Brown v. Board of Education as a Disputing Process Lesson

supreme courtLast week, we were privileged to hear Professor Michael Klarman speak on “Why Brown v. Board of Education Was a Hard Case.”  This was one of the most enjoyable and interesting talks I have heard in a long time.  I highly recommend it, and you can click here to get the webcast.  My guess is that this would still be as funny and insightful on the audio.   There were two particular points that he made in reviewing the history of the case that linked to conflict resolution theory that I want to highlight here.

First, Klarman noted that, contrary to typical practice, the justices facing the Brown decision did not take a straw poll at their first conference discussing the case.  In fact, as he notes, by his count, there would have been only four votes to overturn Plessy at the beginning and nothing near the unanimity that the Court presented in its decision the following year.  What was the import of not taking this poll?  As Klarman notes, this allowed the justices to change their mind and to preserve fluidity in their thinking.  In other words, the justices did not lock themselves into an opening position that then they would feel necessary to defend throughout the discussions. 

The impact of publicly locking yourself in to an opening position is problematic, as we know. 

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A Republican Form of Government

King-George-III-xx-Allan-RamsayOn September 17, I participated in the Constitution Day program at the Law School.  All of the presenters were asked to discuss one part of the United States Constitution that is often overlooked.  My choice was the “republican form of government” clause, Article IV Section 4, which reads as follows: “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a Republican Form of Government . . .  .”   

To call this clause of the Constitution “overlooked” is an understatement.  The authors of the Federalist Papers spent little or no time discussing the meaning of this clause.  The Supreme Court, when asked to interpret this clause, has generally admitted that it doesn’t have the slightest idea what it means—with the consequence that the Court has rendered the clause irrelevant and left it devoid of meaning.  This is a shame because, properly understood, I believe that this clause is one of the most important in the Constitution.

The federal government guarantees every state a Republican form of government.  What does the word “republican” mean?   It certainly does not refer to a specific political party.  Political parties did not even exist in 1789.

Today’s school children are generally taught that the clause is intended to guarantee that state governments use the mechanics of representative democracy over the mechanics of direct democracy.  This interpretation is incorrect.  While the Framers often wrote of the benefits of a political system whereby voters elected representatives who would make important decisions on their behalf, especially in instances where the geographic territory to be governed was large, the Framers never expressed the opinion that the direct exercise of democracy by the people should be prohibited.

Indeed, this incorrect interpretation of the clause is dangerous because it has led some observers to question the constitutionality of state-wide voter initiatives altogether, such as the ones that regularly go before the voters in California.  These types of initiatives may be unwise as a means of using direct democracy to determine the policies of state government.  But the use of state-wide initiatives of this type is certainly constitutional.

So if the “Republican form of government” clause does not prohibit the use of direct democracy as a means of state government, what is its purpose?  Simply stated, the clause prohibits the people of any state in the Union from amending their state constitution in order to adopt a monarchy or an aristocracy.

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Samuel Johnson’s 300th Birthday

Samuel JohnsonToday is Samuel Johnson’s 300th birthday.

After nine years of work, Samuel Johnson published a major dictionary of English words in 1755.  One of the key features of A Dictionary of the English Language was that Dr. Johnson used quotations from books where a particular word was used to illustrate the word’s meaning.

Why should a law school be interested in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary and his 300th birthday?  On the way to work this morning, I heard a BBC radio program (aired on NPR) about Dr. Johnson’s dictionary.  On that show, the commentators discussed how Dr. Johnson’s dictionary is important to the United States Constitution because it was the dictionary most often used during the time the Constitution was drafted.  Jack Lynch also refers to Dr. Johnson’s influence on documents related to the founding of this country in his 2005 New York Times article.  For further reading on this topic, Henry Hitching’s book, Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary:  The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World, looks promising.

Does anyone know of examples where legal advocates have cited Dr. Johnson’s dictionary to interpret the law?

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