its own precedents, and the criteria he outlined for deciding when overruling a precedent is appropriate did not rule out the overruling of Roe.

And, at his confirmation hearings, Justice Samuel Alito said similar things to Roberts, asserting that Roewas a precedent entitled to “respect” but stopping well short of saying that it shouldn’t be overruled.

To say that Roe is an important precedent, or even a “settled” precedent, is merely stating a truism that does not in itself tell us anything about how a Supreme Court justice will rule on that precedent. What matters more than Roberts’s or Kavanuagh’s words are their actions, and they suggest that pro-life groups are right to be thrilled with the nomination of Kavanaugh if he agrees with them.

Roberts, in practice, does not oppose overruling long-settled precedents. In fact, to find Roberts voting to overrule a longstanding precedent, you would only have to go back to the last day in which the Supreme Court announced its 2018 rulings. The day, when Anthony Kennedy announced his resignation, paving the way for Kavanaugh, Roberts joined a bare majority of the Court to overrule a 40-year-old precedent allowing unions to collect dues from workers who are not members of the union but benefit from the actions taken on their behalf.

Was that an aberration? Not at all. In 2013, the Chief Justice was the author of a shoddily-written opinion overruling a nearly 50-year-old precedent, striking down the most important provision of the Voting Rights Act (which had been re-authorized by overwhelming congressional majorities less than a decade before). And there are plenty of other examples of Roberts joining opinions that explicitly or effectively overrule so-called “settled” precedents.

Roberts’s record is clear: If there’s a clash between “settled” precedent and an important Republican political priority, you can bet on him siding with the latter. And Brett Kavanaugh will seemingly follow a similar logic.

Roberts’s record on abortion also makes his hostility to Roe – and willingness to overrule precedents – plain. Very soon after they were confirmed, both he and Alito voted to uphold a federal ban on so-called “partial-birth” abortion, despite the Court having struck down a nearly identical ban less than a decade before.

Even more crucially, in the 2016 case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt,Roberts and Alito dissented from the majority opinion that struck down a Texas law which would have forced a majority of the state’s already relatively small number of abortion clinics to close — even though the state provided no evidence that they were in any way unsafe for women.

As the Texas case illustrates, the most important question is not whether the Supreme Court will immediately and explicitly announce that Roe v. Wade is overruled — though claiming it is "settled" is no kind of guarantee. States have the regulatory tools to eliminate access to abortion without making abortion actually illegal. Kavanaugh, like Court’s other Republican nominees, will likely never vote to strike down an onerous abortion regulation, which will leave women in many states with severely limited access to abortion care — if they have any access at all.

When the Court upholds legislation that prevents any abortion clinic from operating in a state, or if it allows states to require that women translate “War and Peace” from the original Russian in its entirety before they can obtain an abortion (or whatever other new innovation in abortion-stymieing regulation state legislators come up with), overruling Roe is beside the point — but that’s not to say Kavanaugh wouldn’t unsettle the precedent anyway.

Either outcome is why reproductive freedom’s staunchest opponents will do anything to get him confirmed, and why Sen. Collins ought to know better than trust some pabulum about “settled precedent.”

Scott Lemieux is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. He is the co-author of Judicial Review and Democratic Theory and contributes regularly to The Week, Reuters, and the New Republic.