Tuesday, June 20, 2023
Last week, Professor Lamparello argued on this blog that "originalism, although not perfect, is the best method of constitutional interpretation." I'm skeptical.
Admittedly, in the vacuum of political theory, originalism has a certain elegance and persuasive force. The Framers created a system of separated powers, originalists reason. Congress makes law; the judiciary merely interprets it. Any interpretive theory that permits unelected judges to change the meaning of a law is dangerous and anti-democratic. Thus, to curtail judicial legislation, originalists say that judges should endeavor to discover and preserve the meaning the Constitution's words bore at the time of ratification. After all, the law is the law, until lawfully changed under Article V.
I happily concede these points. (What serious constitutional lawyer would dare disagree with these basic principles of political science?) But they're not the whole story.
In this essay, I hope to show why a rigid, singular focus on original public meaning is a shortsighted way of interpreting many of the Constitution's provisions. In Part I, I discuss serious reasons to doubt the idea that the Framers actually believed in originalism as an interpretive theory. In Part II, I dissect Professor Lamparello's "ideal approach" to constitutional interpretation, highlighting its practical shortcomings and its lack of textual or historical support. And in Part III, I interrogate Professor Lamparello’s claim that originalism most effectively constrains judges.
I. Originalists bear the burden of proving that originalism was, in fact, the original intent of the Framers. But on that score, there is serious reason for doubt.
Originalism's focus on the Framers' intent raises a threshold question: did the Framers actually believe in originalism? Whether viewed through the lens of "New Originalism" (which eschews extratextual sources, focusing only on the original public meaning of the document's text) or "Traditional Originalism" (which focuses on the drafters' subjective intent), there are serious reasons to doubt that the Framers would have actually endorsed the theory.
A. The Constitution's text, structure, and purpose all cast doubt on the idea that the Framers would have preferred originalist judges.
In interpreting the Constitution, we must start with its text. To be sure, the text is frequently clear and free from ambiguity--nobody could seriously argue, for example, that Article I allows a state to elect three senators--and when the text is clear, the inquiry ceases. But the text also contains many provisions with broad, normative language. Take, for example, the Constitution's guarantee of "equal protection of the laws," its prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments," or its clause forbidding "unreasonable searches and seizures." It's no coincidence that many of these nebulous, normative words are found within the Constitution's substantive guarantees.
Why would the Framers purposefully choose such ambiguous, value-based language? First, it was politically savvy, since it provided a way to quell the local concerns that presumably would have arisen during the states' ratification debates. But more importantly, the Framers wanted their document to have staying power. This is expressly confirmed by the Constitution's Preamble--which, originalists should agree, is a proper source of clarification in the face of textual ambiguity--where it states that one of the Constitution's core purposes is "to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."
Let's pause here to nip a possible misapprehension in the bud. Readers may presume I'm arguing for a Constitution whose fundamental meaning changes over time. Not so. The meaning of the Constitution's words doesn't change; I do not argue, for example, that "equal protection" should be redefined to sanction unequal insecurity. But, as mentioned, the Constitution frequently uses ambiguous, normative language. While the meaning of the words shouldn't change, our societal conception of what fits within those words--i.e., what those words tell judges they should be looking for--can grow. That's a key difference.
Consider, for example, the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Few historians would argue that the Equal Protection Clause was intended to apply to women; conventional wisdom holds that the Reconstruction Amendments were principally aimed at combating racial prejudice against Black citizens. Indeed, in 1868, no state had an operative women's suffrage law, and coverture still held a grip on American gender relations. And yet, the Amendment's words are plain: no State may "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." While women might not have been considered "persons" deserving of "equal protection" in 1868, our attitudes and prejudices on that front have changed. For that reason, the Supreme Court correctly held in Reed v. Reed that the Equal Protection Clause applies to women. Critically, the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause didn't change; the Court did not hold, for example, that the Clause no longer applied to Black citizens. Our understanding of what the Equal Protection Clause tells us to look for, however, evolved.
Would an originalist, focused solely on the ratifying generation's understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment's text, reach the Reed Court's conclusion? I have my doubts.
Eighth Amendment jurisprudence provides a contrary example—one where the Court has wrongly changed the standard. The Eighth Amendment forbids "cruel and unusual punishments." But one cannot determine what is "cruel" without engaging in a normative, moral analysis. For this reason, the U.S. Supreme Court has correctly concluded that a punishment is unconstitutionally cruel if it is considered cruel in light of the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." But, critically, the Court has also held—wrongly, I contend—that the Eighth Amendment does not draw any meaning from “the standards that prevailed . . . when the Bill of Rights was adopted[.]”
The more proper reading of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause would hold that it prohibits both (1) punishments that would have been considered cruel and unusual in the founding era and (2) punishments that are cruel and unusual under our maturing society’s evolving standards of decency. Had the Court not discarded history, this "evolving standards of decency" test wouldn’t have changed the meaning of the phrase "cruel and unusual" at all; it would have given full effect to the phrase by recognizing that it’s both descriptive and normative.
Undeniably, originalists make many good points. But too often, by refusing to look past the "original public meaning" of a constitutional provision, originalists unduly constrict (and therefore change) the Constitution's normative language. In doing so, originalists commit the same sin they swear to disavow.
B. The historical record, too, casts doubt on the idea that the Framers would have approved of originalism.
Originalists insist that New Originalism was actually the authoritative American method of legal interpretation until the mid-twentieth century, when Chief Justice Earl Warren took the bench. But here again, history renders that claim dubious.
Take, for example, William Blackstone, who most scholars consider the authoritative expositor of the common law. Justice Scalia has famously called Blackstone a "thoroughgoing originalist." Yet, in his Commentaries on the Law of England, Blackstone said that "the fairest and most rational method to interpret the will of the legislator, is by exploring his intentions at the time when the law made, by signs the most natural and probable. And these signs are either the words, the context, the subject matter, the effects and consequence, or the spirit and reason of the law." Blackstone also said that "the most universal and effectual way of discovering the true meaning of a law, when the words are dubious, is by considering the reason and spirit of it; or the cause which moved the legislator to enact it." That's hardly the stuff of modern-day originalism.
Consider, also, Chief Justice Marshall. In Cohens v. Virginia, Marshall asked rhetorically whether "the spirit of the constitution" would justify Virginia's exempting itself from the federal constitution. And in McCulloch v. Maryland, Marshall said that "all means which are . . . not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional." Admittedly, Marshall also argued--as I do--that although "the spirit of an instrument, especially a constitution, is to be respected not less than its letter . . . the spirit is to be collected chiefly from its words." But the fact remains: Marshall was far from the rigid originalist many claim.
