When I was in law school I had no political understanding. I don't mean I didn't have the basic political knowledge we hope (against experience) everyone has, that is, things like separation of powers and the three branches, what democracy is, blah, blah, blah - unless you are resistant, you get that by osmosis and the little bit that is covered in school that even people like me who weren't really listening can't help but absorb. But, I was already heavily invested in the partisan warfare on which I was raised (in my case, very much on the left) and which I now regularly decry and did not understand what lay underneath it all - particularly what the other side thought important. I had long been very conversant with history up to about the 1700s. But, despite being an American law student, I knew very little about American history. Don't think I was alone - it apparently isn't necessary to know much about history or politics at all to be a lawyer and such knowledge is not even tested in applying to law schools. I also had very little understanding about how law worked. One of the things that some professors would talk about that I could understand intellectually, but not in practical terms, was about how policies and values lay underneath the law. To me and I'm sure many other of my fellow students, it should be black and white.
As they say about quantum physics - if it makes sense to you, you don't understand it all.
But, I learned, more from self-teaching and practical experience as a litigator than school. Now, when I read cases, that is the first thing I try to understand. When I briefly taught some college classes in constitutional law I tried to imbue that understanding in my students as much as possible for two reasons. One, because I felt I was not taught this very well in college or law school (though I was such a lazy and disinterested student, maybe I just didn't notice) and two, because it is really important. Last, it makes it so much more exciting.
There is a case before the court now that brought all this to mind. If you don't think it is really about policies and values, take a look at the lead respondent's name:
Bill Schuette, Attorney General of Michigan, petitioner
Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary (BAMN) et al.
Seriously, that's the name of the respondent. If you were casting a movie, you might market it as a battle between the stodgy legally constituted represented of the state majority and the scrappy minority advocates who could care less about the rules if they hold back what they see as the interests of minorities. Sounds a little like the movie Footloose.
Technically the case is about a constitutional amendment to Michigan's constitution. You may know that Michigan has been the locus of some of the most important Supreme Court educational affirmative action cases. These cases, of course, concern race.
In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the Supreme Court held in an opinion written by Justice O'Connor (at the time, the swing vote on the court - a conservative who occasionally voted with the liberals) which was joined by the four liberal justices, that Michigan's state law school could have an admissions program that favored underrepresented minorities but also considered many other race-neutral factors, was constitutional because it had a compelling interest in promoting racial diversity, which was the official legalistic question. I'm not going to go into what compelling interest means legally, but just go with this - is promoting racial diversity in colleges so important that we will allow racial preferences for certain minorities even though it violates any reasonable interpretation of the meaning of equal protection under the law in its discrimination against whites and also Asians.
Justice O'Connor started out by discussing the last affirmative action case from 1978, University of California Regents v. Bakke, in which the court banned quotas or set asides for racial or ethnic groups. In a very divided court, Justice Powell wrote an opinion which included a statement that seems like common sense: "[t]he guarantee of equal protection cannot mean one thing when applied to one individual and something else when applied to a person of another color. If both are not accorded the same protection, then it is not equal." He also held though, that it there could be racial preferences if there was a compelling interest that was "precisely tailored" to serve that purpose and which was not unduly burdensome on others who bore no fault in our racially divided history.
Leave aside the silliness of a majority of judges on a court deciding what is a compelling interest or too burdensome to others rather than state governments, individuals or even congress, but he found only one proffered interest which fit the bill - the schools interest in a diverse student body. He was careful to note that race/ethnicity could only be one factor among other race neutral ones.
Nevertheless, jump back to 2003 when Grutter and its sister case Gratz v. Bollinger were decided. There Justice O'Connor noted that her opinion was a deviation from a central purpose of the fourteenth amendment to do away with racial discrimination of all kinds. It astonished me and many others that, reasoning that it had been about 25 years since Bakke, she concluded that: "[w]e expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today."
In other words, we will continue to break the constitution for twenty five years. After that minorities will be caught up and we can have equal protection as required by the Constitution.
Say, what? Even two of those who joined her opinion, Justices Ginsburg and Breyer, wrote, essentially, how would we possibly know that ("one may hope, but not firmly forecast"). Though it is impossible to listen to Justice O'Connor and feel any personal hubris, this is an incredibly hubristic or arrogant statement. It would be as astonishing as if a president made the statement in 1978: "[W]e entered intervened in Vietnam in the past 15 years or so, and there are many regrets of having done so. We expect that fifteen years from now the United States will no longer invade other countries."
