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Breyer Asks: Which Supreme Court Cases Will Fall Next?

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 21: Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer participates in a panel on "Lessons from the Past for the Future of Human Rights: A Conversation" at the Gewirz Student Center on the campus of the Georgetown University Law Center April 21, 2014 in Washington, DC. Organized by the law center, the New York Review of Books and the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law the forum focused on the future of human rights. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 15, 2019 | Last updated on May 16, 2019

When Justice Stephen Breyer celebrated his twentieth year on the U.S. Supreme Court, his former clerks applauded his eternal optimism. They had gathered to mark the anniversary for the "raging pragmatist," as USA Today called him. He was a problem-solver, perhaps more willing to compromise than argue with his colleagues. His dissents, by number, were in the middle of the pack.

Five years later, things have changed at the Supreme Court. Breyer, once the optimist, is not so sure about the future of the law anymore.

Overruled Precedent

It came out in a recent decision, Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt. The 5-4 decision held that states can't be sued by private parties in the courts of another state. It was significant because the Supreme Court overruled its own precedent in Nevada v. Hall.

But Breyer's dissent got more attention than the majority opinion. "When a decision is not obviously wrong," he wrote, "a court is obviously wrong to overrule it." Overturning well reasoned decisions undermines the stability of the law and "can only cause one to wonder which cases the court will overrule next," he added. Joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, Breyer struck a nerve in a divided nation. Court-watchers said the liberal justices are warning us that Roe v. Wade is in real danger. Mark Joseph Stern, who covers the courts and the law for Slate, made his case in the court of public opinion. It wasn't just Breyer's comments about overturning precedent.

"And if there were any doubt which cases Breyer was alluding to in this dark denouement, he cited the portion of Planned Parenthood v. Casey that explained why Roe should be upheld," Stern wrote. "The justice has hoisted a red flag, alerting the country that the court's conservative majority is preparing an assault on the right to abortion access."

What's Next?

That's not exactly what Breyer said, but he did leave some breadcrumbs. "To overrule a sound decision like Hall is to encourage litigants to seek to overrule other cases; it is to make it more difficult for lawyers to refrain from challenging settled law; and it is to cause the public to become increasingly uncertain about which cases the court will overrule and which cases are here to stay," Breyer wrote. He did not say the court will overrule Roe v. Wade. But the question is still out there, and Breyer left it for anybody to an answer. Which cases will the court overrule next?

Five years ago, Breyer probably would not have been so pessimistic. He was the "raging pragmatist" in those days. For now and the future, maybe not so much.

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