Thomas Jefferson provides another example. Concededly, Jefferson was in Paris during the summer of 1787, so his views on the Constitution cannot be considered controlling. But, as a leading figure of the founding generation, and James Madison's friend and mentor, his insight into the Constitution is undeniably relevant. Jefferson wrote this to Samuel Kercheval in 1816:
Some men look at Constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, & deem them, like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. they ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well: I belonged to it, and labored with it. it deserved well of it’s country. it was very like the present, but without the experience of the present: and 40. years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading: and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent & untried changes in laws and constitutions . . . but I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind . . . we might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
All this is not to say that contrary evidence tending to support originalism can't be found. It certainly can. But that's precisely the point: the historical record from the Founding generation is hardly as one-sided as originalists claim.
II. Professor Lamparello's "ideal" conception of originalism requires revising the constitutional text he claims to venerate.
Most of Professor Lamparello's essay presents garden-variety originalist arguments. But one downright surprising argument comes near the end, where he says that whenever a law is challenged under a constitutional provision reasonably susceptible of two or more interpretations--for example, the "cruel and unusual punishments" clause--"the ideal approach would be for the Court to defer to the coordinate branches" and uphold the law's constitutionality.
That argument reflects a shockingly limited perception of the proper role of the judiciary--one that's entirely atextual. The drafters easily could have written, for example, that "no act of Congress may be struck down as violative of the provisions of this Constitution, unless the act's unconstitutionality be clear and free from doubt." But, as Hamilton pointed out in The Federalist No. 78, the drafters said no such thing:
If it be said that the legislative body are themselves the constitutional judges of their own powers, and that the construction they put upon them is conclusive upon the other departments, it may be answered, that this cannot be the natural presumption, where it is not to be collected from any particular provisions in the Constitution. It is not otherwise to be supposed, that the Constitution could intend to enable the representatives of the people to substitute their WILL to that of their constituents. It is far more rational to suppose, that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority.
For someone so concerned about judicial legislation, it is certainly odd for Professor Lamparello to invent constitutional rules out of thin air. And for someone so focused on the original public meaning of the Constitution, it is equally odd to advocate for an interpretive theory that faces such directly countervailing historical evidence.
Professor Lamparello's theory is also impractical and ahistorical. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, pitched the Bill of Rights as a document that would make judges "guardians" of individual rights, just like Hamilton did in the passage excerpted above. But if judges could only strike down a law when no reasonable person could defend the law's constitutionality, then how could the judiciary effectively guard citizens' rights in the ordinary case? After all, in what case can't one think of reasonable, good-faith arguments on both sides of a constitutional issue? If the Framers actually intended the judiciary to defer to the political branches whenever presented with two plausible, competing arguments, then why include these constitutional prescriptions in the first place? Wouldn't it be easier to simply say nothing and let the states legislate as they see fit?
III. Originalism, while theoretically attractive, does a poor job of constraining judges.
Originalism hails itself as the best way to constrain judges. Critics have long questioned that claim, too.
To see why, consider District of Columbia v. Heller. In Heller, both the majority and dissenting opinions cited historical evidence supporting their constitutional interpretation of the Second Amendment. Fourth Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III has argued that, given the murky historical record in Heller, the Court should have stayed its hand and declined to strike down the District of Columbia's handgun prohibition. And as Judge Posner has noted, Judge Wilkinson's argument finds support from an unlikely source: Justice Scalia's treatise on legal interpretation. In the Foreword of Justice Scalia's treatise, Judge Easterbrook says this:
Words don't have intrinsic meanings; the significance of an expression depends on how the interpretive community alive at the time of the text's adoption understood those words. The older the text, the more distant that interpretive community from our own. At some point the difference becomes so great that the meaning is no longer recoverable reliably. . . . [When that happens, the courts should] declare that meaning has been lost, so that the living political community must choose.
This is a version of the judicial-restraint principle for which Professor Lamparello, Justice Scalia, and other originalists advocate. In Heller, Justice Scalia's reading of the Second Amendment's history was likely erroneous. But even if the history is mixed, that should have led Justice Scalia to conclude that the relevant meaning had been "lost to the passage of time" and to entrust the answer to the living political community. The "living political community" in Heller was the District of Columbia legislature. But, far from exercising the democratic "deference" Professor Lamparello advocates, the Court struck down the District of Columbia's gun-ownership prohibition.
And historical questions plagued more than just the Heller majority's holding. In a dictum, the Court explained the contours of the right it recognized:
[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.
As Professor Reva Siegel has persuasively argued, there is little historical evidence supporting this passage, and it actually contradicts the Second Amendment's textually enunciated purposes. "In these passages," Professor Siegel concludes, "Justice Scalia seems to apply something other than an original 'public understanding' analysis."
United States v. Eichman provides another example of how originalism fails to constrain judges. In Eichman, Justice Scalia voted to strike down a federal statute outlawing the burning of the American flag. To Scalia's credit, it was a vote against his political predilections. But it was certainly an odd ruling for an originalist. The governing constitutional provision--"Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech"--says nothing about non-verbal forms of protest. And the eighteenth-century conception of the speech right was much narrower than our modern understanding. According to Blackstone, at common law, freedom of speech only forbade prior restraints on speech; it did not prohibit after-the-fact punishment of speech determined to be blasphemous, obscene, or seditious. Thus, a First Amendment that bans prohibitions on flag burning is decidedly unoriginalist.
Apparently anticipating the objection raised in this Part, Professor Lamparello preemptively defends his position by arguing that "in some circumstances, judges do rely on originalism to reach outcomes that coincide with their policy preferences. However, that reflects bad judging, not problems with originalism per se." Is the truth so conveniently simple? Can we really shrug off as "bad judging" the remarkable methodological elasticity of originalism's leading champion? Or is it possible that the problem lies deeper below the surface?
* * *
To be sure, no theory of constitutional interpretation is perfect. But the manifold problems with originalism--too many to detail exhaustively in this short essay—lead me to question whether, as Professor Lamparello insists, originalism is the best we can do.
 See, e.g., District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 576 (2008).
 See U.S. Const. art. I, § 3, cl. 1.
 U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.
 U.S. Const. amend. VIII.
 U.S. Const. amend. IV.
 See Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 217 (1st ed. 2012) (hereinafter “Scalia & Garner, Reading Law) (approving of interpretive canon providing that “[a] preamble . . . is a permissible indicator of meaning”).
 U.S. Const. pmbl. (emphasis added).
 See also Furman v. Ga., 408 U.S. 238, 382 (1972) (reasoning that “[t]he standard itself remains the same, but its applicability must change as the basic mores of society change”).
