Wisconsin’s Sen. Tammy Baldwin: “Our Supreme Court has never taken away a constitutional right.”
PolitiFact’s ruling: False
here’s why: Many Democrats are asking Americans to consider the consequences of losing access to abortion after the leak of a draft opinion from the US Supreme Court that showed the court is aimed to overturn Roe vs. wade.
The 1973 landmark decision established a constitutional right to abortion, something Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the leaked draft was “egregiously wrong from the start.”
US Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, has been an advocate for protecting abortion access, including cosponsoring a bill last year that would have guaranteed equal access to abortion across the country.
After the draft opinion was leaked in early May, Baldwin spoke in a May 4, 2022 TMJ4 interview about what else she said she believes could be at risk if Roe is overturned, including access to other constitutional rights. She called the court’s probable decision to overturn a 50-year precedent “shocking.”
“I believe it is true that our Supreme Court has never taken away a constitutional right,” Baldwin said.
“Never” is a high bar to clear. Constitutional law scholars say there have been a few examples of the court rolling back such rights, albeit decades and even close to a century ago.
Let’s dig in.
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Legal scholars say such reversals are ‘uncommon, but not unprecedented’
PolitiFact Wisconsin reached out to several professors of constitutional law to gauge the accuracy of Baldwin’s claim.
Two described the same scenario that would make her statement off-base.
It begins with the 1905 court case Lochner v. New York, which found that a law forbidding bakers to work more than 60 hours a week, or 10 hours in a day, interfered with “right of contract.” The court linked that right to the 14th Amendment’s due process clause; essentially, that there was a constitutional right for employers and employees to set their own terms of employment.
That case set off what is known as the “Lochner era,” said Marquette University law professor Scott Idleman. During that time, the court struck down a number of laws attempting to set minimum wages, maximum hours and working conditions.
That changed in the 1930s with a number of New Deal-era cases where the court departed from its previous view of right of contract protected in the 14th Amendment, according to Bernadette Meyler, the Carl and Sheila Spaeth Professor of Law at Stanford Law School.
One of those was the 1937 case West Coast Hotel Company vs. Parrish, in which justices ruled that a Washington state minimum wage law for women did not violate the constitutional requirement of due process in regard to right of contract.
That case limited the scope of economic rights under the 14th Amendment, Meyler said, and Alito cited it in the leaked draft.
A second instance multiple scholars referenced was the 1990 case Employment Division v. Smith, which found that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause did not contain the right to religious exemptions to “generally applicable” laws. In this particular case, the court decided the state of Oregon could deny unemployment benefits to two employees who were fired for taking illegal drugs that they were using for religious purposes.
That case reversed the 1963 Sherbert vs. Verner decision that declared a right to religious exemptions from such laws under the Free Exercise Clause, said Howard Schweber, a professor of American politics and political theory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Since there were at least two instances in American history where the Supreme Court limited a previously outlined constitutional right, that would make Baldwin’s claim off the mark.
But Idleman, the Marquette University professor, did say that it’s uncommon for rights to be eliminated or even significantly restricted, and added he’d be hard-pressed to find too many more examples.
“It’s uncommon,” he said, “but not unprecedented.”
Baldwin said she believed the “Supreme Court has never taken away a constitutional right.”
Legal scholars say that although such reversals are uncommon, a handful of examples do exist.
That makes her claim False.
- Email exchange with Scott Idleman, professor of law, Marquette University
- Email exchange with Bernadette Meyler, Carl and Sheila Spaeth Professor of Law, Stanford Law School
- Email exchange with Howard Schweber, professor of American politics and political theory, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Email exchange with Ronald Allen, John Henry Wigmore Professor of Law, Northwestern University
- USA TODAY, “What happens if Roe v. Wade is overturned? What we know about Supreme Court’s leaked draft,” May 3, 2022
- Congressional bill tracker, S.1975 – 117th Congress (2021-2022), accessed May 25, 2022
- Oyez, Lochner v. New York, accessed May 25, 2022
- Oyez, West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish, accessed May 25, 2022
- Oyez, Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, accessed May 25, 2022
- Oyez, Sherbert v. Verner, accessed May 25, 2022