The Volokh Conspiracy

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Supreme Court

Which Genie Will the Supreme Court Let Out of the Bottle?

However the Supreme Court handles the S.B. 8 litigation, it may unleash mischief in other policy areas.


The S.B. 8 cases present the Supreme Court justices with an interesting dilemma, apart from the questions of abortion and precedent. However the Court resolves Whole Women's Health v. Jackson and United States v. Texas, it risks setting a precedent that has implications for issues beyond abortion. In effect, the justices have to decide which genie they prefer to let out of the bottle.

Concluding that neither private parties nor the federal government may file pre-enforcement challenges to a law structured like S.B. 8 invites state legislatures to replicate its various features in laws targeting other constitutionally protected rights. This is the concern raised in the brief filed by the Firearms Policy Coalition I highlighted earlier. Gun rights are the most likely target of such laws, but we could imagine others (including spending on political speech). This is one of the genies.

Concluding that the federal government may file suit in equity to challenge and enjoin and law like S.B. 8, without express statutory authorization, on the other hand, could unleash a different genie. Allowing the federal government's suit would open the door to further such litigation in defense of constitutional rights that the current Administration prefers. What might this look like? We got a preview during the Trump Administration when Attorney General Bill Barr suggested DOJ would consider actions to challenge state COVID-19 restrictions that infringed upon religious liberty or other interests. Barr's statement turned out to be bluster. But if the Supreme Court green lights DOJ's brief here, the next administration could use that precedent to challenge state laws. This is another genie.

Concluding that private parties may sue to enjoin enforcement of S.B. 8, such as by suing all judges or courts as a class, could also unleash a genie, as it would have the potential of greatly expanding pre-enforcement challenges on constitutional grounds. It could even have the effect of establishing a de facto constitutional right to pre-enforcement review, despite the contrary holding of Thunder Basin Coal v. Reich.

The point of this post is not that any one of these resolution is better or worse than the others. Rather, it is simply to observe that the Court is in a challenging position. Given how S.B. 8 was carefully crafted to frustrate pre-enforcement judicial review, authorizing such review risks unleashing one genie. Yet refusing to authorize such review will effectively unleash another.