Of course, other judges opposed to the majority felt very differently. Justice Thomas wrote what I thought was one of the most interesting opinions of the last decade. He quoted the former slave and then abolititionist, Frederick Douglas:
"'[I]n regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us... . I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! ... And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! ... [Y]our interference is doing him positive injury.'
Like Douglass, I believe blacks can achieve in every avenue of American life without the meddling of university administrators. Because I wish to see all students succeed whatever their color, I share, in some respect, the sympathies of those who sponsor the type of discrimination advanced by the [law school]. The Constitution does not, however, tolerate institutional devotion to the status quo in admissions policies when such devotion ripens into racial discrimination. Nor does the Constitution countenance the unprecedented deference the Court gives to the Law School, an approach inconsistent with the very concept of 'strict scrutiny.'
No one would argue that a university could set up a lower general admission standard and then impose heightened requirements only on black applicants. Similarly, a university may not maintain a high admission standard and grant exemptions to favored races. The Law School, of its own choosing, and for its own purposes, maintains an exclusionary admissions system that it knows produces racially disproportionate results. Racial discrimination is not a permissible solution to the self-inflicted wounds of this elitist admissions policy.
The majority upholds the Law School's racial discrimination not by interpreting the people's Constitution, but by responding to a faddish slogan of the cognoscenti. Nevertheless, I concur in part in the Court's opinion. First, I agree with the Court insofar as its decision, which approves of only one racial classification, confirms that further use of race in admissions remains unlawful. Second, I agree with the Court's holding that racial discrimination in higher education admissions will be illegal in 25 years. . . I respectfully dissent from the remainder of the Court's opinion and the judgment, however, because I believe that the Law School's current use of race violates the Equal Protection Clause and that the Constitution means the same thing today as it will in 300 months."
It's ten years later. Now the court is determining whether a state may have a constitutional provision, voted upon by its people, banning racial discrimination. And the respondent not only rejected this constitutional amendment as being discriminatory itself -- but it won. You heard me - it won! The Sixth Circuit court has held that the constitutional amendment is discriminatory and violates the federal constitution, which requires equal protection under the law.
You already know without my telling you that lawyers and judges can so pervert the meaning of the law by "a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse." I love to quote Lincoln with these words, though, admittedly, his use of them to argue that he was not for the political or social equality of blacks kind of takes the sting out of it. Nevertheless, the abstract point is, when a court tells us that black means white or wrong means right, we lose faith in the institution. Yet, the Sixth District Court of Appeals has said so. Will the Supreme Court? As so often has happened since Justice O'Connor's retirement, the answer may fall upon the shoulders of Justice Kennedy, the ultimate swing vote.
I can fantasize that everyone who wants to argue about a case has to read the briefs first. Hah. And they are interesting here. Michigan argues a common sense reading of the equal protection and case law: "They claim that the elimination of race-based policies is endorsing race-based policies."
The Sixth Circuit relied on what is known as the "political process doctrine." Whenever I write about legal topics I have to do a lot of editing and cutting and foolishly feel as if I should apologize for doing so. I do my best to be fair but even my own self imposed if verbose space limitations don't let me put down what everyone argues and opines, and try to here even if it is an impossible task. In short, the doctrine holds that laws (including State constitutions) which targets a program or policy which primarily benefits minorities or changes the political process in such a way that it puts burdens on a minority's ability to achieve his/her goals through the process, violates the federal equal protection clause. That sounds like it might be fair at first blush - but only in a vacuum.
A former litigant, Eric Russell, submitted a "friend of the court" brief at an earlier stage which provided a litany of reasons that this doctrine leads to absurd results, but I will submit my own summary of his: If the doctrine is a fair interpretation of the fourteenth amendment equal protection clause, probably any modern law that tries to eradicate race as a factor automatically unconstitutionally prohibits the many laws aimed at affirmatively benefitting minorities even though, as Justice Powell wrote in Bakke and pretty much everyone agrees, one of the core purposes of the equal protection clause is to eradicate race as a factor in our laws. In fact, if you take this doctrine to its logical conclusion - the equal protection clause would itself present a paradox - by its very own terms it would itself be unconstitutional. Of course, that is not the case once you recognize a point made by Michigan - "To begin, this Court has applied the political restructuring doctrine only to laws that impede protection against unequal treatment, never to laws that preclude preferential treatment." All of a sudden, it makes sense again and I believe that may, if the case goes to the State, will be the deciding distinction.
On top of that, if the doctrine applies as the schools and other advocates desire, then neither the democratically elected legislators of a state, nor the people through an amendment of the constitution have no say once an unelected state administrator puts a policy into affect that favors a minority.
