Where Did People Get the Idea That Justice Anthony Kennedy Will Provide a Swing Vote for Abortion Rights?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Nov. 22 2013 11:34 AM

When the Swing Justice Doesn’t Swing

Rumors of Anthony Kennedy as a moderate on abortion are wildly overblown.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy attends President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 12, 2013.
The so-called swing justice, Anthony Kennedy, has voted to strike down only one of the 21 abortion restrictions that have come before the Supreme Court since he joined it.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Tuesday the Supreme Court voted 5–4 to affirm a lower-court decision that allowed Texas’ sweeping new abortion restrictions to take effect. The court’s decision is not the final word on the Texas law, just a prediction about the future prospects of the challenge, but it hints at the fact that the court might ultimately uphold the law. The decision also raises new questions about whether the court is more conservative on abortion than we assume.

Conventional wisdom holds that the court is evenly split on abortion (and virtually every other social issue) and that Justice Anthony Kennedy is the “swing justice.” We can reasonably predict that Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito will vote to uphold any restriction on abortion and would probably all vote to overturn Roe v. Wade as well. On the other hand, we’re confident Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan will vote to overturn almost all restrictions and would certainly vote to preserve Roe.

So that leaves Kennedy in the powerful middle. He alone, the story goes, determines the fate of reproductive rights in this country. Unlike the others, his mind isn’t made up on the issue, and all arguments have to be directed to him, just as they were to past swing justices Lewis Powell and Sandra Day O’Connor.

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The argument that Kennedy is firmly in the center on abortion and can swing the issue one way or the other rests on two different pillars. First, Kennedy surprised the world in 1992 when he switched his vote and joined four other justices in upholding Roe. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, he justified affirming Roe with flowery language about the importance of abortion to women’s dignity, autonomy, and self-definition.

Second—again in CaseyKennedy was part of the majority that struck down Pennsylvania’s requirement that married women notify their husbands before they obtain an abortion. The opinion cited domestic violence statistics to justify the conclusion. It reasoned that many women might fear talking about a termination with their husband, so for those women the requirement is unduly burdensome.

Despite these two nods in the direction of abortion rights, the conventional wisdom about Kennedy is wrong. Instead of being a swing vote on abortion, Kennedy is actually just short of being as absolutist as universally known anti-abortion Justices Scalia and Thomas. Looking closely at what Kennedy has actually done during his time on the court with respect to abortion proves this.

From joining the court in 1988 to this week’s decision in the Texas case, Kennedy has been involved in 12 cases addressing abortion restrictions. In those 12 cases, he has voted on whether 21 different abortion restrictions could take effect. We already know that he voted to strike down Pennsylvania’s husband notification requirement. Besides that, how many of the other 20 restrictions has Kennedy voted to block from taking effect? Exactly zero.

The fact that Kennedy is not nearly as moderate as we like to imagine on abortion becomes even more apparent when you branch out from abortion restrictions to cases peripherally addressing abortion. Most of these cases have dealt with restrictions on protesting near abortion clinics, but they have also addressed other issues, such as importing the abortion pill (before it was approved in the United States) and counseling restrictions for doctors receiving federal funds.