Professor Aaron Caplan
This was originally posted on PrawfsBlawg as part of the Strange Bedfellows series.
Most Constitutional Law classes discuss how the system can correct its mistakes. If one branch or level of government errs, others can respond, pushing the substance of the law to a new equilibrium. Teaching the subsequent history of anti-canonical cases is one good way to demonstrate this point. Constitutional amendments erased Dred Scott and Pollock, later court decisions overruled Lochner, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act made Geduldig largely irrelevant, and the Georgia Supreme Court held that the sodomy statute upheld in Bowers v. Hardwick violated the state constitution. To show how SCOTUS does not always have the last word, my casebook includes short units called “Flash-Forwards” that tell the rest of the story (or at least some of it). Once students are attuned to possibilities outside the courtroom, they can have a good classroom discussion about what a concerned citizen, legislator, or executive branch official might do in response to a troubling court decision.
It is less common to spend time on the subsequent history of cases that are canonical—the ones considered good law, never overruled. As usually presented in casebooks, Cooper v. Aaron (1958), Palmore v. Sidoti (1984) and United States v. Carolene Products (1938) are all cases where the Court got things right, guiding the system to a proper equilibrium. But in each of these cases, the victory promised in the canonical opinion played out differently on the ground, with the results for the prevailing party being less than advertised. The subsequent histories of these canonical cases could in theory be as deserving of class time as the subsequent histories of anti-canonical cases—the basis for a discussion about the value of a court victory.
But I confess that I have not had the stomach to tell my students about some of them. Which of these would you put into your casebooks, and which stories would you save for the teacher’s manual?
Cooper v. Aaron
The issue in Cooper was whether the Little Rock School District could postpone further compliance with a court-approved desegregation plan. The tumultuous experience with the Little Rock Nine during the 1957-58 academic year involved so much “chaos, bedlam and turmoil” (in the words of the trial court that granted a postponement in Cooper) to justify a cooling-off period. SCOTUS unanimously disagreed. Desegregation must proceed as previously scheduled for 1958-59, and Governor Faubus and the segregationist legislature must get nowhere with their noises about not being bound by Brown v. Board of Education. State obedience to SCOTUS’s interpretations of the US Constitution is “indispensable for the protection of the freedoms guaranteed by our fundamental charter for all of us.” Score one for the federal judiciary.
Except that the desegregation plan did not proceed in the 1958-59 school year. Instead, the legislature authorized the governor to shut down any school if “an efficient educational system cannot be maintained because of integration of the races.” Using this power, the governor shuttered the four Little Rock high schools that were scheduled to desegregate, and the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the order. Garrett v. Faubus, 230 Ark. 445 (1959). The postponement that Cooper refused to authorize occurred anyway.
The end came not through direct enforcement of Cooper, but through the political process. After a year without high schools, Little Rock began to rethink its commitment to segregation now that white families were personally experiencing the costs of maintaining it. In early 1959, an extreme segregationist who had joined the school board was removed from office through a recall election. The Little Rock Chamber of Commerce issued a statement urging the District to reopen its schools because continuing the controversy would be bad for business. The four closed high schools reopened in fall of 1959, and the desegregation plan slowly resumed.
This political process was no doubt affected by Cooper, but teaching Cooper as the end of the story paints a misleading picture. With its surprising subsequent history taught as part of the case, Cooper works better as a demonstration of how complex the constitutional system can be, rather than as a demonstration of the supremacy of judicial interpretation. As a result, Cooper strikes me as a case worth teaching with its subsequent history, or not at all. It may well be worth it for the next few years, since a potentially significant story will be whether Obergefell (and perhaps the Obamacare cases) end up generating political backlash comparable to that following Brown.
Palmore v. Sidoti
By contrast, I have not had the heart to use Palmore v. Sidoti to teach a related lesson about the limits of litigation.
In Palmore, a Florida family court awarded custody of a girl to her father because the mother had entered into an interracial relationship. The Supreme Court found this to be an invalid consideration: even if community prejudice might make a placement with the mother and her new husband stressful for the girl, the law cannot “directly or indirectly” give effect to private biases. (That point is similar to the reasoning in Shelley v. Kraemer, as discussed in a previous post.)
SCOTUS reversed the custody ruling and remanded the matter to the Florida state courts to make a ruling untainted by invalid racial considerations, but by that time, the father had remarried within his race and moved to Texas with the daughter (as allowed by the Florida custody award). The state trial court in Tampa relinquished jurisdiction to Texas, and the decision to close out the Florida action was affirmed on appeal. 472 So.2d 843 (Fl. App. 1985). I have been told that the Texas courts decided in unpublished opinions that it would be in the best interests of the child to remain with the father.
Assume for purposes of discussion that the Texas court considered only questions of family stability and not race. Nonetheless, one may wonder if the same result would have been reached had the Florida courts not originally removed the daughter from the house for constitutionally improper reasons; stability may have favored the mother in that alternate universe. The subsequent history makes Palmore a story about the limitations of individual rights litigation, and not about its glorious aspirations. This could be a valuable discussion, but I have been loath to tell my students how all of a lawyer’s principled hard work may not ultimately benefit the client, who sometimes becomes a martyr with little to show for her Pyrrhic victory.
After Carolene Products, the Filled Milk Act has been remembered in the Con Law canon as the paradigm of a law that has a rational basis. Except that as of today, it officially doesn’t.
As explained in Geoffrey P. Miller, The True Story of Carolene Products, 1987 Sup. Ct. Rev. 397 (1987), the Act was held to be irrational in Milnot Co. v. Richardson, 350 F.Supp. 221 (S.D. Ill. 1972), a case brought by the Carolene Products Company’s successor corporation. The government did not appeal. As a result, filled milk is now readily available online. No semester is complete without me drinking a can of filled milk while my students clutch their stomachs and gasp in fear for my nutritional safety. (Your students will never forget Carolene Products after that bit of show and tell!)
It’s been a hard choice, but I have chosen to keep the demise of the Filled Milk Act a secret from my students—it would cause too much cognitive dissonance. Yet it makes a potentially valuable exploration of how constitutional judgments can change—and whether they should. In Carolene Products (the famous one), Justice Stone said that “the constitutionality of a statute predicated upon the existence of a particular state of facts may be challenged by showing to the court that those facts have ceased to exist.” Evidently they did. The later invalidation of the Filled Milk Act can potentially be an interesting counterpoint to Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which similarly found that changed facts made a statute unconstitutionally irrational.
I’d be interested to know if you dare to share these subsequent histories with your students. And if there are other similar stories we should consider teaching.