Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Importance of Being Earnest

There is a widespread consensus that the attorney who argued for the plaintiffs in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (regarding the constitutionality of Michigan's anti-affirmative action constitutional amendment) did a poor job. The chatter about her performance is amplified because she was not originally scheduled to argue the case, instead substituting at the last minute. There's been a lot of speculation about why that happened, but Tony Mauro may have uncovered the answer:
Detroit civil rights lawyer Shanta Driver made a last-minute decision to argue in a high-profile Supreme Court affirmative action case on Oct. 15 in part, she said, because so few African-American lawyers appear before the justices.

Speaking at a rally of affirmative action supporters in front of the court after the argument, Driver said that only one black lawyer—who spoke for 11 minutes—appeared last term before the justices. It was important, she added, for her as a black woman to argue in Schuette v., Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action to show the justices that someone “who really could speak for the movement” was making the case to save affirmative action.

Her comments, which have gone unreported, help solve the mystery surrounding Driver’s surprise appearance before the court in one of its most important cases of the term. Until the morning of the Supreme Court arguments, Driver’s law firm partner George Washington, who is white, was listed by the court as the one who would make the case for state programs that give a boost to minorities.
Josh Blackman declares this to be "startling" and "patronizing to the Justices." But I'm not sure that's fair.

I should preface by saying that I don't have an opinion on whether the attorney's performance was in fact good or bad -- both because I haven't listened to the argument and, more importantly, because I agree with the also-generally-agreed-upon consensus that she was drawing dead to begin with. And we will never truly know whether the decision to swap in Driver would have made any difference. Counterfactuals are of course impossible and most people are skeptical that the quality of oral argument really impacts the Supreme Court's decisions, particularly in high-profile cases like this.

All that being said, I do want to make the simple observation that the way in which the race of an advocate or interlocutor affects the way we make decisions is an empirical and psychological one, and shouldn't be waved away on the grounds that it is "patronizing." There are many people affiliated with the Court in the early 90s who are convinced that the presence of Thurgood Marshall deterred his colleagues from being as aggressive as they would have liked in rolling back Warren Court race precedents, and that it made a significant difference when he was replaced by Justice Thomas. Driver seemed to think that it was important for liberal judges to see her, and perhaps her presence would impact how hard they'd dig in their heels in writing their dissent (or whether to dissent at all).

The point is that the impact on race in modern society is often framed in terms of politeness -- it's impolitic or rude to speculate that something like race might matter. But the impact of race on perception exists independently of how we would like polite society to operate, and we shouldn't be short-changing inquiry into the question by framing the entire question as ill-mannered.

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