In Surprise Abortion Vote, John Roberts Avoids ‘Jolt to the Legal System’

Mr. Specter, at the time a moderate Republican protective of abortion rights, was pleased with the answer. “A jolt to the legal system, a movement against stability — one of the Roberts doctrines,” he said.

That Roberts doctrine was on display Thursday. The precedent at risk was Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which in 2016 struck down a Texas abortion law that required doctors providing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The majority said the requirement served no medical purpose and imposed an undue burden on women’s constitutional right to abortion.

The vote was 5 to 3, with Chief Justice Roberts one of the dissenters. He might have been expected to take a similar stance in Thursday’s case. Instead, at least for now, he declined to give the legal system a jolt.

At the confirmation hearing, Mr. Specter also tried to get Chief Justice Roberts to say that Roe was a “super-duper precedent,” because the Supreme Court had reaffirmed its core holding in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Chief Justice Roberts declined to adopt Mr. Specter’s terminology, but he did not quarrel with his larger point. Indeed, he said the legal doctrine of stare decisis, which is Latin for “to stand by things decided,” counseled caution in light of the Casey decision’s extended discussion of the importance of adhering to precedent.

“The Casey decision itself, which applied the principles of stare decisis to Roe v. Wade, is itself a precedent of the court, entitled to respect under principles of stare decisis,” Chief Justice Roberts said. “That is itself a precedent. It’s a precedent on whether or not to revisit the Roe v. Wade precedent. And under principles of stare decisis, that would be where any judge considering the issue in this area would begin.”

At the same time, he said respect for precedent must sometimes give way to other considerations, including whether “a particular precedent is workable or not” as a practical matter and “whether a precedent has been eroded by subsequent developments” in the law.