A Supremely Problematic Leak

America was rocked today by the news of the leaked Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case addressing the continuing vitality of Roe v. Wade. The leaked document was a draft of an opinion written by Justice Alito that would–if ultimately issued–reverse Roe as wrongly decided, and leave abortion rights to be decided by state legislatures.

The views on both sides of the abortion debate are so heated it’s impossible to fully set them aside to focus on the fact of the leak itself. But the leak deserves attention in its own right, regardless of which side of the Roe debate you are on. Although there have been leaks at the Supreme Court, those instances are rarer than hen’s teeth. The Court is used to conducting its deliberations and opinion-writing in complete secrecy, with no indication of its decisions outside of the tiny universe of Justices and their clerks until the Court’s opinion on a matter is publicly announced to the public. There is good reason for that rule of strict confidentiality: the Supreme Court routinely handles cases of enormous importance, and any kinds of leaks could have far-reaching political, economic, and social consequences–just as the leak of the Dobbs opinion did.

The idea that someone leaked a draft Supreme Court opinion under these circumstances is horrifying to those of us in the law profession. A tweet from SCOTUSblog, a non-partisan website that carefully covers every case before the Supreme Court, aptly captured the reaction of many: “It’s impossible to overstate the earthquake this will cause inside the Court, in terms of the destruction of trust among the Justices and staff. This leak is the gravest, most unforgivable sin.” Chief Justice Roberts echoed that sentiment in the statement he issued today, which noted: “Court employees have an exemplary and important tradition of respecting the confidentiality of the judicial process and upholding the trust of the Court. This was a singular and egregious breach of that trust that is an affront to the Court and the community of public servants who work here.”

The Chief Justice has ordered the Marshal of the Supreme Court investigate the source of the leak, which is absolutely the right thing to do. We don’t know yet who leaked the opinion, but it’s clear that their intent was to manipulate the decision of the Dobbs case, the votes of Justices, the terms of the Court opinions, and the political and public reaction to a potential reversal of Roe. The Chief Justice vows that the work of the Court “will not be affected in any way” by the leak, and states: “To the extent this betrayal of the confidences of the Court was intended to undermine the integrity of our operations, it will not succeed,” But what’s troubling here is that someone–a clerk, an employee, or even a Justice on the Court–attempted to exert extrajudicial influence on the Court in the first place. That prospect is extremely unsettling, because if someone thought it was appropriate to leak the draft of the Dobbs opinion, what’s to prevent leaks in the future of opinions in cases involving redistricting, or presidential powers, or the death penalty, or any of the other hot-button issues that the Court regularly addresses?

I would make one final point: although the Court typically keeps virtually everything about its operations confidential, I think it is important for the Court to disclose any findings the Marshal makes about who did the leaking, and why. The role of the Supreme Court is essential to our constitutional system, and leaks erode the trust that is one of the Court’s most powerful attributes. The public deserves to know who–as the Chief put it–tried to “undermine the integrity” of the Court’s operations.

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