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 of 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.
When it first appeared on PrawfsBlawg, the post you see above was followed a few days later by this one.
June 29, 2015
The Most Dangerous Precedent (or, A Silly Extravagance)In today’s concurrence to Glossip v. Gross, Justice Scalia identifies a precedent that “has caused more mischief to our jurisprudence, to our federal system, and to our society than any other that comes to mind.”
The villain is Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958), which held that it was unconstitutional to strip a native-born American of his 14th-Amendment-provided citizenship as punishment for briefly deserting his military post while serving in Morocco in 1944. (“He had been gone less than a day and had willingly surrendered to an officer on an Army vehicle while he was walking back towards his base.”) The mischief arises from a passage frequently quoted from Chief Justice Warren’s plurality to the effect that the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
Let’s leave aside that the Trop language is a tolerable paraphrase of Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910), which rejected an originalist approach to the Eighth Amendment to hold that fifteen years of hard labor for falsifying a public document was unconstitutional. Has Trop caused more mischief “to our society” than any other case that Justice Scalia can think of? Even if you disagree with the Trop language, at worst it means that a handful of persons can successfully challenge an extraordinary criminal sentence, and that a larger handful can make colorable but unsuccessful challenges to theirs. This is worse for society than any other case that the justice has decried? Than the decisions mandating a right to abortion, to sodomy, to same-sex marriage, or to coeducation at the Virginia Military Institute? No, society is most harmed by jurisprudence that prevents the government from getting as close as it possibly can to the very edge of cruel and unusual punishment.
In a post from last week, I argued that some fire-breathing dissents can be worth teaching in an introductory Con Law class. But now that Justice Scalia has declared, in his Obergefell dissent, that one should expect “separate concurring or dissenting opinions to contain extravagances, even silly extravagances, of thought and expression,” I need to add a note of caution. A silly extravagance like the overblown attack on Trop v. Dulles can teach students lessons that I would prefer not to impart: that it’s more important to sound good than to be correct (long live truthiness); that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds; that picking your battles is for suckers; and that once you’ve risen to a prominent place in your profession, nobody can stop you from phoning it in. These lessons may have bits of truth to them, but I’d rather focus on others.
(Apologies for shooting fish in a barrel, but since we're talking about the quality of legal prose on this blog...)