On Thursday, the Supreme Court of the United States released its report on the May 2022 leak of a draught version of its landmark rule that overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and made abortion illegal throughout the country.
The leak, with Politico publishing the draught judgement on May 2, caused an internal crisis at the nation’s highest judicial body and sparked a political firestorm, with pro-abortion rights activists holding rallies outside the courthouse and across the United States.
It was an unusual breach of the nine-member court’s customary secrecy regarding the deliberations that take place behind closed doors following the hearing of oral arguments.
Polls have shown declining public confidence in the institution at the time the leak inquiry was underway, prompting heightened scrutiny of the court and legitimate fears for its future. A poll by Reuters/Ipsos conducted on January 13-15 found that only 43% of Americans have a positive opinion of the court, down from 50% in May of last year.
The conservative Justice Samuel Alito’s draught opinion differed from the final ruling by a razor’s edge on June 24. The verdict invalidated the constitutional protection of a woman’s right to an abortion and upheld a Mississippi legislation prohibiting such procedures beyond the 15th week of pregnancy.
Several states with Republican governors acted swiftly in the wake of the verdict to adopt abortion prohibitions.
U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts initiated an investigation into what he called “a singular and egregious breach” of the Supreme Court’s trust the day after the opinion was leaked to the press, calling it “an embarrassment to the court and the community of public servants who work here.”
At the time he announced the probe, Chief Justice John G. Roberts praised the court’s staff, saying they are “intensely loyal to the institution and dedicated to the rule of law,” and that they also have a longstanding tradition of protecting the privacy of the judicial process.
On May 5, Roberts described the leak as “just awful,” adding that whoever leaked the information was “simply idiotic” if they thought it would have any impact on the court’s proceedings.
After the leak, protesters demonstrated in front of the houses of many conservative justices. On June 8, police in Maryland apprehended a 26-year-old California man near the house of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He was loaded with a weapon and had stated his intention to kill Kavanaugh.
In September, liberal Justice Elena Kagan warned that the court’s legitimacy may be in jeopardy if Americans saw its members as seeking to impose personal preferences on society. Alito issued a strong statement in October discouraging attacks on the Supreme Court’s honesty.
On January 4, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor expressed her “despair” at the court’s decisions during the previous term. There is a conservative majority of 6-3 on the court.
In November, the New York Times reported on a former anti-abortion leader’s claim that he had been told in advance how the court would rule in a crucial 2014 case over insurance coverage for women’s birth control, putting Alito in the heart of a leak controversy once again.
Alito’s decision shielded privately held corporations from a Democratically supported government law that would have mandated coverage of contraceptives in employee health insurance plans regardless of the employer’s religious objections.
Evangelical Christian clergyman Rob Schenck told the Times that he learned the ruling’s contents shortly after two of his conservative allies had dinner with Alito and his wife, weeks before it was announced. As for the claim that Alito or his wife leaked the 2014 ruling, he called it “absolutely incorrect” in a statement.
In a letter to two Democratic legislators who had expressed concern, the court’s legal counsel stated, “There is nothing to suggest that Justice Alito’s actions breached ethical standards.”