Everyone knows that constitutional law is very important, but most people don’t understand why. I think the recent Texas case on abortion teaches us why it is so important– and so controversial. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/28/us/supreme-court-texas-abortion.html
Texas passed a law setting out new requirements for abortion clinics. Now clinics would have to employ a doctor with admitting privileges at a local hospital and buy additional expensive medical equipment. Texas claimed it was trying to make abortions safer, but abortion providers responded that the new requirements would in fact force most clinics to close. The number of clinics throughout Texas would drop from over 40 to 8 or 9.
A clinic sued in federal court, claiming that the requirements violated their patients’ “liberty” to choose an abortion under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court decided the case by applying a rule distilled from the constitutional text and prior court decisions—Did the new Texas law place an “undue burden” on the patients’ right to choose an abortion?
In answering this question, the Court looked at the goals Texas claimed the law would achieve and how well it achieved them as well as the obstacles it placed in the way of women seeking an abortion and how serious these obstacles were. Balancing these considerations a five member majority decided that the law was a “substantial obstacle” to the women’s right to obtain an abortion which in turn resulted in an “undue burden” on the protected liberty. The Court held the Texas law was unconstitutional.
The decision is controversial because the key terms in the Court’s opinion (“undue burden” and “serious obstacle”) themselves do not appear in the constitution. These vague phrases are the creations of the justices who also decide what they mean in a particular case. The majority could have just as easily determined that only laws creating an “overwhelming burden” on the woman’s choice violate the constitution. If they had, Texas would have prevailed.
No one can deny that, for all practical purposes, the justices decide what the constitution means. We are told this is “undemocratic” and in a sense it is. But the Constitution was passed in part to protect certain rights, like individual liberty, from democratic abuse. So, since the constitution cannot interpret itself, the Founding Fathers came up with a neat compromise. Supreme Court justices do not stand for election like presidents and senators, but they are appointed by presidents and confirmed by senators who are elected.
That is also why the election in November is so important. Different president, different justices. Different justices, different constitutional law. (429 words)