Case in point: Last week, Shepherd wrote a decision that, according to Planned Parenthood, ignores established abortion rights entirely. He strained to distinguish between two Texas abortion restrictions the Supreme Court killed in 2016 and the pair of Missouri laws he was upholding, though the statutes are nearly identical. Advocates say the decision may shutter one of just two clinics in the state of 6 million.
Shepherd’s decision was “incorrect,” one expert told me. “Unpersuasive,” several others said. But its tension with abortion precedent may be by design: Now, after all, there will be a different Supreme Court grading Shepherd’s papers, and it’s likely to be friendlier to his views. In Kavanaugh’s one major abortion decision, a dissent in a Texas case from this past term, he argues against allowing an undocumented teenager to immediately undergo an abortion and repeats the phrase abortion on demand three times. Advocates consider that phrase a dog whistle and the opinion a rejection of precedent. Thus, for the first time in decades, the Supreme Court is poised to narrow abortion rights — and the influential appeals judges one step below the high court smell an opening.
The Missouri case isn’t over yet, but it has already broadcast an important strategy for killing Roe v. Wade without acknowledging its death: Narrow existing Supreme Court precedent until it’s all but meaningless. That is, judges don’t have to say they’re revoking abortion rights if they can just rule them widely inapplicable.
Shepherd is trying to “distinguish something that’s indistinguishable,” because he sees a personnel change on the high court, said Heather Shumaker, the senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “That threat is not hypothetical. We see a real road map.”
There have been Roe opponents, of course, ever since there was Roe. And there have long been federal judges who count themselves among that group. But this year, with Kennedy’s retirement, those lifetime-appointed judges have perhaps their best chance yet at reversing or undercutting the landmark abortion precedent. Many are taking that chance, even if it puts them out on a legal limb. A number of experts said abortion opponents—even theoretically impartial federal judges—feel “emboldened” by the shifting membership of the Supreme Court.
“There was really no point doing anything like that when Anthony Kennedy was on the bench,” said Mary Ziegler, a Florida State University law professor who has authored two books on abortion rights. “Now that he’s gone, the conversation you see unfolding in many of these decisions is very different. Judges are giving the Supreme Court the signal that they want to see Roe overturned.”
Those threats, advocates say, are surfacing all over the country. The Atlanta-based Eleventh Circuit was perhaps the least subtle.