By the time the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, a draft of the ruling had been leaked to the press and the outcome was anticipated. The story behind the decision seemed obvious: The constitutional right to abortion effectively had died with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose replacement, Amy Coney Barrett, was a favorite of the anti-abortion movement.
But that version is far from complete.
The New York Times pieced together the hidden narrative behind this titanic shift in the law, drawing on internal documents, contemporaneous notes and interviews with court insiders who had real-time knowledge of the events.
The article provides a rare inside look at the unraveling of a constitutional right, with excerpts from the justices’ internal messages to one another. They include a 2016 memo about how the court should proceed after Senate Republicans vowed to block any nominee by President Barack Obama, and 2021 communications about a “shadow docket” case that all but abolished abortion rights in Texas and caused a scramble inside the court.
Here are five takeaways.
Barrett opposed taking up the case.
Justice Barrett was selected by President Donald J. Trump to clinch a conservative supermajority on the court. Initially, in the justices’ private discussions, she was in favor of taking up the case: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a fight over a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas wanted to move ahead quickly and hear the case that spring.
Justice Barrett said the timing was wrong — she had not been on the court for even three months — and the others agreed to move the case to the next term.
But later, she reversed herself and voted against hearing the case. A minority of the court, four of its male members, including Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, greenlighted it anyway.
The court created distance from R.B.G.’s death.
At Justice Kavanaugh’s suggestion, the court delayed announcing its decision to hear the case for months. In addition to putting the case off to the next term, the delay would buy time, allowing the justices to watch other abortion cases play out in lower courts, he told his colleagues.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. expressed concern that the court could look as if it had simply been waiting for a new justice to arrive before taking on a challenge to Roe. The Kavanaugh plan, which created the appearance of distance from Justice Ginsburg’s death, gave the public the impression that the justices were still debating, though the case had cleared the bar to proceed.
Roberts and Breyer tried to save part of Roe.
The chief and Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a conservative and a liberal, worked in tandem to urge their newest colleagues — Justices Barrett and Kavanaugh — to withdraw support for hearing the case.
Justice Breyer, then 82, appealed to their relative youth: They had decades on the bench ahead of them, and to maintain public trust in the court, they should take the long view. “What’s the rush?” he would ask.
Their pursuit of compromise continued after the court heard oral arguments in December 2021. By then, Mississippi was not only asking for its 15-week ban but contending that Roe v. Wade should be overturned.
Most of the conservative bloc was receptive. But the chief wanted to allow only the 15-week ban and nothing more. Because of the court’s arcane rules, if he peeled off just one vote his middle position could prevail.
He and Justice Breyer made appeals to Justice Kavanaugh. If they could win him over, Justice Breyer even contemplated joining them in support of a 15-week ban — allowing Roe’s protections to be eroded so that they wouldn’t be erased.
The leak rendered those efforts hopeless.
When Politico published a leaked draft of Justice Alito’s majority opinion in May 2022, the chief justice was laboring over a concurring opinion that he had hoped would persuade colleagues to the middle ground.
In a statement at the time, Chief Justice Roberts said that “the work of the court will not be affected in any way.” But behind the scenes, the leak hampered the quest for compromise. The chief even hesitated to circulate his opinion to the internal email list, which had become a roster of suspects. Instead, he waited until new, paper-only protocols were in place.
A Ginsburg tradition came under threat.
The Dobbs decision was released on June 24, 2022, officially overturning the constitutional right to abortion. The three liberal justices, writing with one voice in a dissenting opinion, argued that the outcome “undermines the court’s legitimacy.”
Justice Breyer had requested that a summary of their dissent be read aloud from the bench, evoking the memory of Justice Ginsburg, who had used oral dissents as a form of protest. The chief said no: The Covid-era practice of releasing only written decisions still stood.
Months later, Justice Gorsuch pushed to eliminate in-person opinion announcements altogether, including oral dissents. Justices Alito, Barrett and Thomas told colleagues they agreed.
The outnumbered liberals pushed back — “I think this would be a particularly unfortunate time to eliminate the practice of reading dissents,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote to her colleagues — and Justice Kavanaugh sided with them. Ultimately the tradition survived.