 See, e.g., Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36, 81 (1873).
 Women’s Suffrage in the U.S. by State, https://tag.rutgers.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/suffrage-by-state.pdf (last visited June 20, 2023).
 Encyclopedia Britannica, Coverture, https://www.britannica.com/topic/coverture (noting that “[c]overture was disassembled in the United States through legislation at the state level beginning in Mississippi in 1839 and continuing into the 1880s”).
 404 U.S. 71 (1971).
 U.S. Const. amend. VIII.
 Kennedy v. La., 554 U.S. 407, 419 (2008) (quoting Furman, 408 U.S. at 382).
 Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958).
 Atkins v. Va., 536 U.S. 304, 311 (2002).
 Richard A. Posner, The Incoherence of Antonin Scalia, New Republic (Aug. 24, 2012), https://newrepublic.com/article/106441/scalia-garner-reading-the-law-textual-originalism (hereinafter “Posner, Incoherence”).
 19 U.S. 264 (1821).
 Id. at 383.
 17 U.S. 316 (1819).
 Id. at 421 (emphasis added).
 Sturges v. Crowninshield, 17 U.S. 122, 202 (1819).
 The Federalist No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton).
 The Bill of Rights: Its History & Significance, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/billofrightsintro.html (last visited June 20, 2023).
 554 U.S. 570 (2008).
 Posner, Incoherence.
 Scalia & Garner, Reading Law at xxv.
 Posner, Incoherence (noting that “most professional historians reject the historical analysis in Scalia’s opinion”).
 Scalia & Garner, Reading Law at xxv.
 Heller, 554 U.S. at 626-27.
 See generally Reva B. Siegel, Dead or Alive: Originalism as Popular Constitutionalism in Heller, 122 Harv. L. Rev. 191 (2008).
 Id. at 200.
 496 U.S. 310 (1990).
 Id. at 312.
 U.S. Const. amend. I.
 Posner, Incoherence.
June 20, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Religion, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, June 20, 2021
In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the United States Supreme Court confronted the question of whether the City of Philadelphia could deny a contract to a Catholic foster care agency (Catholic Social Services) because the agency refused to provide service to same-sex couples. The city argued that the agency's policy violated the city’s anti-discrimination law, which prohibits discrimination based on, among other things sexual orientation.
By way of background, in Employment Division v. Smith, the Court held that neutral laws of general applicability that incidentally burden religion do not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Writing on behalf of the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia relied in part on Reynolds v. United States to hold that the Free Exercise Clause does not permit religious organizations to receive exemptions from generally applicable laws. Justice Scalia reasoned that to allow such exemptions “would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself." Justice Scalia held that religious exemptions could be granted only when an alleged violation of religious liberty was coupled with a violation of another constitutional right. For example, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court held that the parents of an Amish child were exempt from a generally applicable law requiring all children to attend public school until the age of sixteen because the law infringed on both the parents’ religious liberty and the fundamental right to direct the upbringing of their children.
The Court’s decision in Smith has proved quite controversial, as some argue that it is inconsistent with the original purpose of the Free Exercise Clause. And Smith has been implicated in recent disputes involving the balance between accommodating individuals’ religious beliefs and protecting citizens against discrimination. For example, in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a cakeshop owner refused to design a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple, arguing that doing so would violate his religious beliefs. The State of Colorado argued that the cakeshop owner's refusal violated its generally applicable anti-discrimination law, which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. The facts in Masterpiece Cakeshop arguably presented the Court with the issue of whether Smith should be overruled.
But the Court avoided the question.
Instead, it ruled on very narrow grounds, holding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had demonstrated hostility toward the cakeshop owner’s religion when addressing his claim. As a result, Masterpiece Cakeshop resolved nothing. The decision provided no clarity or guidance to courts and citizens regarding the Free Exercise Clause. It was a missed opportunity.
Not surprisingly, three years later in Fulton, the same issue arose again when Philadelphia denied a contract to Catholic Social Services because it refused to offer services to same-sex couples. As in Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Court was faced with the question of whether Smith should be overruled.
Yet again, the Court avoided the question.
Instead, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court issued a very narrow decision in favor of Catholic Social Services, holding that Philadelphia’s anti-discrimination law was not generally applicable because the city retained the discretion to grant exemptions to the law. This led to a narrow, unanimous ruling for Catholic Social Services. But again, the decision failed to resolve the underlying question of whether Smith should be overruled and avoided addressing how to balance an individual’s right to religious liberty against another individual’s right to be free from unlawful discrimination. The result is that one of the most sacrosanct constitutional rights – the free exercise of religion – is now marred in constitutional purgatory, with no clarification or guidance about the scope of this right and the limits on state power.
Fulton was legal gymnastics at its finest. And politics at its worst.
Sadly, the decision in Fulton is yet another example of Chief Justice Roberts's disappointing jurisprudence.
To be clear, by all accounts Chief Justice Roberts is a brilliant and ethical jurist – and a great person. Roberts is deeply committed to preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy and to avoiding the perception that politics and ideology motivate the Court’s decisions. To that end, Roberts strives to achieve consensus on the Court and avoid controversial 5-4 decisions. To reach consensus, Roberts seeks to decide each case on the narrowest ground possible, which often has the effect, as in Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton¸ of rarely addressing the fundamental constitutional issues that undergird many cases and, concomitantly, failing to clarify the law.
The ugly truth about this approach is that it causes precisely what Chief Justice Roberts hopes to avoid: it politicizes the Court, undermines its institutional legitimacy, and destabilizes the rule of law. And it causes Roberts to become precisely what he disavows: a political actor.
As stated above, it is politics at its worst.
Unfortunately, even a cursory examination of Roberts’s jurisprudence in recent years reveals that his decisions often result from political calculations rather than principled constitutional considerations.
Indeed, Roberts’s decision in Fulton was eerily reminiscent of his decision in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, where the primary issue confronting the Court was whether the Affordable Care Act violated the Commerce Clause. Roberts agreed that the Act violated the Commerce Clause, yet after initially voting to invalidate the Act, Roberts reversed course and concluded that the Act was a proper exercise of Congress’s taxing power. It was apparent that Roberts was trying to find a way – any way – to avoid issuing a decision that might compromise the Court’s legitimacy, lead to a divisive decision, and be perceived as political.
Yet, Roberts created precisely that result. The Court’s legitimacy was damaged because the decision was so obviously based on political calculations, not constitutional principles.
