Legal Fictions and Constitutional Change

Enough with the anti-partisan principle already!  I hear you.

I was asked a few months ago to write an essay on “constitutional change” for a book about the Constitution.  After scratching my head, I decided that the best way to approach this topic would be to describe various fictions that the Supreme Court uses to make (and conceal) dramatic constitutional change. The next batch of posts will about that subject.

Let’s start with a famous example.  In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Chief Justice Warren’s opinion emphasized the importance of education in the Court’s decision.  Over the next four years, other cases were filed challenging state segregation of facilities such as parks, golf courses, drinking fountains, etc.  The Court responded with per curium opinions that invalidated those segregation policies without any explanation except “see Brown.”   The fiction in Brown was that it was just about education.

This is what we might call a “dicta/holding” mismatch.  In other words, the Supreme Court makes the medicine go down easier by understating the breadth of the holding in the breakthrough case and then applying the real holding without explanation.  Step One is easy to understand.  Step Two is necessary to avoid inflaming or antagonizing public opinion (at least that’s the best justification).

More tomorrow.


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