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Federal Courts

Federal judges control whether — or not — you can access abortion.

Courts are supposed to guard our constitutional rights. 

Instead of protecting our rights, the federal courts have taken away our federal constitutional right to abortion.

Now they may even further strip our control over our lives, bodies, and futures. Getting birth control, getting an abortion in states where it is legal, and even the ability to start or grow a family using in-vitro fertilization are at risk.

How did this happen? Blame politicians long hostile to sexual and reproductive health who locked in their power by hand-picking judges for the federal courts. They hoped these judges, who have lifetime appointments, would hinder safe and legal abortion; the right to get other health care, like birth control; the right to vote; and more of our essential rights

Here’s how the federal courts affect our sexual health and reproductive rights — and how politicians decide who serves on the federal courts.

Demand Court Reform Now!

Our fundamental rights are under attack, and we need courts that will defend our freedoms, apply the law fairly, and advance equality. Sign your name to join us in the call to reform our courts.

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Who Decides Who Can Be a Federal Judge?

Judges who hold lifetime seats on federal courts are appointed through a process. Here’s how it works.

Step One

When a court position opens up, the president of the United States nominates someone to fill the judicial vacancy.

Step Two

The nominee goes to the U.S. Senate, where senators who serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee hold a public hearing. During the hearing, the nominees answer the senators’ questions.

Step Three

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on whether to recommend the nominee for approval by the entire Senate.

Step Four

If recommended by the committee, the nominee receives a vote in the full Senate. Nominees who earn “yes” votes from a majority of senators are confirmed, and become federal judges.

What Happens When Anti-abortion Rights Politicians Stack the Courts

By 2021, former President Donald Trump had chosen nearly one in three judges at two higher levels of the federal court system — the U.S. Supreme Court, and the U.S. Courts of Appeals. That was the year before the Supreme Court ended the federal constitutional right to abortion, allowing states to ban abortion. Trump’s judicial appointments were disproportionately white and male. Many had long histories of hostility toward reproductive health and rights.

How did this happen? The process took years, and began long before the Trump administration. Using unprecedented methods of obstruction, senators with anti-abortion agendas resisted efforts by former President Barack Obama to fill vacant judgeships. Then, in 2014, anti-abortion rights politicians won control of the Senate — and halted most confirmations. These senators even refused to have a hearing for current U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who Obama nominated to a Supreme Court seat after Justice Antonin Scalia passed away in 2016.

Once Trump became president, senators opposed to abortion worked overtime to fill the more than 100 judicial vacancies kept open under Obama. Trump and his allies stopped at nothing to confirm judges with records hostile to reproductive health and rights — even approving nominees evaluated by the American Bar Association as “not qualified.”

Who Were Trump’s Judicial Nominees?

With the help of senators aligned on anti-abortion policies, Trump appointed three justices to the Supreme Court and 234 judges to other federal courts.

  • 76% were men
  • 84% were white
  • 7 — a record-high number for a single president — were rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association

Sources: Pew Research, Ballotpedia

How Federal Courts Are Taking Away Our Rights

Destroying Protections

The Supreme Court recognized a federal constitutional right to abortion in 1973, in the landmark case Roe v. Wade. For years, the Supreme Court reaffirmed and protected that constitutional right.

But in 2022 — after Trump and his allies in the Senate worked together to confirm three new Supreme Court justices — the court took away that right, and let states ban abortion. Legal precedents hadn’t changed, but the makeup of the court had.

Undermining Precedents

In 2021, when Roe was still the law of the land, the reshaped court allowed the state of Texas to enforce S.B. 8, a law that made Roe essentially meaningless for most Texans. S.B. 8 banned abortion after approximately six weeks of pregnancy — before many people even know they’re pregnant.

By letting S.B. 8 stand, the justices showed politicians that our rights were up for grabs — encouraging anti-abortion activists and out-of-touch politicians to step up attacks on our access to abortion, birth control, and other health care.

“Will this institution [the Supreme Court] survive the stench that [allowing Mississippi to ban abortion at 15 weeks] creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts? I don’t see how it is possible.”

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, December 2021

What Other Rights Are at Risk?

In the state of Texas alone, activist opponents of reproductive health and rights have gone to federal court to challenge:

Medication Abortion

Using junk science and disinformation, anti-abortion activists are advancing efforts to restrict a safe and common method of abortion nationwide. They're hoping the federal courts — which anti-abortion rights politicians have reshaped by appointing judges with long records hostile to reproductive rights — will take their side, regardless of the facts.

Access to Planned Parenthood

In another meritless case, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are using baseless claims to seek $1.8 billion in damages from three Planned Parenthood Texas affiliates and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. If forced to pay, affiliate health centers would have to shut down, and the health care of millions of people would be at risk.

Preventive Health Care

In 2022, a federal district court judge ruled that insurers need not cover HIV prevention medication under the Affordable Care Act — and opened the way for the Supreme Court to potentially end guaranteed coverage for STI screenings, birth control, breastfeeding counseling, and more.

To protect and advance our rights, we must reclaim our federal courts.

We need courts that will defend our freedoms, apply the law fairly, and advance equality. Structural, systemic, and meaningful court reform is the only way to ensure that courts uphold the law and protect our rights.

Sign your name to join us in the call to reform our courts. Together, we will secure rights, opportunities, and reproductive freedom for all.


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