This is not the first time that Roberts has engaged in legal gymnastics that elevate politics over the rule of law and provide no clarity, guidance, stability, or predictability on important legal issues affecting civil rights and liberties. For example, in June Medical Services v. Russo, Roberts concurred in a decision that invalidated a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges. Roberts argued that, based on the Court’s decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt, where it invalidated a nearly identical law in Texas (although Roberts dissented), principles of stare decisis required him to invalidate the Louisiana law.
But Roberts’s jurisprudence shows that he has an on-again, off-again relationship with stare decisis. In Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, which addressed a union’s ability to collect fees from non-union members, Roberts joined the majority in overruling Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which had been valid law for over forty years. And in Citizens United v. FEC, Roberts joined a 5-4 majority that invalidated a federal law restricting independent expenditures from corporations; in so holding, the Court overruled Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which held that restrictions on corporate speech did not violate the First Amendment. Thus, Roberts’s reliance on stare decisis in June Medical Services was about as disingenuous and manipulative as it gets. Simply put, when a concern for institutional legitimacy triumphs over the rule of law, the result is an unprincipled jurisprudence that at its core is political.
If Chief Justice Roberts values the Court’s institutional legitimacy, he should prioritize the rule of law and base his decisions on reasonable interpretations of the Constitution. He should stop avoiding the real issues that are presented in each case. He should make decisions based on what he believes, not on how others may react to a particular decision. In doing so, Roberts would demonstrate that he is faithful to the Constitution and the rule of law, and that his decisions are based on principle, not politics.
To date, sadly, Chief Justice Roberts has become the Court’s most political actor. And the Court is unquestionably a political institution.
 No. 19-123, available at: 19-123 Fulton v. Philadelphia (06/17/2021) (supremecourt.gov)
 See id.
 494 U.S. 872 (1990).
 See id.
 See id.
 406 U.S. 205 (1972).
 See Brief of Amicus Curiae Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence in Support of Petitioners, available at: 20200602142513866_19-123 CCJ tsac.pdf (supremecourt.gov)
 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018)
 See id.
 See id.
 No. 19-123, available at: 19-123 Fulton v. Philadelphia (06/17/2021) (supremecourt.gov)
 567 U.S. 519 (2012).
 See id.
 2020 WL 3492640 (2020)
 138 S. Ct. 2448.
 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
Sunday, November 29, 2020
In Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn sought emergency injunctive relief, claiming that an Executive Order issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo regarding, among other things, capacity limits at houses of worship, violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
The Free Exercise Clause provides citizens with the liberty to freely hold and practice religious beliefs without government interference. The right to freely exercise religion, however, is not absolute, and the United States Supreme Court’s jurisprudence has established several principles regarding the scope of religious liberty. First, although the government may not regulate religious beliefs, it may, in some circumstances, regulate religious practices. Second, the government may not enact laws that impose a substantial burden on religious practices. Third, courts may not assess the validity of particular religious beliefs when deciding if the Free Exercise Clause’s protections apply. Fourth, the government may not coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs. Fifth, the government may not target or discriminate against religion generally or specific religious denominations.
In Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, the issue concerned whether Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order impermissibly targeted houses of worship for disparate treatment. By way of background, in response to the rising rates of Covid-19 infections in New York, Governor Cuomo adopted a color-coded microcluster model that designated areas of New York as red, orange, or yellow zones. These zones were defined as follows:
Red zones: areas where the seven-day rolling positivity rate was above 4% for ten days.
Orange zones: areas where the seven-day rolling positivity rate was above 3% for ten days.
Yellow zones: areas where the seven-day rolling positivity rate was above 2.5% for ten days.
In red zones, no more than ten persons were permitted to attend religious services, and in yellow zones, no more than twenty-five persons could attend religious services, regardless of the seating capacity of a particular house of worship. In these same zones, however, all businesses deemed “essential,” which included acupuncture facilities and liquor stores, were not subject to these capacity restrictions. Furthermore, in “orange” zones, even “non-essential” businesses were not subject to any capacity restrictions.
In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court held that Governor Cuomo’s restrictions on gatherings at various houses of worship in red and orange zones violated the Free Exercise Clause. To begin with, the Court held that these restrictions did not constitute “laws of general applicability” (i.e., the capacity limits applied exclusively to places of worship), and thus applied strict scrutiny, which required New York to demonstrate that the Executive Order furthered a compelling government interest, was narrowly tailored, and constituted the least restrictive means of achieving the asserted governmental interest.
Although holding that the interest in reducing the spread of Covid-19 was undoubtedly compelling, the Court held that the restrictions were not narrowly tailored. For example, the capacity limits could have been tied to the size of a church or synagogue, particularly given that, in the red and orange zones, fourteen churches could accommodate at least 700 people, and two could accommodate at least 1,000 people. Given these facts, the Court noted that “[i]t is hard to believe that admitting more than 10 people to a 1,000-seat church or 400-seat synagogue would create a more serious health risk than the many other activities that the State allows.” Moreover, as Justice Neil Gorsuch stated in his concurring opinion, these restrictions applied “no matter the precautions taken, including social distancing, wearing masks, leaving doors and windows open, forgoing singing, and disinfecting spaces between services.” This was particularly troublesome given that, as Justice Gorsuch stated, secular businesses deemed “essential” faced no similar restrictions:
[T]he Governor has chosen to impose no capacity restrictions on certain businesses he considers “essential.” And it turns out the businesses the Governor considers essential include hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores. Bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential too. So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?
Additionally, Justice Gorsuch explained that the differential treatment of places of worship implicated precisely the type of discrimination that the Free Exercise prohibited:
People may gather inside for extended periods in bus stations and airports, in laundromats and banks, in hardware stores and liquor shops. No apparent reason exists why people may not gather, subject to identical restrictions, in churches or synagogues, especially when religious institutions have made plain that they stand ready, able, and willing to follow all the safety precautions required of “essential” businesses and perhaps more besides. The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as “essential” as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all “essential” while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.
Thus, the restrictions, “by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”
Chief Justice Roberts dissented, arguing that, because Governor Cuomo had recently re-codified the areas in question as yellow zones, and thus removed the restrictions on the houses of worship in question, the issue was essentially moot. For this reason, although questioning the constitutionality of Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order, Chief Justice Roberts did not believe that the Court needed to decide the issue at this juncture.
Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Kagan, also dissented, arguing that the restrictions treated houses of worship identically to other similarly situated businesses. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor relied on the Court’s prior decisions in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom and Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, where the Court held that the government may restrict attendance at houses of worship provided that comparable secular institutions faced equally restrictive measures. Based on these decisions, Justice Sotomayor argued that the Executive Order passed constitutional muster because it imposed equally stringent restrictions on other activities where “large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time,” such as “lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances,”  Put differently, the Executive Order treated differently “only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.”
