THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“We Made History and Now We Are Going to Have to Keep Fighting For Our History.” – Linda Coffee, May 3, 2022
Interview with Linda Coffee and Rebecca Hartt. Interlocutor, Lee Cullum, distinguished journalist and prominent PBS newscaster. Videographer, Ryan Schorman. Interview organized by VFA Board member Bonnie Wheeler and VFA member Suzanne Tuckey.
Lee Cullum: Linda and Becky, we are here today on an occasion that I didn’t realize would be so auspicious.
Linda Coffee: I didn’t until last night.
Lee Cullum: No. We had the leak last night of this draft number one, overturning Roe v. Wade. It’s unbelievable. How do you react? Were you expecting this, Linda or Becky?
Linda Coffee: No, I was completely disappointed.
Lee Cullum: Yes. Well, you would think that there would have been a denial from some spokesperson for the court. Unusual what they said. “This is certainly not true.” “We don’t even have a draft.” “What are you thinking about?” Not a word. Not one word.
Linda Coffee: Yes, I know.
Rebecca Hartt: It’s a double damnation for me. There’s nothing more horrible than having people betray the legal profession if this is true. It hit me because I knew I was outraged and Linda’s mentor, Sarah Hughes, was a very reputable person. I’ve asked Linda how she thought Sarah Hughes would respond, and she would’ve spoken out.
Lee Cullum: Absolutely. Well, you did clerk for Sarah T. Hughes. And, of course, she is best remembered for rushing down to Love Field on November 22nd, 1963, to swear in Lyndon B. Johnson as President aboard Air Force One after the Kennedy assassination. It was remarkable. You clerked for her, and she used to tell her clerks—or so you have said—to stand for something. How did you make your way to the cause of abortion? How did that become the issue for which you stood?
Linda Coffee: It was interesting because Sarah Weddington and I had both been at the University of Texas in Austin.
Lee Cullum: You invited Sarah to join the cause and she said yes. And you had been doing some research in the SMU Library.
Linda Coffee: It was hard to go down and find cases that were rising in other states.
Lee Cullum: But you found this case. He was exonerated. He had done an abortion and [was] exonerated on the grounds that the law was unconstitutional and was a violation of privacy. Is that where that first occurred to you?
Linda Coffee: Yes.
Lee Cullum: The privacy issue?
Linda Coffee: Yes, because before that, I’d filed a case called Griswold v Connecticut. And that was just because that was an easy one to win.
Lee Cullum: Yes. It was about 1965, and this overturned the ban on contraception in Connecticut on the basis of the 14th Amendment and due process.
Linda Coffee: Due process. Yes.
Lee Cullum: Being deprived of privacy without due process. That was your other great building block.
Linda Coffee: Yes, it really was.
Rebecca Hartt: The Buchanan v. Batchelor case, she wrote the brief of that for McCluskey.
Lee Cullum: Yes. This was the sodomy law in Texas.
Rebecca Hartt: Yes, right.
Lee Cullum: And he managed to get that overturned, at least for married couples.
Rebecca Hartt: Yes.
Lee Cullum: So, you had a track record. Well, now there are those who worry looking probably back to Griswold and due process and privacy, that was a contraception case.
Rebecca Hartt: Right.
Lee Cullum: There are those who worry now that contraception could be next.
Linda Coffee: Yes. That’d be terrible.
Lee Cullum: Well, you had to have a pregnant woman to file this case.
Linda Coffee: Yes.
Lee Cullum: How did you find Norma McCorvey?
Linda Coffee: Through Henry McCluskey.
Lee Cullum: This is your friend you’d known since you were a child. You went to the Baptist Church together.
Linda Coffee: Yes, Gaston Avenue Baptist Church.
Lee Cullum: Yes. Norma McCorvey was pregnant with her third child and felt she should have an abortion. Well, what about her so-called deathbed confession? When she died, not so many months ago, she said, well, she never really cared about the issue. She was paid to be an actress.
Linda Coffee: Yes, I saw that. She claimed on her deathbed that some of the people had paid her.
Lee Cullum: You didn’t pay her, did you?
Linda Coffee: No, no. This has been one of the things. We never promised her that she’d get any money. We were just saying it would make it easier for other women. They wouldn’t have to go through what she did.
Lee Cullum: You filed the suit against Henry Wade. Why Henry Wade? He was a district attorney, so it was a logical thing to do?
Linda Coffee: Yes.
Rebecca Hartt: The fact that you had Sarah Hughes, Goldberg and Taylor on the court, it’s very rare for Dallas to have a more liberal court than Austin.
Lee Cullum: Well, that was a three-judge federal panel. Sarah T. Hughes, we remember well. Of course, William “Mac” Taylor went on to do the school desegregation case. Very controversial case. Bussing was involved. And, of course, Judge Irving Goldberg was on the appellant court at the time.
Linda Coffee: Everybody. Yes.
Lee Cullum: He was remarkable.
Linda Coffee: Incredible.
