Thursday, June 25, 2015
Strange Bedfellows #10: Why So Tense?
This post is part of the Strange Bedfellows series.
A few blockbuster cases remain for SCOTUS to decide this term, and given the current make-up of the Court, this means a high likelihood of fire-breathing dissents. Teachers—and particularly casebook authors—need to decide which lessons, if any, to draw from these dissenting opinions. For myself, I always like to spend some time on at least a few throughout the semester, for what they teach us about the substance of the law and about the art of advocacy.
The substantive lesson comes in large part from considering which cases provoke verbal fireworks and which do not. At the outset, constitutional law is more likely than other legal subjects to provoke heat, and within the Con Law canon some topics provoke more flame wars than others. The flamer is trying to signal that something important is happening, so a suitable question for the class can be “why are they so upset?” This is especially valuable when a case that seemingly involves low stakes provokes what seems like a rhetorical overreaction, as in Caperton v. Massey Coal (2010) (judicial recusal) or BMW of North America v. Gore (1996) (punitive damages).
The advocacy lesson is equally important. The rhetoric in court opinions is worth teaching to law students not as literary criticism for its own sake, but as a model of lawyerly writing. Since we tend not to assign actual briefs to our students written by lawyers, their main exposure to persuasive legal writing takes the form of opinions written by the lawyers on the bench we call judges. When an opinion exhibits a style that deviates from the mean, it can be a good opportunity to discuss whether it was effective, and whether students should pursue a similar tone in their own submissions. My students may just be telling me what I want to hear, but they usually say that bluster turns them off—even though really good bluster can be pretty exciting. Good opinions for this kind of discussion include Justice Scalia’s dissents in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1993) and US v. Virginia (1996), and Justice Blackmun’s self-involved hand-wringing in Casey and DeShaney v. Winnebago County (1989).
As a casebook author, I faced the question is how much to leave in. For Caperton (discussed in an earlier post in this series), I retained almost all of the dissents of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia, largely because both strive for Biblical stature in way that skeptics might consider borderline clownish. To demonstrate that the majority's constitutional rule (mandating judicial recusal when there is an objectively perceivable probability of bias) would be unworkable, Chief Justice Roberts posed a list of forty questions that would need to be resolved in future cases. Think forty days and forty nights, or forty years in the wilderness. Most casebooks seem to edit down the list; you get the point pretty quickly. But I decided to keep the whole thing (four pages worth)—because it is revealing to ask students during class how many of them actually read all forty. The honest ones will admit they skipped it, just as I did the first several times I read the opinion. The overblown Roberts dissent presents a good opportunity to discuss when less is more.
As for Justice Scalia’s Talmud-quoting dissent in Caperton, I kept it largely for his last sentences, which were these: “The relevant question, however, is whether we do more good than harm by seeking to correct [state courts] through expansion of our constitutional mandate in a manner ungoverned by any discernable rule. The answer is obvious.” (emphasis added) Anytime somebody tells you the answer to a contested legal question is obvious, or that a question answers itself (as in the inexplicable Goesaert v. Cleary (1948), discussed in an earlier post), it’s time to reach for your revolver.
I'm reminded of a story about opinion-writing that Mike McConnell told in his class at Harvard, when he was a visiting professor there in 1999. What prompted the story was that we had read some judicial opinion in which the judge used a word like "clearly" or "obviously." McConnell recalled that when he started his clerkship with J. Skelly Wright of the D.C. Circuit, one of Wright's outgoing clerks was explaining the duties of the job. McConnell asked how extensively Wright edited or rewrote drafts of opinions written by clerks. The response: "Ha! The only thing he will do is find the most dubious proposition in the entire opinion, and then put the word 'Clearly' in front of it."
Posted by: Stuart Buck | Jun 26, 2015 9:17:07 AM
As predicted, today's decision in King v. Burwell contained a fire-breathing dissent from Justice Scalia. It includes this passage that once again relies on the Justice's sense of what counts as obvious. "This case requires us to decide whether someone who buys insurance on an Exchange established by the Secretary gets tax credits. You would think the answer would be obvious—so obvious there would hardly be a need for the Supreme Court to hear a case about it." In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
Posted by: Aaron Caplan | Jun 25, 2015 7:43:46 PM