Abortion Politics and the Rise of Movement Jurists

Robert L. Tsai - Boston University School of Law
Mary Ziegler - UC Davis School of Law
Vol. 57
February 2024
Page 2149

This Article employs the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and litigation in its wake as the jumping off point to reconsider the connections between judges, the Constitution, and social movements. That movements influence constitutional law, and that judicial pronouncements in turn are reshaped by politics, is well-established. But, while these accounts of legal change depend upon judges to embrace movement ideas, less has been written about the conditions under which judicial entrenchment can be expected to take place. There may, in fact, be different types of judicial dispositions towards external political phenomena.

In this Article, we focus on one type of judge ascendant in the current constitutional moment: the movement jurist. Although movement judges are not new, they are more visible and influential today than in recent years. In fact, identifying this kind of figure — who is already shaped by movement beliefs or shares social experiences making such a person open to non-establishment constitutional perspectives — has emerged as a potent supplement to older methods of entrenching mobilized legal knowledge and political beliefs. By peering behind the Dobbs decision and offering fresh context, we present a new set of analytical terminology for understanding the touchpoints between law, institutions, and politics. Along the way, we offer a corrective to what are often uncritical calls for more movement jurists.

Judging involves its own institutional imperatives and purposes, many of which are at odds with social activism. There are reasons why we might want judges under certain circumstances to pay attention to movements, and we discuss what some of those institution-enhancing and constitution-interpreting reasons might be. But there are risks as well. Movement judges need not be committed to any particular vision of justice or democracy or even interpretive methodology — as Dobbs plainly shows, it is more accurate to identify movement judges by their constitutional politics and social networks rather than by party affiliation.

We describe the characteristics of movement judges so their legal output can be evaluated with this crucial context in mind. Adopting a historical and institutional perspective, we point to some benefits that can come from having the occasional movement figure join the judiciary. But we also offer some words of caution about corresponding tradeoffs when too many movement figures appear within a single organization like the Supreme Court.

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