Lee Cullum: He said something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “The purpose of the court is somehow come to an accommodation between the laws that are passed and the people who live under those laws.” Now, how are the courts going to mediate between this Supreme Court decision we’re about to receive in June, probably, and the 69% of Americans who favor some form of abortion?
Linda Coffee: Yes, I know. That’s just what gets me. I keep reading about things like the Guttmacher Institute. It’s the only one that I know that keeps supposedly good statistics on this, and they always show a fairly substantial majority of Americans favor pro-choice.
Lee Cullum: Yes, I think they do. Well, you were able to go directly to the Supreme Court because for some reason this three-judge panel said, “Yes, it’s unconstitutional, but we will not enjoin again” [we will not issue an injunction].
Linda Coffee: And then Henry Wade said he was still going to enforce the law. So, that’s how it got up to the Supreme Court.
Lee Cullum: But by then the case had been joined by a married couple. Remember, the married couple said, “Look, this abortion ban is going to restrict our choice in the future.”
Linda Coffee: Oh, yes. That was the Kings. Marsha King.
Lee Cullum: And there was a doctor who’s in the case.
Rebecca Hartt: Right. He was allowed to be in the case. And then later they just cut it down to Roe. They merged Roe and Doe. The Roe case was assigned to Sarah Hughes, and the Doe case was assigned, I believe, to Goldberg. And then Sarah Hughes merged both to her court. And that’s how they got merged.
Lee Cullum: Then you went to the Supreme Court. It was a very interesting court, all male, of course. Some of them were Republicans. There weren’t many Democrats. Warren Burger, Chief Justice, was with it. Potter Stewart, appointed by Eisenhower, Republican. He voted with it, with you. So, it wasn’t as political as it is now.
Well, let’s go to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 1993, her confirmation hearing is going on in the United States Senate, appointee of Bill Clinton. And she said that, of course, she favored choice. She said it very eloquently and this is a paraphrase, but she said to restrict a woman’s right to choose is to disadvantage her because of her sex. That’s clear. But she went on to say that she thought it would have been better if the Supreme Court had simply not set up the framework.
Linda Coffee: Oh, yes.
Lee Cullum: What is it? It’s completely permissible in the first trimester. The states can act with restrictions in the second, and the third trimester, perhaps even ban it. Is that about what the ruling was?
Linda Coffee: I think that’s about what it was. Yes.
Lee Cullum: This got everybody all upset, and it would have been better just to send it back to the states with overturning the ban. What do you think of that?
Rebecca Hartt: But when you argue that it never occurred to you that Blackmun would put that in this decision, it was kind of squirrely. So that’s where you have to go.
Lee Cullum: What did he say in the decision?
Rebecca Hartt: Blackmun put the viability issue there. Blackmun was the one that wrote that in there.
Lee Cullum: But that came from Planned Parenthood versus Casey.
Rebecca Hartt: But the original decision, Blackmun was putting in the viability. He put that in his arguments. And then it digressed from the other cases through the years on the chipping away. And that’s what you’re really looking at when you trace the history, is who put the week type of issue, even if they had gone 15 weeks on the Mississippi case or even Texas six, you started playing this chip away game on the weeks, and that seems squirrely. And back to Ginsburg and the other [case], it’s a silly argument to be having on the weeks.
Lee Cullum: Yes. Well, then there’s Planned Parenthood versus Casey, which was about what, 1992? Something like that. And it was a Pennsylvania case. Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the opinion. She was joined by Kennedy. She was joined by David Souter and by John Paul Stevens. But it was all over the map.
Then you had Rehnquist concurring, dissenting. You had Blackmun concurring, dissenting. You had Rehnquist, of course, dissenting, period, along with “Whizzer” White again, but all over the place. But O’Connor said, yes, the 14th Amendment due process clause still holds, Roe v. Wade still holds. But they gave up the third trimester and it became the test of viability, just as Becky was saying. And the states could indeed make some adjustments, shall we say, as long as they were not an undue burden for the woman. Well, that opened the door, did it not, in a pretty significant way?
Lee Cullum: Then came the doctor has to have admitting privileges at a hospital.
Rebecca Hartt: I remember those, yes.
Lee Cullum: The abortion clinic must have architectural zoning standards that the hospitals must meet. Anything they could think of. Is there going to be a way to chip away now at this reversal?
Linda Coffee: I think it would probably be pretty messy, but I still think a fairly strong majority of Americans still believe in Roe v. Wade.
Lee Cullum: Well, thank you so much, Linda and Becky. It’s been fascinating talking to you on what is a historic day. You made history, and now we’re moving on with that.
Linda Coffee: We’re going to have to keep fighting for our rights.
Lee Cullum: Kipling is not the best poet on a number of subjects, but on this one I do think of him. He wrote the poem: “…..if you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken, twisted my knaves to make a trap for fools, or watch the things you gave your life to broken, and stoop and build them up with worn-out tools.” Is that not where we are?
Linda Coffee: Yes, that’s about right.
Lee Cullum: Yes, so, only the tools.