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How one lawyer engineered the right’s (likely) successful crusade against Roe v. Wade

Overturning precedent isn’t easy, but Jim Bopp has been fighting for decades.

Campaign Finance Lawyer Jim Bopp
Indiana lawyer Jim Bopp
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When Jim Bopp graduated from law school in 1973, overturning Roe v. Wade was fresh in his mind.

He came up with a plan and hit the stacks, he recalled on Today, Explained, Vox’s daily news explainer podcast: “I would go to either the law school library or the Supreme Court Library at the State Capitol. I had to go find the books about the Supreme Court, the history of the Supreme Court, and particularly, overturning precedent.”

Overturning precedent isn’t easy. But this episode of Today, Explained shares the story of how his plan worked. A few weeks ago, we traveled to Indiana to meet with Bopp, who has been trying to overturn Roe v. Wade for most of his adult life. A partial transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Noel King

Where did you get the idea for this chipping away at Roe strategy?

Jim Bopp

The NAACP.

Noel King

Plessy versus Ferguson.

Jim Bopp

Exactly. Plessy v. Ferguson, leading to Brown v. Board of Education.

Noel King

Explain the whole thing.

Jim Bopp

When I got involved with National Right to Life, one of my first tasks was to develop a strategy to overturn Roe v. Wade. And to implement that strategy. And so I read all about the NAACP strategy because it has been well covered. It was very conscious. I mean, Thurgood Marshall put it together and implemented it. All the elements of what you could see in prior cases, other instances where precedent had been overturned, all the elements that the NAACP recognized had occurred in all these cases and then implemented successfully were all there.

Noel King

They’re identifying individual cases, the NAACP, they’re saying, if we get this in front of the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court could make a decision on this particular case that would overturn Plessy v. Ferguson.

Jim Bopp

Right.

Noel King

And they keep doing that.

Jim Bopp

And they keep doing that, but they do it even in a more sophisticated way.

Noel King

How so?

Jim Bopp

They were dealing with Plessy v. Ferguson and the doctrine was separate but equal and they said, “well, we’ve got to undermine” — remember the word “undermine” because what you need to do is undermine the precedent by getting the courts to question it, explain it, or change it’s — “the doctrine, distinguish it, until they’re finally ready to jettison it by overruling it.” So they started with a medical school.

Noel King

(Quick correction: It was a law school; the rest of this story is accurate.)

Jim Bopp

And the reality of a separate school for Blacks that would be equal to the white is preposterous. Okay. And of course didn’t exist in the real world. And the court said, “no, the Black school is not equal,” and they struck it down. And then they just kept working their way down until they got to the Topeka, Kansas, elementary school.

Noel King

So, this was now the incrementalist strategy. Bring abortion case after abortion case before the Supreme Court that the court has to rule on. And try to undermine the precedent of Roe.

Jim Bopp

I set out to advance the conservative cause to make it a majority, not to live in the minority. What was a fringe idea, which was conservative ideas, has become mainstream. That’s huge.

Listen to the full episode of Today, Explained wherever you get podcasts.