Judicial Choice and the Politics of Abortion: Institutions, Context, and the Autonomy of Courts

Article excerpt

The power of courts to thwart the will of the popularly elected branches of government and to stand in direct contradistinction to the dominant political alliance has fascinated scholars of American politics since the nation's inception. Although courts have been idealized as barriers to majority tyranny because of their seeming willingness to confront legislative majorities through the power of judicial review, serious questions have been raised about the actual nature of courts' countermajoritarian function and, in particular, the conditions under which courts are willing to challenge legislative majorities.

When are courts likely to take on legislatures in the game of separation of powers/checks and balances? Or, stated more broadly, to what extent are courts autonomous institutions whose functions are impervious to conditions in the external political environment? After all, the countermajoritarian function and the autonomy of courts are hampered if courts, or the individual judges casting votes in the cases, fear legislative sanctions and defer to legislative preferences to avoid them.

This Article seeks to explore fundamental questions about the nature of inter-institutional conflict by examining all cases decided since Roe v. Wade(1) by state supreme courts in which direct challenges to state statutes regulating abortion services were raised. As institutions with a diversity guaranteed by jurisdiction, state supreme courts are subject to virtually every force likely to affect judicial choice.(2) Consequently, they offer an ideal laboratory for testing relevant contextual hypotheses. Similarly, the abortion issue provides a manageable, yet highly charged, specimen with which we can conduct our analysis.(3)

In response to concerns about the basis of inter-institutional conflict with the courts, two different conceptualizations of courts as institutions have emerged in the scholarly literature based on studies of the United States Supreme Court.(4) First, scholars working within the framework of attitudinal theory have posited that the Supreme Court is a highly autonomous institution whose decisions essentially reflect the aggregation of preferences of its members.(5) Because various institutional arrangements (e.g., lifetime tenure) insulate the Court from sanctions, the Supreme Court lacks incentives to respond to forces in the external environment, including Congress, except on the rarest of occasions.(6) Given the highly insular nature of the Court, individual justices are free to cast votes in accordance with their preferences on issues of public policy.(7) Therefore, the Supreme Court only overturns statutes under conditions where the preferences of the Court majority and Congress merely conflict, without reference to exogenous factors.(8)

Alternatively, scholars working within the rational choice framework have offered another conceptualization of the relationship between the Supreme Court and Congress that poses a serious challenge to the widely accepted principle of judicial autonomy and purely attitudinal voting.(9) Positive theorists have argued that even when preferences conflict, the Supreme Court frequently will acquiesce to the legislative majority when the Court anticipates some possible reprisal or sanction for its actions.(10) One particularly important reprisal is subsequent statutory revision. Stated differently, positive theorists model the preferences of Congress as a significant constraint on judicial choice in the nation's highest court, and the power of Congress as a limit on the autonomy of the Supreme Court.(11)

While these two alternative perspectives on the status of the United States Supreme Court will continue to be debated as new evidence is brought to bear on the issue, some very recent research raises serious doubts about the utility of models derived from positive theory for explaining the Supreme Court's interaction with Congress.(12) In a highly thought-provoking paper, Jeffrey Segal presents a convincing case that assumptions about the insularity of courts are theoretically sound and empirically correct for the Supreme Court, even in matters of statutory interpretation. …