A man holds a cross while demonstrators gather outside the Supreme Court in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
10 min

The explosive leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade not only focused the nation on the magnitude of the change facing abortion rights, it also signaled the rise of a rightward-moving bench that is testing the power of fellow conservative Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

As the country awaits a final decision, the intense deliberations inside a court closed to the public and shaken by revelations of its private negotiations appear to be not between the court’s right and left, but among the six conservative justices, including Roberts, in the court’s supermajority.

The mere existence of the draft indicated that five justices had voted at least tentatively to reject the incremental approach of Roberts to restricting abortion rights. Instead, they would reverse Roe after nearly 50 years of guaranteeing a right to abortion that could not be outlawed by the states.

The fact that Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. authored the draft is a sign Justice Clarence Thomas, the longest-serving member of the court and the only one to write that he would overturn Roe, asserted his seniority to choose who would get the job. In Alito’s more than 16 years on the Supreme Court, he has supported every government restriction on abortion that has come before him.

It is another signal that the 67-year-old Roberts, hailed by scholars just a few years ago as one of the most powerful chief justices in history, is not in control of the process as the court readies its most influential decision in decades.

There is also reason to believe Roberts has not given up. Many who know him well and have watched his maneuvering of the court through other issues are certain he is still preparing his own opinion in hopes he might draw at least one of the court’s newest conservatives to his side. Such an outcome might save the 1973 ruling on Roe and the subsequent affirming 1992 decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, while severely limiting their protections.

Over the past 30 years, conservative Supreme Court nominees testified about abortion rights during their Senate confirmation hearings. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

In a statement confirming that the draft opinion leaked to Politico was authentic, Roberts stressed two points: “it does not represent a decision by the Court or the final position of any member on the issues in the case.” The coming weeks will tell whether his assertions are telling or mere formalities.

Overturning Roe would mark the culmination of decades of work by the conservative legal movement. This is a tense, even ominous, moment at the court, where justices are circulating drafts of opinions and dissents. A final decision could come at any time before the court finishes its work at the end of June or early July.

There are indications of extraordinary security measures for the justices. An “unscalable” black fence has been erected around the court in anticipation of protests to come. Alito canceled an appearance last week at a conference for judges and lawyers in Nashville. Those who do travel do so only with heightened security details. Some on the left are encouraging protests at their homes.

Relations between the members of the court have appeared brittle at times throughout the term, fueled with disagreements large and small between its three liberals — retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer, as well as Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — and the conservatives — Roberts, Thomas, Alito and President Donald Trump’s three nominees to the court, Justices Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Roberts has sometimes sided with the liberals in some of those disputes, particularly when he thought the authority or reputation of the court was at stake. His incremental approach was evident when the court held oral arguments in December in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. It concerns the Mississippi law, which has never gone into effect, banning almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Roberts seemed to get no takers for a compromise that would erase the clear rule that Roe and Casey share, which is that states may not forbid abortions before viability, the point at which a fetus would survive outside the womb, usually 22 to 24 weeks.

Most observers of the court believe Roberts is still promoting a decision that would remove the viability line but otherwise keep Roe and Casey intact. Both liberals and conservatives are skeptical it can be done.

“He is a magnificent lawyer,” Miguel Estrada, who frequently argues before the Supreme Court, told a conference of judges and lawyers last week in Atlanta. “I will be interested to see what he comes up with.”

An annotated Supreme Court draft opinion on reversing Roe

The leaked draft opinion is dated in February and is almost surely obsolete now, as justices have had time to offer dissents and revisions. But as of last week, the majority of five justices to strike Roe remains intact, according to three conservatives close to the court who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

A person close to the most conservative members of the court said Roberts told his fellow jurists in a private conference in early December that he planned to uphold the state law and write an opinion that left Roe and Casey in place for now. But the other conservatives were more interested in an opinion that overturned the precedents, the person said. A spokeswoman for the court declined to comment, and messages extended to justices were unreturned.

“This is the most reasonable explanation for why Alito wrote the opinion,” said Estrada, who is a leading figure in conservative legal circles. Thomas “would be the senior conservative justice in the majority and Thomas would control who wrote the majority opinion.”

The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page made similar points in a recent column that warned Roberts was trying to coax Kavanaugh and Barrett to join him. The right flank of the court is sometimes divided that way, with Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch pushing for aggressive changes in the law, and Roberts, Kavanaugh and Barrett more content to move more incrementally.

