Thursday, October 25, 2018
Margaret Hannon, guest blogger, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School
Supreme Court decisions on deeply personal constitutional issues affect far more than the parties themselves. For example, consider the far-reaching effects of the Court’s decision on marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, or on reproductive rights in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Voices briefs—a form of amicus brief—give non-parties an opportunity to be heard by telling the stories of individuals who are strangers to the case but “whose lives will be profoundly shaped by the Court’s decisions.”
Amicus filings have increased by “an astounding 800%” in the last fifty years. And the filing of voices briefs has also dramatically increased, especially over the last three years. In Professor Linda Edwards’s article, Telling Stories in the Supreme Court: Voices Briefs and the Role of Democracy in Constitutional Deliberation, she considers the legitimacy and value of voices briefs and concludes that “there is little to lose and much to gain when amicus filers tell their stories.”
To date, voices briefs have been used almost exclusively in abortion rights and marriage equality cases. In these cases, “(1) the outcome will have a direct personal impact on the intimate lives of those affected; and (2) the storytellers’ experience is likely outside the Justices’ experience.” Professor Edwards imagines other types of cases with similar characteristics in which advocates might use nonparty stories to help the Court understand the experiences of others. For example, voices briefs could be useful in cases involving immigration, capital defendants, convicted felons, police shootings, and issues of race, class, or power disparity.
Professor Edwards explains that voices briefs serve at least three important roles. First, they allow nonparties who will be intimately affected by the Court’s decision an opportunity to be heard. Second, even if voices briefs don’t succeed in changing the outcome of the case, they may succeed in encouraging the Court to write an opinion that both recognizes and respects opposing views. And, third, voices briefs may encourage the Court to write opinions that model “better public discourse in today’s polarized public square.” As a result, the Court’s opinions may “provide a modicum of healing because readers who lose at least will feel heard, and readers who win may come away with a greater understanding of those on the other side of the issue.”
Professor Edwards analyzes the persuasive potential of voices briefs using cognitive science research focusing on “schemas.” Schemas are “preexisting cognitive patterns providing interpretive frameworks through which we perceive and judge the world.” The perceptions that result from these schemas seem to be natural and objectively true,” as “[t]he schema both highlights information that seems consistent with the schema, and hides inconsistent information.” So, the question is not whether Justices “see the situation through a lens, but which lens focuses [their] view.” And because schemas are unconscious, Justices may “remain unconsciously captive to a set of unexamined assumptions based on preexisting narrative schema.”
Voices briefs seek to challenge the Justices’ preexisting cultural narratives by highlighting voices and stories that don’t fit neatly into their schemas. In our increasingly polarized country, the human tendency to “associate primarily with and listen primarily to those we perceive to be like us” has become amplified. Justices are not immune from this tendency. Indeed, as Professor Edwards notes, Justices have always relied on extra-judicial factual sources and their own preexisting cultural knowledge and personal experiences to inform their decision-making.
Voices briefs thus serve an important role—they help counteract the Justices’ preexisting cultural narratives by exposing them to diverse perspectives that “help to fill the inevitable gap between a Justice’s personal experience and the realities of other lives and perspectives.” Studies have shown that anecdotal messages like the ones communicated in voices briefs may actually be more effective at countering negative preexisting bias than the logical arguments in merits briefs. Professor Edwards concludes that, instead of adding bias to a neutral process, “voices briefs may be the only way to counter the preexisting values bias that accompanies human deliberation.”
Professor Edwards discusses concerns about reliability, relevance, and the risk that non-party stories will be used impermissibly as adjudicative facts, rather than as permissible legislative facts. Professor Edwards concludes that “preserving a role for voices briefs is preferable to limiting their use in ways that ignore modern cognitive science and ancient rhetorical principles, that silence the voices of the governed, or that secretly smuggle in the adoption of a limiting jurisprudential view.”
I encourage appellate practitioners to read Professor Edwards’s article and to think about ways in which you might incorporate voices briefs into your appellate practice when faced with deeply personal constitutional issues that may be out of the realm of the Justices’ own personal experiences.
Special thanks to Alison Doyle for her help with this blog post.