Regardless of what one thinks of the Court’s decision, the justices’ opinions were quite revealing for other reasons.
1. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch aren’t best friends
Based on the language and tone of their opinions, it appears that tension exists between Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch. For example, in his concurrence, Justice Gorsuch severely criticized Chief Justice Roberts’s concurrence in South Bay United Pentecostal Church, stating as follows:
What could justify so radical a departure from the First Amendment’s terms and long-settled rules about its application? Our colleagues offer two possible answers. Initially, some point to a solo concurrence in South Bay Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, 590 U. S. ___ (2020), in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE expressed willingness to defer to executive orders in the pandemic’s early stages based on the newness of the emergency and how little was then known about the disease. At that time, COVID had been with us, in earnest, for just three months. Now, as we round out 2020 and face the prospect of entering a second calendar year living in the pandemic’s shadow, that rationale has expired according to its own terms. Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical. Rather than apply a nonbinding and expired concurrence from South Bay, courts must resume applying the Free Exercise Clause.
In fact, Justice Gorsuch went so far as to suggest that Chief Justice Roberts, by refusing the rule on the merits, was concerned more with political rather than legal considerations:
In the end, I can only surmise that much of the answer [to why the dissenters did not find the Executive Order unconstitutional] lies in a particular judicial impulse to stay out of the way in times of crisis. But if that impulse may be understandable or even admirable in other circumstances, we may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack. Things never go well when we do.
In Justice Gorsuch’s view, “[t]o turn away religious leaders bringing meritorious claims just because the Governor decided to hit the “off ” switch in the shadow of our review would be, in my view, just another sacrifice of fundamental rights in the name of judicial modesty.”
Chief Justice Roberts responded to Justice Gorsuch’s concurring opinion in an equally dismissive tone, stating as follows:
To be clear, I do not regard my dissenting colleagues as “cutting the Constitution loose during a pandemic,” yielding to “a particular judicial impulse to stay out of the way in times of crisis,” or “shelter[ing] in place when the Constitution is under attack.” Ante, at 3, 5–6 (opinion of GORSUCH, J.). They simply view the matter differently after careful study and analysis reflecting their best efforts to fulfill their responsibility under the Constitution.
The tone of both opinions suggests that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Gorsuch are not the best of friends. The reason is likely that Justice Gorsuch, an originalist who strives to uphold the rule of law regardless of an outcome’s desirability, views Chief Justice Roberts as capitulating to, even prioritizing, political considerations over principled legal analysis.
2. Chief Justice Roberts is arguably prioritizing politics over the rule of law
Chief Justice Roberts’s approach to deciding cases has changed considerably from his previously expressed fidelity to originalism and to a modest judicial role that, in his words, was analogous to umpires calling balls and strikes.
Indeed, as Justice Gorsuch intimated, in some cases Chief Justice Roberts appears more concerned with preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy than with engaging in principled legal analysis. And the consequences are likely to cause precisely the result that Roberts seeks to avoid: the politicization of the judiciary. After all, what is the criteria by which to decide whether a decision will preserve the Court’s legitimacy? Little more than a justice’s subjective values. Put differently, concerns regarding what constitutes a “legitimate” decision are predicated on nothing more than prevailing political attitudes rather than principled legal considerations. Such an approach abdicates the judicial role and weakens the rule of law. As Justice Gorsuch stated, “we may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack.”
Additionally, Chief Justice Roberts’s jurisprudence suggests that he lacks a coherent judicial philosophy. On one hand, for example, in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice Roberts voted to invalidate two provisions of the Voting Rights Act in (despite a vote of 98-0 to re-authorize these provisions), but on the other hand, in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, Roberts went to great – and dubious – lengths to uphold the Affordable Care Act. This is just one of many examples where Chief Justice Roberts’s adherence to certain principles, such as deference to the coordinate branches, is inconsistent and unpredictable.
Simply put, Chief Justice Roberts’s focus on preserving the Court’s legitimacy is likely to cause the very result he so ardently seeks to avoid, namely, politicizing the Court and the judiciary.
3. Ideology continues to influence the justices’ decisions
It is not difficult to predict how the justices will rule in cases involving, for example, the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Indeed, the justices’ decisions in such cases often coincide with their perceived ideological preferences. For example, in cases involving affirmative action, it is all but certain that Justice Sonia Sotomayor will vote to uphold almost any affirmative action policy. In cases involving abortion, it is all but certain that Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito will vote to uphold restrictions on abortion and argue for the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Not surprisingly, the Court’s 5-4 decisions often predictably split along ideological lines. Some may argue that these decisions reflect the justices’ different judicial and interpretive philosophies, but the fact remains that such decisions almost always coincide with the justices’ policy predilections. And that is precisely what has politicized the judiciary.
These and other concerns lead to the conclusion that perhaps the best way for the Court to preserve its legitimacy is for it to deny certiorari in politically and socially divisive cases where the Constitution’s text is silent or ambiguous. Simply put, the Court should leave more disputes to the democratic process.
 592 U.S. (2020), available at: 20A87 Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo (11/25/2020) (supremecourt.gov).
 See Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878)
 See Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).
 See United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78 (1044).
 See Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass’n, 485 U.S. 439 (1988).
 See Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc., v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993).
 See Lisa L. Colengelo, Yellow, Orange, and Red: How New York’s Covid-19 Microclusters Work (Nov. 24, 2020), available at: Yellow, orange and red: How New York's COVID-19 microclusters work | Newsday
 592 U.S. (2020), available at: 20A87 Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo (11/25/2020) (supremecourt.gov).
 See id.
 See id.
 See id.
 Id. (Gorsuch, J., concurring)
 See id.
 See id. (Justice Breyer also dissented on similar grounds).
 See id. (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).
 See id.; South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, 590 U.S. , (2020), available at; 19a1044_pok0.pdf (supremecourt.gov); Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, 591 U.S. , available at: 19a1070_08l1.pdf (supremecourt.gov)
 Id. (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).
 Id. (Gorsuch, J. concurring).
 Id. (Roberts, J., concurring).
 Id. (Gorsuch, J., concurring).
Friday, June 12, 2020
Addressing Bias in Our Briefs and in the Legal Writing Classroom: If You Want Peace, Work for Justice
Like so many of us, I have spent the last few months worrying. I have been very worried about my law students’ physical and mental well-being. As a parent, I’m losing sleep over concerns for my high-school and college-aged children. But for the last two weeks especially, I have been incredibly anxious about the lack of justice in our country.
