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Reform Our Federal Courts in bold text, with gavel

Why the Courts Still Matter

Today, 1 in 3 women of reproductive age — plus more trans and nonbinary people — are blocked from abortion in their home state. A year after the Supreme Court handed politicians the power to ban abortion, 20 states have banned some or all abortions. Of the six states we serve, that includes Idaho, Kentucky, and as soon as August 1, Indiana. More states will likely follow.

 

Why do the courts matter?

Judges and Supreme Court justices have a lot of power to block laws or let them go into effect at both the state and federal levels. That means that largely unelected justices and judges who don’t support reproductive freedom, health care access, racial and gender equality, or LGBTQ+ rights can decide to let harmful policies become law. 

We’ve already seen bills that ban and restrict abortion, birth control, gender affirming care, and other essential rights all around the country. And we know who is hurt the most: people who are already harmed by systemic discrimination, including Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, disabled people, and people with low incomes.

We deserve better. We deserve a future where our courts will protect our civil, human, and reproductive rights — no matter where we live.

Court decisions can shape our everyday lives — if and when to have a family, who we can marry, how we can express our identities, who is protected from violence, what kids learn in school, and the quality of the air that we breathe. 

That’s why it’s critical that we understand the judicial process.

It’s time to make the courts work for the people.

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How do the courts work?

The courts are often the only place to take action to stop harmful laws after they are passed by lawmakers.

The federal court system has three levels: district courts, circuit courts, and the Supreme Court of the United States. Throughout the country there are 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts, and one Supreme Court. When cases that could determine access to reproductive health care are filed in federal court, they’re more likely to be decided by judges in the lower courts — not the Supreme Court.

Diagram showing the levels of the federal court system: District Courts (94 districts, 677 judges) on the bottom, Courts of Appeals (13 circuits, 179 judges) in the middle, and Supreme Court (1 court, 9 justices) at the top.
Learn more: How does a case move through the federal court system?

It starts in district court. Judges in the court make a decision, and most of the time, that’s where the case’s journey ends. But after the district court has made its decision, both parties involved can request the higher court to reverse the decision — that’s an appeal. So the case moves to the court of appeals, a.k.a. circuit court. After the court of appeals makes its decision, that decision can then be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. State supreme court decisions can also be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but they do not originate in lower federal courts. 

Yes, it’s complicated! That’s why it’s so important for us to understand what’s happening

Appointing judges and justices

The U.S. Constitution gives the president the job of appointing Supreme Court justices, and federal circuit and district court judges. The president’s nominee must then be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

For decades, lawmakers hostile to reproductive rights, equality, justice, and other critical civil and human rights — mostly white men — filled the courts with judges who look and think like them.

Presidents opposing abortion rights have reshaped the Supreme Court by appointing 6 out of 9 justices.

Black and white photo of the U.S. Supreme Court. Yellow arrows point to the 6 justices appointed by presidents opposing abortion rights.

How does all this affect you?

Anti-abortion rights lawmakers and groups led a coordinated strategy to roll back our rights, including reproductive freedom.

It’s time to reclaim the federal courts to secure rights, opportunities, and reproductive freedom for all of us.

85% of Americans want abortion to be legal.

Despite that, anti-abortion groups want to use the court system as a weapon to end sexual and reproductive health care across the nation. This is about power and control over our bodies and our right to determine our own futures.

The courts have always protected the rights of only some people. But last year, when the Supreme Court decided to allow states to ban abortion, it became increasingly clear that our federal courts are undermining our freedom and moving us further away from real justice. By overturning Roe v. Wade and eliminating the federal constitutional right to abortion, the Supreme Court has given hostile lawmakers permission to pass and enforce laws that control what we do with our bodies and lives. 

Dozens of lower court judges, whose decisions may be reviewed by the same people who overturned Roe, have been emboldened to allow extremist groups to push their dangerous agenda even further. It gives extremist anti-abortion groups the power to control our futures. 

Let’s take a look: How anti-abortion activists use the courts to attack our rights

Effort to Take an Abortion Pill Off the Market

In Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine et al v. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, anti-abortion activists asked a federal district court judge to take an unprecedented step and force the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to overturn its 22-year approval of mifepristone, one of two medications commonly used in medication abortion.