The respondents in the appeal - that is the successful plaintiff in the case - argue in a different tone than the state, though much in that of some quite famous civil rights advocates. Yes, it argues black letter law it interprets as supporting it - but it starts with a quotation from one of our presidents that I believe states one of the basic tenets of what we call liberalism or progressivism:
"Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. It is stretched or stunted by the family you live with, and the neighborhood you live in--by the school you go to, and the poverty or richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the infant, the child, and the man. . .
For Negro poverty is not white poverty. Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences--deep, corrosive, obstinate differences--radiating painful roots into the community, the family, and the nature of the individual. . .
Freedom is the right to share, fully and equally, in American society--to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is the right to be treated, in every part of our national life, as a man equal in dignity and promise to all others.
But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now, you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.
You do not take a man who, for years, has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe you have been completely fair.
Thus it is not enough to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.
This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity--not just legal equity but human ability--not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and a result."
And should this case go in favor of the schools and groups advocating for minorities, I believe that perspective will be the deciding factor.
But, I want to argue something more. The two different perspectives in this case are central to the two prevalent ideology's views on the equal protection clause when it comes to discrimination.
In the general conservative's perspective, the clause requires equal treatment now, incorporating only present intentional discrimination, and not taking into consideration the past inequities of our country's racially unfair past. No one starts in a precisely equal status or providential circumstances with anyone else - and that is life - what counts is that they now have equal opportunity under the law. Thus, racial preferences are not permitted because they unfairly prejudice others who have no deserved guilt of their own in past unfairness.
In the general liberal perspective the past matters because it must by necessity have an effect on present circumstances. Where all cannot start in as equal circumstances, we must remedy it by providing benefits which are apparently unequal but allows for groups that have been traditionally discriminated against and have not flourished to do so. Most especially it must remedy past inequities due to skin color and ethnicity, even where the beneficiary has less merit than an excluded majority party or has not suffered at all from racial prejudice.
You could phrase the central issue a number of ways - for instance, you could say that one side sees "equality" as meaning everyone now has the same rules, though it be inherently unequal in result, and the other side believes equal means that past inequities must be remedied, perhaps hypothetically perfectly, even if it means that different rules apply to different races.
You can agree or not with these perspectives. I believe they are presently considered more important in our national debate than any other constitutional issue and I am including those surrounding abortion. They have now been so engrained in us that they dominate the conversation legally, politically and culturally. I am not arguing here that it is deserving of this primacy or not. It just is.
Ironically, the two perspectives are also completely the opposite of the chronological directions the two ideologies traditionally look to - conservatives backwards and progressives forward. But, this is no surprise as rule number one of partisan ideologies - they can switch their policy preferences on a dime if it suits them politically. But that is not the point of this piece and I'll visit it again another day.
While writing this post I happened to also watch Bob Costas give a little opinion piece on sport team names which contain indigent Americans or Indians references. Costas clearly aimed at being balanced and first argued that while a number of teams have changed their names, those that remain are generally devoid of any ill intent. In fact, they were admiring and respectful just as are team names like The Patriots and The Pirates. This perspective is in accord with conservative perspectives. Then he said, but look at the name "Redskins." It is different than other similar team names and there is nothing respectful about it. It is still a slur even if the present usage is purely benign. Can we imagine a team named black skins or white skins? This perspective, which ignores whether the intent is innocuous or not, is from the liberal ideology - past prejudice counts and is not wiped clean by present intentions. Again, agree or disagree. My point is the centrality of the issue in our lives.
And though it is certainly far more complex and concerns any number of issues, the central political debate this past month also is affected by this argument. For, much of the question of whether the government spends too much and whether it is worthwhile to suspend some of our government in order to demonstrate the importance of reducing spending, often concerns the issue of so-called entitlements and protecting the economic prospects of the lower class, a high proportion of whom are minorities.
This debate should not be unexpected. It was inevitable. There was no equal protection clause in the original Constitution or Bill of Rights. It was written in the fourteenth amendment primarily in order to protect the rights of black Americans after the slaves were freed. Nevertheless, we could apply it as it is written, neutrally, without favoring any group. It is a basic tenet of equal protection cases that it protects individuals, not groups anyway. But, on the other hand all three post Civil War amendment had remedial clauses empowering congress to enforce its provisions, and, logically, this can only be done by legislating as to groups, not individuals. For some, it takes little legal razzle dazzle to apply that to judges who now regularly act as legislators. The puzzle is endless as what doing so can result in is appointed judges not subject to election determining the validity of their constitution amendment as directly voted upon by the people of the State of Michigan, and, in the name of equality, ruling that only inequality of law is necessary to achieve a hoped for equality in fact.
As they say about quantum physics - if it makes sense to you, you don't understand it all.