Former President Donald Trump said often during his 2016 campaign that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would end federal abortion rights. He won and subsequently got three to the high court, enough for a 6-3 conservative majority.
But Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who now stands virtually alone among Republicans in her support for abortion rights, said she did not think the reversal would happen. She had firsthand knowledge. While activists parsed statements, she met with nominees one-on-one and expressed confidence after that majority was cemented days before the 2020 election.
“I do not think Roe v. Wade is at risk,” she said at the time, noting that the 1973 decision had been upheld as precedent.
She was wrong.
Less than two years later, the high court issued a Friday decision overturning both Roe v. Wade and a later decision upholding it in a move that upended the landscape of legal abortion in the U.S. and led to immediate bans in several conservative states.
Collins hit the ruling as inconsistent with private conversations and public statements by the justices. Her defenders have accused Justice Brett Kavanaugh of lying and argued Trump could have nominated a more conservative justice in his place without the senator’s support. But that rings hollow to liberals who tried to persuade her to oppose Trump’s nominees years ago and felt she voted to confirm justices hostile to abortion rights despite clear warnings.
The Maine senator released a Friday statement characterizing the court’s ruling as a “sudden and radical jolt” and warned about a loss of confidence in government. She also reiterated that the majority opinion was “inconsistent” with what Kavanaugh and another conservative justice had told her privately prior to their confirmations.
“They both were insistent on the importance of supporting long-standing precedents that the country has relied upon,” she said.
Advocates who had hoped to change Collins’ mind prior to those confirmation votes saw it differently both then and now. Jackie Sartoris, now the Democratic nominee for district attorney in Cumberland County running unopposed this fall, was among those who met with Collins in 2018 to express concern about Kavanaugh’s views.
Sartoris was skeptical that Kavanaugh would uphold Roe v. Wade, citing a speech he had given the year prior that put the 1973 decision among a “tide of freewheeling judicial creation of unenumerated rights.” Sartoris recalled Collins disputing that idea to the group, saying Kavanaugh had assured her he regarded Roe as “settled law.”
“I believe that all of us around the table that day were lawyers, and every single one of us thought, ‘That word does not mean what you think it means,’” Sartoris said. “Settled law has no definition, and it has no bearing on what a future court decides to do.”
Kavanaugh’s background — he investigated former President Bill Clinton under Special Counsel Kenneth Starr in the 1990s and helped represent George W. Bush after the 2000 presidential election — was another indicator he was a “partisan activist,” said Ben Gaines, a Portland lawyer who also met with Collins in an attempt to persuade her to oppose the nominee.
In Collins’ 43-minute speech on the Senate floor backing Kavanaugh’s nomination, she defended his career and noted he had told her that he did not see five judges thinking a case was wrongly decided as sufficient reason to overturn a long-established precedent.
The vote polarized Collins among voters, with her longstanding support among Democrats and independents dropping dramatically while she gained among fellow Republicans. She sold her Kavanaugh vote among conservative audiences ahead of her 2020 election matchup with former House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democrat who led every public poll in the race but finished far behind the incumbent.
Kavanaugh’s stance on precedent marked Collins’ defense of her vote past the 2020 election. That December, she said she felt vindicated after Kavanaugh opposed hearing a case on Planned Parenthood funding. But her camp began to introduce new arguments more recently.
A spokesperson noted this week that the justice was not an early favorite of the religious right, pointing to 2018 comments from Christian radio host Bryan Fischer, who said that Kavanaugh’s “commitment to precedent seems to make Roe immune to reversal for another generation.”
Fischer’s group remained neutral on Kavanaugh after initially opposing his nomination in favor of someone like Amy Coney Barrett, who ended up joining the court two years later despite Collins’ opposition and was the fifth vote in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade in full. Before Barrett, Collins voted for every justice that went before the Senate during her tenure — three of the conservatives and two liberals who dissented on Friday.
Collins told the New York Times on Friday she was “misled” by Kavanaugh, who characterized himself in that conversation as a “don’t-rock-the-boat kind of judge,” according to notes by staff. On Friday, a spokesperson for the Maine senator sent a reporter a defense of Collins from former Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, who told MSNBC that Collins was “not a liar.”
“I believe her, which means that not only is Kavanaugh a politician masquerading in a robe, he’s a liar on top of that,” McCaskill said.
Collins has also looked to turn her attention to legislation that could enshrine the right to abortion and contraception, working with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia. Asked in a May interview whether there was any chance of garnering the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate filibuster, Collins noted a broader Democratic-led abortion rights bill could not even garner 50 votes.
“I do know that we can get to a majority, which the Democrats were unable to do with their over-the-top bill,” she said.
But the symbolic value of a bill getting the support of a majority of the Senate with not enough to make it law with Collins and some Democrats skeptical of jettisoning the filibuster does not do much for abortion-rights advocates now facing a difficult legal landscape.
“We had practically three generations of reproductive years where we did not have to worry about basic health and safety when accessing our reproductive freedom,” said Sartoris, the district attorney in waiting. “So it’s a huge change.”