A federal district court judge ruled in April 2023 to do just that. Anti-abortion activists specifically chose to file the case in this single-judge district court because of the judge’s record of opposing sexual and reproductive health care. Later that month, the Supreme Court granted a stay on the ruling, allowing mifepristone’s FDA approval to remain unchanged. The medicine will remain on the market for now as the case proceeds through the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and likely is argued again at in the Supreme Court.

Regardless of the final outcome, it is clear that we should have never been in a position where judges can decide whether people can get safe, effective FDA-approved medication.

 

Other Attacks on Sexual and Reproductive Health Care 

It’s clear opponents of reproductive rights are not satisfied with overturning Roe or even attacking access to medication abortion nationwide. They want to take away birth control from people with low incomes and young people, limit access to abortion and counseling for veterans, and restrict access to essential sexual and reproductive health care wherever they can.

But despite these attacks, there’s been progress to rebalance the courts…

Julie Rikelman confirmed to U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

Julie Rikelman was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Rikelman is a skilled litigator and long-time advocate for abortion rights — including arguing multiple abortion rights cases at the Supreme Court. She successfully led efforts to preserve access to abortion, including medication abortion; overturn an invasive ultrasound law; defend the rights of young people to access abortion in Florida and Alaska; and more.

Our federal courts should reflect the rich diversity of our nation and increase public confidence that our courts will provide justice for all. 

 

Let’s take a look at some confirmations over the last two years (2022-2023):

Of these 129 confirmed judicial nominees: 

  • 85 are women
  • 85 are people of color
  • 44 are Black
  • 30 are Black women
  • 27 are Hispanic

Of the 34 Circuit Court judges:

  • 25 are people of color
  • 19 are women of color
  • 13 are Black women 

 

Increased representation of Black women

In the last two years, more Black women have been confirmed to Circuit Court judgeships than were confirmed in the rest of U.S. history.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman to be confirmed to the Supreme Court in April 2022. Justice Jackson has a deep commitment to public service and pursuing equal justice under the law, including safeguarding individual rights and liberties.

It’s time to make the courts work for the people.

The lived experiences of people in the United States are as varied as our backgrounds, identities, and histories. We deserve a future where we can make decisions about our bodies and our lives, free from interference from politicians and judges.

There are still dozens of vacancies in the federal courts.

At this moment, our elected lawmakers who care about reproductive freedom have an urgent opportunity to fill court vacancies with diverse champions of sexual and reproductive health and rights. 

The courts have been used to advance a dangerous agenda against abortion rights. Federal court reform is essential for the fight for reproductive freedom. 

A fair, balanced, and equitable judiciary is essential to protect and advance justice and equality. As we continue to face unrelenting attacks on our basic freedoms, our federal courts must be one backstop to protecting our rights. Reforms are crucial to building the public’s trust that the courts can and will function to uphold hard-won freedoms and advance justice for future generations.

Here’s what we need these leaders to do now:

Reclaim the federal courts with judges who will protect reproductive rights, including abortion.

Confirm federal judicial nominees who reflect the diversity and values of our nation.

Impose ethics and transparency requirements* for Supreme Court Justices.

*While all other federal judges are required to follow a code of ethics, Supreme Court justices are not. We must improve disclosure requirements and ethical standards for justices.

Expand the federal district courts to keep up with the growing U.S. population and caseloads.

Expand the number of Supreme Court Justices and impose term limits.

A Planned Parenthood supporter chants at a protest.

Join the fight to reclaim our courts.

Whether you're a public official or a private citizen, you can make a change.

We know that the many challenges we face can feel intimidating. But also know that you’ve got a whole movement behind you — one that’s 18 million people strong — with Planned Parenthood.

As we work to rebuild our federal courts, we must spread awareness about why the courts matter and how they should protect us from laws that take away our ability to make decisions about our bodies and lives. Here’s how you can help teach your community about the importance of the courts and tell your own story.

Join a Planned Parenthood volunteer team in your area and help educate your community!

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Help us spread the word! Share a social media post with our easy-to-use tool.

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Tell your story! Help advocate for abortion access in the media by sharing your story with us.

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We won’t give up the fight for reproductive freedom — not now, not ever. Let’s work together to make sure that our courts represent our values and protect our rights.

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