As a teen, I loved the statement, “if you want peace, work for justice.” I did not know then the phrase has roots in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but I knew it made sense. See, e.g., Ronald C. Smith, If You Want Peace, Work for Justice, 16 Crim. Just. 1, 2 (ABA Fall, 2001) (using the phrase to call for justice after 9/11 and discussing the role of the criminal justice bar in ensuring freedoms and liberties to bring peace); Samuel J. Levine, The Broad Life of the Jewish Lawyer: Integrating Spirituality, Scholarship and Profession, 27 Tex. Tech L. Rev. 1199, 1206-09 (1996). To me, one small way we can all start to make changes for more justice is by being more intentional in discussing bias in our writing, practice, and teaching.
As appellate lawyers, we often have a good overview of problems in the trial court, and sometimes we can see racism and bias as well. While we cannot present something beyond the record in a brief, we can do better at discussing what the record supports, and in having painful conversations with our trial counsel and clients. Our courts have been increasingly willing to discuss bias, and one recently stressed the need to take “teachable moments” to end bias. See Briganti v. Chow, 42 Cal. App. 4th 504, 510-13 (2019); Debra Cassens Weiss, “Appeals court sees lawyer's reference to 'attractive' judge in brief as a 'teachable moment' on sexism,” http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/appeals-court-sees-lawyers-reference-to-attractive-judge-in-brief-as-a-teachable-moment-on-sexism (Nov. 27, 2019). We too should advocate for professionalism, and against bias, in our practice. Of course, this is easier said than done, and our obligation is to our client, but if we start more conversations about what happened at trial and seize more opportunities to start a dialogue on professionalism, we will be working for justice.
Moreover, as legal writing teachers, we have great opportunities to include discussions of racism in our work. In doing so, we need not stray from our “assigned” role as writing teachers, since we also have an obligation to teach ethical practice as part of legal writing and analysis. In fact, we already stress important topics of professionalism in myriad ways. For example, many of us use cases on disbarment when we teach case briefing, and discuss the results of missed deadlines or failure to follow court rules as part of our teaching for memos and briefs. Additionally, I used problems on curing attorney errors for my trial brief problems for years. Now, we can include cases leading to discussions of bias as well. Using problems based in some legal areas, like Fourth Amendment pretextual stops and Title VII discrimination, will easily lead to discussions of racism and how writers and lawyers can address injustice. Using problems based in other substantive areas, like false imprisonment or real property, can create wonderful openings for discussing implicit bias and raising awareness, all while teaching crucial legal analysis and writing skills. I am not suggesting professors should or should not share their own views in these discussions, I am just noting a discussion of bias in the law and legal profession is a logical and important part of the ethical issues we already teach.
As Ronald Smith said of working for justice to bring peace: “think of another saying, ‘It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.’ [When] we seek justice each of us lights candles, [and] light[s] the way for others to see how they . . . can light candles and work for justice, too.” Smith, If You Want Peace, Work for Justice, 16 Crim. Just. at 3.
I wish you all good health and less worry, with hopes for a more just future.
Sunday, February 16, 2020
In Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Court confronted the issue of whether the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment permits a business owner to refuse service to individuals – in violation of a state anti-discrimination statute – if providing such service would violate the business owner’s religious beliefs. By way of background, the Petitioner, a small business owner in Colorado, refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because doing so would have violated the business owner’s religious beliefs. The Respondent, Colorado Civil Rights Commission, later held that the business owner’s refusal to serve the same-sex couple violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination law. In so holding, the Commission rejected the Petitioner’s religious liberty claim.
Unquestionably, Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. implicated the tension between liberty (i.e., permitting individuals to freely exercise their religious beliefs) and equality (i.e., the statutory and, in some situations, constitutional right to freedom from discrimination), and underscored the difficulty in balancing these competing interests. Indeed, how should this tension be resolved and what standard or criteria should be adopted to guide lower courts in future cases?
In its decision, the Court did not answer these questions. Instead, the Court issued a narrow decision in which it held that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s decision was procedurally unfair because the Commission displayed impermissible hostility toward religion during the hearing. Thus, the underlying legal issue remains unresolved, although it will likely only be a matter of time before the Court again confronts this question.
The purpose of the Free Exercise Clause, and the Court’s jurisprudence, has established several principles that may help to address the question presented in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. and guide lower courts in future cases. To begin with, a core purpose of the Free Exercise Clause is to ensure that individuals can freely exercise their religious beliefs without undue interference, and absent coercion or fear of reprisal. Indeed, the right to religious freedom is essential to safeguarding individual liberty. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stated in City of Boerne v. Flores, “[g]iven centrality of freedom of speech and religion to the American concept of personal liberty, it is altogether reasonable to conclude that both should be treated with the highest degree of respect.”
Importantly, however, the right to religious freedom is not absolute. In limited circumstances, laws infringing on religious liberty will be upheld if they further compelling government interests, are narrowly tailored, and constitute the least restrictive means of achieving the stated interests. The Court’s jurisprudence has established several principles that clarify the extent to which the government may restrict religious liberty.
First, the Court distinguishes between religious beliefs and practices, the latter of which is subject to restriction. As the Court held in Reynolds v. United States, “[l]aws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.”
Second, any law that coerces individuals into acting contrary to their beliefs violates the Free Exercise Clause. In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass’n, the Court emphasized that states “may make it more difficult to practice certain religions,” provide that state laws “have no tendency to coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs do.”
Third, states may not enact laws that target specific religions or religious practices. For example, in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, the Court invalidated a law banning the ritual sacrifice of animals because the record indicated that the law was aimed at suppressing core aspects of a worship service conducted by the Santeria religion. As Justice Anthony Kennedy explained, states “may not devise mechanisms, overt or disguised, designed to persecute or oppress a religion or its practices.”
Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, in Employment Division v. Smith, the Court held that generally applicable laws do not violate the Free Exercise Clause if they only incidentally burden religious practices. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that “[i]t is a permissible reading of the text … to say that if prohibiting the exercise of religion … is not the object … but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended.” The Court’s holding in Smith overruled its prior decision in Sherbert v. Verner, where the Court held that individuals may seek exemptions from laws that infringe on their religious freedom.
In response to Smith, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states that any law resulting in a “substantial burden” on religious practices violates the Free Exercise Clause unless it furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means to achieve that interest. However, in City of Boerne, the Court held that the Act does not apply to the states. Thus, in Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Act was not relevant to the Court’s decision.
Ultimately, it is difficult to predict how the Court will rule when, in all likelihood, it is confronted with this or a very similar issue in the future. In Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd., Justice Kennedy suggested that “while … religious and philosophical objections are protected … such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.” However, Justice Kennedy retired from the Court in 2018 and it is by no means certain that his replacement, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, or the majority of justices, would agree with this proposition.
