Right-wing media use Supreme Court's latest abortion decision as outrage fuel for 2020 elections

Image of pro-choice signs before an image of the state of Louisiana and the Supreme Court

Citation Audrey Bowler / Media Matters

After Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts ruled to strike down a Louisiana anti-abortion law, right-wing media responded by attacking Roberts, painting him as liberal, and using their outrage against the decision to ensure the issue will be front and center for the 2020 election.

In June Medical Services v. Russo, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the Louisiana admitting privileges law that created medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion providers and clinics. Though the liberal justices wrote an opinion that exposed several right-wing media lies about abortion that are embedded in such admitting privileges laws, Chief Justice John Roberts only concurred in the opinion. As ABC News explained, Roberts’ vote was simply made “on the basic concept of court precedent,” as the Court had struck down a similar law in 2016.

Right-wing media treated Roberts’ vote as a cataclysmic shift in the Supreme Court and its ideological make-up. But as Vox's Ian Millhiser explained, the “best reading of the Court’s decision” was that “Roberts just gave the constitutional right to an abortion a potentially very brief reprieve” and only “delivered the narrowest, most temporary victory for abortion rights.” Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick wrote that Roberts cannot be described as “a ‘liberal,’ nor even a moderate centrist” because his decision “turned a substantive constitutional right into a paper-thin debate about regulatory justifications.” Furthermore, as Scott Lemieux explained for NBC News, Roberts’ opinion “clearly signals that he believes abortion regulations should be evaluated by a standard that is very deferential to state anti-abortion forces. It also signals that he is open to finding other state approaches to restricting abortion access constitutional.”

Right-wing media’s reaction then seems to reflect their determination to use Roberts vote and June Medical Services in attacks on Democrats ahead of the 2020 elections. The Washington Post reported that the Senate Republicans and the White House have even been “quietly preparing for a possible opening” on the Court, with Justice Clarence Thomas “privately seen by Trump’s aides as the most likely to retire this year,” even though “Thomas has not given any indication” that he would. Politico’s Alice Miranda Ollstein and Meridith McGraw wrote that while conservative groups see the decision as “a major loss for them and the administration,” they’ve also “contended that it would give them a potent rallying cry to turn out the vote for Trump.” Nowhere was the narrative more clear than in Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser’s Fox News piece, in which she wrote, “Today’s ruling should unify the pro-life movement and renew our resolve and intensity heading into this most crucial of elections. Pro-life voters must engage and flex our political muscle like never before to ensure that a future court will not make a similar grave mistake.” Dannenfelser similarly tweeted:

Fox News followed the lead of conservative and anti-abortion groups and amplified this narrative. Fox’s senior political analyst Brit Hume said on Fox News @ Night that Roberts is worried -- and voted the way he did -- because “liberals are complaining about the court and talking about expanding it and otherwise trying to -- trying to radically change it.” On Fox & Friends, Judicial Crisis Network’s Carrie Severino suggested that when Roberts “thinks the court is going to come under criticism from the mainstream media, from the elites, he tends to fold and not want to make those tough decisions.” American Conservative Union Chairman and Catholics for Trump Co-Chair Matt Schlapp called for the impeachment of Roberts on Fox News because Roberts was, he claimed, behaving “like a left-wing politician.” On The Ingraham Angle, host Laura Ingraham even compared Roberts to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, saying:

Roberts is kind of like a judicial Joe Biden. He's a man who quickly abandons the ideas on which he based his career to adopt positions designed to reach a political result. In other words, he's a hack. The lesson here for Trump is that it's extremely important for future judicial picks, the language of the Constitution -- not modern convention -- should dictate the outcome in cases and controversies before the court. There is no room for error in the next judicial selection.

Outside of Fox News, right-wing media figures and abortion opponents laid out the reason for their outrage over Roberts’ vote. National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy wrote:

The Court’s June Medical Services ruling is not about the law. It is about politics, as these late-June decisions often are. Roberts was fine with dissenting in an abortion case four years ago when there was no chance that his side would prevail. But the Left and the media-Democrat complex would go into meltdown if the Court were to approve significant restrictions on abortion democratically enacted by elected officials. Regardless of what the correct constitutional analysis may be, Roberts is not going to allow himself or the institution under his leadership to be subjected to such condemnation. Conservative condemnation he’ll take in stride, but not the rebuke of the highbrow.

Washington Examiner said Roberts’ decision “put another shiv in the ribs of judicial conservatives … while doing the bidding of social liberals.” Turning Point USA’s Benny Johnson tweeted:

Conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza tweeted:

Conservative and right-wing media outrage over this decision, and their emphasis on Roberts’ vote in particular, signals a return to the outrage news cycle over abortion we saw before coronavirus cases started spiking in the United States. Before then, right-wing media created maelstroms of false indignation over Democratic presidential candidates’ comments on abortion. Now, it seems right-wing media are turning their 2020 anti-abortion playbook on the Court, in the hopes it will lead them again to a President Donald Trump White House.