The Inevitable Activism of the Supreme Court


Janice Lee, Contributing Writer

Social progress, as we have been reminded in the wake of debates concerning gun control and data privacy, is tremendously difficult to gauge. Operating within a two-party political system that diverges on the definition and actualization of social progress lends itself to a minimum of two distinct narratives that exist for each social issue. As U.S. citizens we constantly face this dichotomy. We rely on the judicial branch, namely the Supreme Court, to determine what is constitutional. However, we must not underestimate how closely social change is tied to the law.

Landmark Supreme Court decisions function not only to determine what is constitutional but also to transform our very social fabric. In a study regarding the Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing gay marriage, researchers Margaret Tankard and Elizabeth Paluck found experimental evidence that a Supreme Court decision can affect people’s perceptions and directional norms. Just preceding the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, participants of the experiment were informed that a favorable ruling was either more or less likely. Those who were told that a favorable ruling was more likely perceived higher social support and projected higher increases in support for gay marriage when compared to the others who were told that a favorable ruling was unlikely. This observed difference indicates that people use Supreme Court decisions to gauge and predict social trends in accordance with the outcome of the ruling. Tankard and Paluck note that these perceived directional norms are a key component of social change, as they can influence behavior even without affecting someone’s held beliefs.

Though the Supreme Court is an influential fixture in American politics, it is especially relevant with the recent activity in the anti-abortion movement. Currently in Ohio, nationwide abortion rights established by the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade are being challenged by an Ohio bill that would abolish abortion entirely, no matter the circumstances.

In response, The New York Times published an editorial revealing the larger motive underlying Ohio’s proposal of unconstitutional legislation. They posit that the anti-abortion movement is aiming to overturn Roe v. Wade through passing state bills banning abortion. In the upheaval of challenging the constitutionality of these bills, the anti-abortion movement anticipates the issue to eventually reach the Supreme Court, which is now composed of more conservative-leaning justices appointed by President Donald Trump likely to rule against Roe v. Wade.

Taking Tankard and Paluck’s conclusion that perceived social norms and their direction affect actual social progress, we must realize that a reversal of Roe v. Wade would affect the perspectives of Americans as a whole. Even liberal states with fewer restrictions on abortion like New York are subject to the pervasiveness of a Supreme Court decision, putting the future of abortion rights at jeopardy. Senators themselves are humans who are prone to psychological pressures and inclinations. If the anti-abortion movement succeeds in executing their plan, we could gradually regress and undo all of the activism that has been directed at providing women access to safe abortion services and removing the stigma from abortion.

As university students, we have the privilege to learn and apply new knowledge and perspectives to understand the larger world around us. NYU specifically aspires to engender an environment, so we cannot afford to miss this opportunity to grapple with momentous social issues like abortion. If possible, enact your informed beliefs by voting in the midterm elections this November. The direction of America’s social momentum will be reflected in the law itself. Keep aware of its trajectory.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Janice Lee at [email protected].