If the Court does decide this issue in the future, Smith will be highly relevant. Specifically, the justices will likely address whether Smith should be overruled or modified. If the justices decline to overrule Smith, they will probably consider whether the law at issue only incidentally burdens religious liberty or is sufficiently burdensome that it violates the Free Exercise Clause. Additionally, the Court will likely examine whether the law coerces individuals into violating their religious beliefs or impermissibly targets specific religious practices.
As stated above, it is difficult to predict how the Court will rule. Whatever the result, the Court will hopefully adopt a workable standard that clarifies the appropriate balance between liberty and equality, and that effectively guides lower courts, thus avoiding confusion regarding how these interests are balanced in future cases. However, given the fact-specific nature of cases in this area, the Court’s desire to maintain institutional legitimacy, and its understandable reticence to issue broad and sweeping decisions, the Court will most likely issue a narrow ruling that leaves to the lower courts the task of clarifying and developing the law in future cases.
 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2017).
 See id.
 See id. (Specifically, the Court highlighted the following language as evidence of the Commission’s hostility toward religion: “Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others”).
 U.S. Const., Amend. I (providing in relevant part that “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise [of] religion”).
 521 U.S. 507, 564-65 (1997).
 See id. at 555 (O’Connor, J., dissenting) (“[T]he right to free exercise was viewed as generally superior to ordinary legislation, to be overridden only when necessary to secure important government purposes”).
 98 U.S. 145, 166 (1878).
 485 U.S. 439 (1988).
 508 U.S. 520 (1993).
 Id. at 547.
 494 U.S. 872 (1990).
 Id. at 878.
 374 U.S. 398 (1963).
 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(a)(2012).
 521 U.S. 507.
 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2017).
February 16, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Religion, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
I have mentioned in past blogs the importance of the "narrative paradigm" in communications theory. In a nutshell, this theory argues that there is more to persuasion than the logic of your argument. Instead, the "truthiness" of an argument can be compelling, regardless of its objective merits, when it matches the life-experiences and biases of the reader or listener.
In legal writing, we often use allusions, or even meme-like story indexes, in order to quickly hijack the meaning behind a certain story or narrative to fit our needs. This often takes the form of biblical parables in an attempt to quickly convey the "truthiness" of a statement. The parable of the two builders, one who builds on sand and another who builds on rock, for instance, is cited in several cases. The gist of the parable being that if you do not have a good foundation, you cannot build a lasting structure or legal argument.
Citing to the parable, courts often make this comparison. Thus, "a motion built on speculation and conjecture will rarely withstand the winds of scrutiny." Barnette v. Grizzly Processing, LLC, 2012 WL 1067076, *1 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 28, 2012) (unpublished). Or "using the common law as the basis for reasoning, is like building a house upon the sands instead of upon the rock." Ex parte Estep, 129 F.Supp. 557, 558 (N.D. Tex. 1955). Or, even more simply, "[t]he argument is as insubstantial as a house built upon the sand." Russel v. Gonyer, 264 F.2d 761, 762 (1st Cir. 1959).
We all think we get the gist of this parable - that you must have a firm foundation in your home, life, or argument, or it will all fall apart when tested. But most of us don't really understand what it originally meant.
Ray Vander Laan, a theologian with extensive time and training in the middle east, has pointed out that this understanding of the parable is most likely incomplete. In the part of the world that this story was first circulated, the people lived in a rocky desert, where the rocks occasionally give way to even, sand-covered wadis. The floor of a wadi would be the easiest place to build. It would also be the most foolish, because wadis flood in a very predictable and eye-catching fashion:
This cultural knowledge changes the meaning of the well-known parable. It isn't just foolish to build on sand because sand shifts - it is insane to build on sand, because the house will inevitably flood and be destroyed.
This illustration is important for more than just the biblically minded. It shows that the power of a story depends on its understanding, and that this understanding can shift and change over time and cultures. That means that when we reference allusions, or reference stories, we need to make sure that our readers will have the same understanding as ourselves.
Now, as long as our intended meaning meets the understanding of our audience, it does not really matter that the original meaning was something different. Thus, the quotations above still work, because the general understanding of the parable is that a shifting foundation is bad. It is only if we were communicating with the original audience that meaning would be lost.
But this story serves as a reminder that our storytelling is only effective when we know that our audience is going to understand it. I have commented before about how obscure literary references might be admirable, but ineffective if the reader has no reference to the work. Understanding the audience, and their reception of a particularly story index or allusion is necessary to properly telling the story. To paraphrase a well-known marketing book, "To be successful... today, you must touch base with reality. And the only reality that counts is what's already in the [audience's] mind." Al Ries & Jack Trout, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind 5 (rev'd ed. 1986).
This is not relevant just to the use of existing narratives, but to the stories you put together in your briefing. Remember that you may know the entire case and every detail, but that the court only knows what your present to them in the record. In order to make sure they hear the story you know, you must be sure to preserve all of the pieces of that story (by ensuring that all of your evidence makes it into the record at the trial level) and that you then present, on appeal, a complete narrative that contains each event or fact that makes your client's story persuasive. This includes facts that may not seem even legally relevant, but that are relevant to your audience.
In short, be sure you know what is in your audience's mind before you rely on narrative references to persuade them. Otherwise, you will be building an argument on shifting sand. And everyone knows that's a bad idea.
(Image source: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The (Greater) Tower of Babel (Vienna), 1563)
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
As appellate writers, we are painfully aware of the fact that our readers aren’t terribly fond of our work product. Judges tell us that our briefs are simply tools, and that they are tired of trudging to chambers with boxes (or ipads) full of briefs that are too wordy, too obscure, and just too painful to read to be of much use. Judges, meanwhile, are accused of writing opinions that are too wordy, too obscure, and inaccessible to anyone but other attorneys.
It is understandable, then, that legal writers both on and off the bench try to liven things up. Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, lawyers dream of turning in a piece of writing that, through shear skill, will temporarily lift our readers from their depression and convince them to joyfully deliver us our (client’s) wishes.
The use of literary allusion can help us make our writing more lively and informative. Allusions can build our credibility, illustrate the rightness of our position, and make our writing more accessible. But it is a two-edge sword: If used poorly, it can cause the reader to lose what little interest they had in our argument and even obscure our meaning.
Literary allusions can be very effective tools in legal writing.
The use of literary allusions is not universally praised. Indeed, Judge Posner, in his articles and book on the subject, Law and Literature, considers literature of little use to jurists, other than to serve as examples of good writing style. Nevertheless, most persuasive writing experts would argue that there are good rhetorical reasons to use literary allusions.
