By Meredith S. Auten, President of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation
I write this month’s column with a heavy heart. The Supreme Court is a key pillar of our democracy, the branch of government “charged with ensuring the American people the promise of equal justice under law.” Unfortunately, the Court’s recent rulings do the exact opposite of that – rather than protecting the rights of the American people, their recent decisions strip away rights and protections, creating instability and damaging the public’s trust and confidence in the Court.
The Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to overturn decades of precedent that guaranteed the fundamental right to bodily autonomy and reproductive choice will have devastating effects for women and people who can become pregnant, especially for those who are already the most marginalized. It’s also a disturbing shift from stare decisis, a fundamental legal principle intended to ensure reliability in the law. Healthcare is a human right, and safe and accessible abortions are essential healthcare. In Pennsylvania, abortion is still currently legal, but Republican state lawmakers are actively working to change that through constitutional amendment #SB106. Constitutional amendments cannot be vetoed by the governor, and #SB106 would add language to the state constitution that specifies that the constitution does not grant the right to an abortion. If this constitutional amendment is passed by voters, it would allow a future governor and legislature to ban abortion and prevent activists from challenging the law in court. I applaud Association Chancellor Payne’s statement regarding #SB106 and urge everyone to read it.
Another recent decision by the Court will likely cause a huge setback in our ability to fight climate change. In West Virginia vs. EPA, the Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not have the right to adopt any new, systemic approaches to tackle an issue that would have an effect on the economy, unless Congress specifically authorizes regulations on that issue. This decision prevents the EPA from taking any regulatory action to try and slow climate change that would involve them regulating business practices, like regulating carbon emissions that cause climate change and pose a significant health risk to individuals. This ruling is another disturbing shift, as the majority’s decision contradicts over 75 years of regulatory law.
In the aftermath of the horrifying mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, and less than a month after shootings in Uvalde, Texas and on South Street in our own city, the Court struck down a New York State law enacted over a century ago that required individuals to demonstrate a special need in order to carry a firearm in public. In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association vs. Bruen, the Court ruled that the state’s law violates individuals right to self-defense. Overturning common sense gun laws that have been in place for hundreds of years, while the country is in the middle of a gun violence epidemic, is going to put more individuals at risk. People are already nervous to be in public spaces like grocery stores, houses of worship, and schools because of the threat of mass shootings. Allowing individuals to carry concealed weapons is only going to intensify that fear and risk.
In Philadelphia, we are lucky to have legal aid organizations that are fighting to protect communities from the fallout of these rulings. The Philadelphia Bar Foundation is proud to support 35 agencies that are doing this critical work. Our nonprofit partners Women’s Law Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania have been fighting for reproductive rights in Pennsylvania since their doors opened, and they will be on the frontlines in the fight to keep abortion legal, accessible, and safe in Pennsylvania. Nonprofit partner Public Interest Law Center fights for environmental justice in Philadelphia, by supporting low-income, historically disinvested communities and communities of color in advocating effectively for sustainable and equitable neighborhoods. Nonprofit Partner CeasefirePA is an organization solely dedicated to ending the epidemic of gun violence in Pennsylvania, fighting to stop all kinds of gun violence – community violence, mass shootings, domestic violence, suicide by firearms, and more. Nonprofit Partner Pennsylvania Health Law Project provides outreach and education for victims of crime and their advocates on their Medicaid benefits.
It is incumbent upon those of us in the legal profession to do our part in this fight. For those of us in the private sector, that comes in the form of monetary support and equally importantly, pro bono support. The Pro Bono Institute found that attorneys did less pro bono work in 2021 than in 2020, despite the fact that the need for pro bono support has only grown. If you’re not already involved in pro bono projects through your firm, I strongly encourage you to volunteer with one of the Bar Foundation’s nonprofit partners. You can read more about the work of the nonprofit partners mentioned above, as well as about all of our other incredible grantees, and learn how to get involved or show your support on our website philabarfoundation.org/nonprofitpartners.