If there is anything as strongly associated in the public mind with Chief Justice John Roberts as his black robe and judicial temperament, it is surely his claim to judicial modesty. And indeed, some commentators have suggested that there are signs of newfound judicial restraint in the Roberts Court. One example of this purported restraint is the Roberts Court’s expressed preference for narrower, as-applied decisionmaking in constitutional cases, as opposed to striking down statutes on their face. The Roberts Court has turned away facial challenges or otherwise expressed a preference for making decisions on an as-applied basis in a number of cases. Examples range across a wide spectrum of subject matter, including voting rights cases, an Americans with Disabilities Act case, First Amendment cases, and abortion cases.

In this contribution to a symposium on “Access to Courts in the Roberts Era,” I focus specifically on the Roberts Court’s decisions in Gonzales v. Carhart and its predecessor Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England in order to consider the meaning and impact of the Roberts Court’s preference for as-applied adjudication in one specific area - abortion jurisprudence. Moreover, I evaluate the likely impact of these rulings in light of Chief Justice Roberts’s expressed preference for judicially modest rulings.

I argue that Ayotte and Gonzales, which on their surface appear to indicate a preference for modest, narrow rulings, are anything but modest in their implications. These decisions call for federal judges to re-write legislation and to make judgments in areas in which they have little expertise. They thus assure continuing federal court involvement in micro-legislating the scope of abortion rights. In addition, the holdings in Gonzales and Ayotte, which ostensibly turn on the appropriateness of facial challenges, are really about re-shaping the underlying substantive constitutional law pertaining to abortion rights. As such, they represent an instance of the remedial tail wagging the substantive dog - a case of the proper remedy, as determined by the Supreme Court, shaping the underlying right. In this sense, these cases form a stark contrast with prior judicial practice, in which the availability of facial invalidation depended at least in part on the nature of the underlying substantive constitutional doctrine, rather than vice versa. I thus explain why the Roberts Court’s stated preference for as-applied challenges, at least as it has been presented in the abortion cases, does not serve the end of judicial modesty.


Abortion, Health Exception, Chief Justice John Roberts, Roberts Court, Judicial Restraint, Gonzales v. Carhart, Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Judicial Decision Making, Facial Challenges, As-applied Challenges

Publication Date


Document Type


Place of Original Publication

Case Western Reserve Law Review

Publication Information

59 Case Western Reserve Law Review 997 (2009)


COinS B. Jessie Hill Faculty Bio