It has been just over four months since the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning the court’s landmark rulings recognizing a right to an abortion. But Dobbs once again took center stage on Wednesday – at least for a few minutes – as three protesters interrupted oral argument in a bank-reporting case to speak out against the ruling.
The justices were hearing argument in Bittner v. United States, a technical dispute over the meaning of a federal statute that requires taxpayers to report overseas bank accounts.
The justices appeared relatively chipper as they took the bench, perhaps looking forward to a less contentious argument than their cases in the first part of the week, which included the challenges to the consideration of race in university admissions. After a brief ceremony to admit new lawyers to the Supreme Court bar, lawyer Dan Geyser, representing Bittner, approached the lectern.
In recent years, the court has adopted a practice of allowing lawyers to speak for a few minutes without interruption before launching into questions. But three women who support abortion rights had other ideas.
The first protester rose and urged American women to “denounce Dobbs” and “remember to vote.” She was quickly removed from the courtroom by Supreme Court police.
Geyser resumed speaking, but he was soon interrupted again. “The right to choose will not be taken away,” the second protester declared. She exhorted women to “vote for our right to choose.”
The third protester stood up a few moments later. Speaking loudly, she exclaimed that “we will restore our freedom to choose. Women of America, vote!”
Each of the protesters put out her hands, presumably to allow police officers to put on handcuffs, and left the courtroom quietly and without any resistance.
A press release identified the three women as Emily Paterson of Virginia, Rolande Baker of Arizona, and Nikki Enfield of Virginia. Outside the court after the argument, three other women carried signs. Echoing the press release, they said that they were there to protest the Dobbs decision and to encourage women to vote in next week’s elections.
The justices did not acknowledge the protest and the rest of the argument proved uneventful, although police officers continued to watch the public gallery carefully. The justices were active questioners and appeared to be in a good mood. Justice Neil Gorsuch even cracked a joke, telling Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General Matthew Guarnieri that the federal government’s reluctance to invoke the Chevron doctrine, the idea that courts should normally defer to an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute, was “like garlic to a vampire.”
Protests inside the Supreme Court are relatively rare. In January 2015, eight spectators were removed from the courtroom after protesting on the fifth anniversary of the court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which invalidated federal laws limiting campaign spending by corporations and unions. Also in 2015, a spectator was removed from the oral argument in the challenge to state bans on same-sex marriage.
From March 2020 until this fall, there was no opportunity for public protests inside the courtroom. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the justices heard arguments by telephone in May 2020 and throughout the 2020-21 term. The justices returned to the courtroom for the 2021-22 term, but only a small group of reporters and court staff were allowed to attend arguments in person. Beginning in October, the public has been permitted to attend oral arguments. The court has continued to provide an audio stream of oral arguments this term, but some of Wednesday’s protest was apparently redacted from the stream in real time on Wednesday: The stream started late, after the argument had already begun, and the audio briefly went silent during the protest in the first several minutes.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.