Judicial Modesty and Abortion

42 Pages Posted: 14 May 2008

See all articles by Teresa Stanton Collett

Teresa Stanton Collett

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota)


During his confirmation hearings before the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate, then Judge John Roberts testified that he wanted to be a "modest" judge. By this, he appears to have meant a judge who strives to interpret the law as the lawmakers intended, and provides judicial answers only to the questions necessary to resolve the case before the court. The purpose of this article is to consider the implications of this conception of "judicial modesty" for the constitutional jurisprudence of abortion.

The first section of this article will consider whether the Constitution, by its terms, historical understanding, or previous judicial interpretation, required the Court to constitutionalize questions related to abortion. My conclusions compel me to join the legions of legal scholars who have sharply criticized the reasoning employed by the Court in Roe v. Wade. Section two of the article attempts to determine whether the Court expanded or limited the impact of Roe's flawed reasoning in its subsequent abortion cases until the time of Chief Justice Robert's confirmation. The evidence largely supports the conclusion that the Court expanded its flawed reasoning, reaching new heights of judicial hubris in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey and new lows in its indifference to the evidentiary record in Stenberg v. Carhart. The third section of this article then carefully examines Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and Gonzales v. Carhart. These are the only two decisions on abortion that have issued since Chief Justice Roberts assumed leadership of the Supreme Court. These cases appear to foreshadow greater judicial restraint when reviewing abortion-related legislation, and thus greater freedom for the people and their elected representatives to decide the proper limits of the state's interest in protecting women and the unborn life they carry within them. In the final section, I briefly speculate about the impact of a judicially modest approach in shaping future abortion jurisprudence. I predict fewer successful facial challenges to abortion regulations; greater emphasis on the requirements of constitutional and prudential standing; skepticism regarding claims of third-party representation; and careful review of the evidentiary record offered to support assertions that contested abortion regulations unduly burden women's liberty when seeking abortions. Contrary to claims made in abortion activitists' hysterical denunciations of Carhart II, the Court's decision upholding the federal partial-birth abortion ban, I conclude that a judicially modest approach is unlikely to result in the overruling of Roe v. Wade within the foreseeable future.

Keywords: Abortion, reproductive rights, constitutional law, judicial modesty, judicial decisionmaking, constitutional interpretation, Roe v. Wade, Supreme Court

Suggested Citation

Collett, Teresa Stanton, Judicial Modesty and Abortion. South Carolina Law Review, 2008, U of St. Thomas Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-18, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1131773

Teresa Stanton Collett (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2015
United States

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