Aristotle identified three prongs of persuasion: ethos (credibility), pathos (emotional appeal), and logos (logical reasoning). Reference to literary allusion can assist with all three.
First, reference to “great” works can enhance the moral authority of the writer. Merely referencing Homer, Shakespeare, or a religious work such as the Bible, can confer some of the moral authority and weight of those works to the author. It can also demonstrate that the author is well read, and thus all the more to be trusted.
Second, quotations from literature can tie the emotion of the quoted work to the legal argument, invoking pathos. We are all taught to write narratively, because we are all storytellers and listeners by nature. Tying our characters to those of a great work ties the emotions inherent in those works to our characters.
Finally, allusion can help tie together a legal argument by way of illustration. There some general propositions that are difficult to state under stare decisis, but which seem immediately right when viewed through the eyes of literature. Thus, Aristotle invoked Sophocles’ Antigone to support his argument that respect for the dead is a universal law, as did Justice Kennedy, over 2000 years later. See Nat’l Archives & Records Admin. v. Favish, 541 U.S. 157, 168 (2004).
Make sure the allusion agrees with the law.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his famous essay, The Path of the Law, “[t]he law is full of phraseology drawn from morals, and by the mere force of language continually invites us to pass from one domain to the other without perceiving it, as we are sure to do unless we have the boundary constantly before our minds.” 10 Harvard L. Rev. 457, 469 (1897). These boundaries have often been made apparent when allusions to moral works conflict with statutory sentencing schemes.
For instance, the Fifth Circuit had to step in and correct a criminal defendant’s sentencing when it was based on reference to Dante’s circles of hell rather than the sentencing guidelines. See U.S. v. Andrews, 390 F.3d 840, 850 n.23 (5th Cir. 2004) (“The district court seems more comfortable with sentencing Andrews based on Dante’s levels of hell, but such a sentencing scheme has not been accepted as the law in this or any other federal circuit.”). Dante’s opinions notwithstanding, it was the duty of the court to apply the law, not literature.
Nevertheless, there are times when literature can inform the sense of justice upon which the law is built. Thus, the Seventh Circuit permitted a judge to rely (in part) on Dante’s Inferno in refusing a federal prosecutor’s recommendation to depart downward from sentencing guidelines because, even though the refusal to depart was stated to be based, in part, on literature rather than law, this was merely a reflection of the discretion vested in the trial judge by the guidelines. See U.S. v. Winters, 117 F.3d 346, 348, 350 (7th Cir. 1997).
The lesson? Literary allusions can lend force to a legal argument, but they should not supplant it.
Let the reader discover the allusion.
It is often best to let the reader discover the answer themselves. This is particular true with allusions. A quotation often will have less force than the sudden recognition that you are inviting the reader into the argument based on their own experiences.
Bryan Garner, in his A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, gives an excellent of example of subtle allusions in legal writing. He cites to the dissent of Justice Robert W. Hansen of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in Jones v. Fisher, 166 N.W.2d 175 (Wis. 1969) where he wrote: “The road that has brought us to the present state of affairs in regard to punitive damages in Wisconsin courts is a long one, paved with good intentions.” Id. at 182. As Garner notes, this formulations subtly suggests that the line of authority is a road to hell, allowing the reader to reach that conclusion themselves. Had Justice Hansen stated the aphorism directly, it would have been less effective.
Be sure the reader will recognize the allusion, or can understand the point if not.
When we communicate with someone, there is much more being communicated than the words we choose. We are also communicating through filters, and those filters include our shared experiences. Literary allusions, at their best, add to our communications through reference to the experiences writer and reader share in having read the same works.
In using allusions, then, we need to be careful not to obscure the text for the reader who is not familiar with the work. That was the conclusion of the late, great, Charles Alan Wright, when he concluded that it was safe to use allusions in briefs and other legal writings only so long as the text is intelligible even if the reference is not understood. See Literary Allusion in Legal Writing: The Haynsworth-Wright Letters, 1 Scribes J. Legal Writing 1 (1990).
Wright’s example leading to this conclusion is instructive. Wright was taken by the use of Justice Friendly of a reference to a “legal Lohengrin,” because it captured the essence of his legal argument so well by comparing an obscure statute to the character from a Wagnerian opera who depended on the obscurity of his own identity. Judge Haynsworth responded, however, by noting that the reference was itself obscure, and asked: “Should a judge write for the Charlie Wrights or for young law clerks preparing legal memoranda for the use of junior partners in advising clients?” Id.
We should keep the same question in mind. Particularly in a multi-cultural world with changing educational standards. Feel free to use allusions, but err on the side of caution when it comes to obscure ones, and be sure to sufficiently explain yourself to those who do not share the same reading experience.
Take a note from Justice Ginsberg, who made a Biblical allusion without any expectation of biblical scholarship, and then explained exactly what she meant:
No man can serve two masters. If you are negotiating a contract, a lawyer does not represent both clients. That is all that is involved here.
NLRB v. Health Care & Ret. Corp. of Am., 511 U.S. 571, 595 n.14 (1994).
Sometimes allusions can draw the sting out of a rebuke
Finally, I leave you with an allusion born from kindness. There are times when an appellate court has to note a clear mistake made by the lower court, or, worse, an appellate attorney must point out an error made in the law that seems apparent in retrospect. Let me introduce you to a literary allusion that can help you make such a point while actually complimenting the party that made the mistake.
Homer, the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, two foundational works that should still be at least recognizable to our readers, was known to make mistakes. Indeed, Homer killed a character earlier in one of his texts and then used the same character later, fully alive, in apparent error. This led the Roman poet Horace to write that “even the noble Homer sometimes nods.”
Now, telling someone they made an obvious error is a delicate task. Comparing them to one of the most famous authors of all time while doing so, however, draws the sting a bit.
When Justice Cardamone was tasked with telling the district court judge that the Second Circuit had already set out the law of the case in a prior appeal, and that law had not been followed, he used this literary reference in his opening:
When one of the cases of this consolidated appeal was before us seven years ago, we set out some guidance on the law, which the district court [sic] either misinterpreted or missed. If the latter, such forgetfulness is understandable because we know that even Homer nodded.
Brooklyn Legal Servs. Corp. v. Legal Servs. Corp., 462 F.3d 219, 219 (2nd Cir. 2006).
While some judges might disagree about the effectiveness of literary allusion, I doubt anyone would complain about being corrected in this gentle manner.
(The author wishes to credit John M. DeStafano III, On Literature as Legal Authority, 49 Ariz. L. Rev. 521 (Sept. 2007) for inspiring this article. Image credit: Matt Buck / CC-BY-SA-4.0).