Roberts is hardly a supporter of abortion rights. But he is a fierce defender of the court and its reputation, which he believes suffers when the public perceives its decisions as a reflection of the political backgrounds of its members.

In his 2016 campaign, Trump said he favored overturning Roe and “that will happen, automatically in my opinion” because of the justices he would appoint. If the court follows through, it would be a speedy resolution. The change would come less than two years after Trump’s third nominee, Barrett, was elevated to the Supreme Court.

There are several national issues before the court, such as gun rights, in which Roberts is likely to be in the conservative majority. But his institutional instincts sometimes seem to put him in the position of making choices at odds with his conservative leanings.

Besides a historic vote to save the Affordable Care Act, he joined liberals in 2020 to stop the Trump administration from dismantling the Obama-era program that protects undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, and to strike down a restrictive Louisiana abortion law.

The abortions that came between a mother and her daughter

Roberts said the Louisiana law, requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, was comparable to a Texas law the court had overturned in 2016 and that the legal principle of “stare decisis” meant the court should treat “like cases alike.” Roberts had dissented in the Texas case, but he said precedent took prominence, and the court had not been asked to upend the court’s past decisions protecting abortion rights.

But the court’s center of gravity has shifted since then, with Kavanaugh replacing Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, one of Casey’s authors, and Barrett taking the seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, probably the court’s most fierce advocate of abortion rights.

The diminished role of Roberts was evident earlier this term in another abortion case, when the court voted 5 to 4 that an unusual law from Texas could not be challenged in federal court before it went into effect.

Roberts voted with the liberals in September to try to stop the ban, which empowers private individuals to sue anyone who helps a women terminate her pregnancy after the six-week mark. He characterized the Texas statute’s enforcement design as “not only unusual, but unprecedented” and said it deserved more judicial scrutiny.

In December, the court reconsidered, but ultimately again left in place the law that has forced Texans to leave the state to seek abortions. Roberts, joined again by the three liberals, cast the law as an attack on the court’s authority.

“Texas has employed an array of stratagems designed to shield its unconstitutional law from judicial review,” Roberts wrote, adding that “the clear purpose and actual effect” of “the Texas law “has been to nullify” the court’s rulings.

Roberts quoted the seminal holding in Marbury v. Madison that it is “emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” He quoted precedent saying that if legislatures are allowed to undermine rights established by Supreme Court decisions, “the constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery.”

“The nature of the federal right infringed does not matter; it is the role of the Supreme Court in our constitutional system that is at stake,” Roberts wrote. All he needed for his side to prevail was for one of the five justices in the September decision to join him. But in three months from the original decision to the reconsideration, that did not happen. It is unclear how the extraordinary disclosure of the usually private inner workings in the Mississippi case might affect it and other cases.

Roberts called the leak “absolutely appalling” and ordered the marshal of the Supreme Court, the internal police service, to begin an investigation into the circumstances. The huge community of judges, clerks and lawyers with ties to the court has been ignited, with calls and texts to one another comparing theories and clues as to whether someone from the left or the right pierced protocol.

“This is a historic, unprecedented, and tragic breach of the Supreme Court’s confidential deliberative process,” said Michael Luttig, a retired appellate judge and leader in the conservative legal community. “And unfortunately, it comes at time when the Supreme Court’s very legitimacy is being questioned.”

Luttig said the court “can never recover” from the sharing of the draft, an act that solidifies the growing public suspicion that politics rather than objective adherence to law infuses the court’s work.

“One has to believe the leaker of this draft opinion disgracefully intended to feed and drive the developing narrative of the court’s illegitimacy,” he said. “Whatever his or her motive, it is a breathtaking act of dishonor and betrayal of our highest court and of our country.”

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

In June 2022 the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens now? The legality of abortion is left to individual states. The Post is tracking states where abortion is banned or under threat, as well as Democratic-dominated states that moved to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

Abortion pills: Abortion advocates are concerned a Texas judge’s upcoming abortion pill ruling could halt over half the legal abortions carried out nationwide. Here’s how the ruling could impact access to the abortion pill mifepristone.

Post-Roe America: With Roe overturned, women who had secret abortions before Roe v. Wade felt compelled to speak out. Other women, who were and seeking abortions while living in states with strict abortion bans shared also shared their experience with The Post through calls, text messages and other documentation that supported their accounts. Here are photos and stories from across America since the reversal of Roe v. Wade.