Professor Aaron Caplan
This was originally posted on PrawfsBlawg as part of the Strange Bedfellows series.
The Con Law canon contains many opportunities to teach how the choice of frame greatly can affect the outcome of a case. In many cases, an advocate’s first and most important task is to convince the judge properly fill in the blank in the following sentence: “This is a case about ____.”
My favorite example is Johnson v California (2005), where a prisoner objected to a state department of corrections policy to house inmates with cellmates of the same race. The majority filled in the blank by concluding that “This is a case about race,” which meant that strict scrutiny applied. The dissenters filled in the blank by concluding that “This is a case about prisons,” which meant that a standard much more deferential to governmental decisions would apply. Nothing in existing law forced the court to choose one frame or the other, making Johnson a great opportunity to explore methods of persuasion with students. What would you say to convince the judge to use your frame instead of your opponent's?
The frame game inevitably reveals itself in many canonical substantive due process cases, but it can also be woven into discussions of cases arising under many different doctrines.
Framing can be a battleground in equal protection cases where the court must decide which groups to compare against each other. Goesaert v. Cleary, 335 U.S. 464 (1948), sometimes taught as an example of the bad old days, involved a frame that strikes most modern students as bizarre. A Michigan statute would grant bartender’s licenses to two kinds of applicants: (a) a man or (b) a woman who is “the wife or daughter of the male owner” of a tavern.* For Justice Frankfurter, writing for the majority, the statute distinguished between two classes of women: those who are close relatives of bar owners and those who are not. The legal question was whether Michigan was “play[ing] favorites among women without rhyme or reasons.” Frankfurter tipped his hand that his choice of frame controlled the outcome, saying: “To ask whether [the state may distinguish] wives and daughters of owners of liquor places and wives and daughters of nonowners, is one of those rare instances where to state the question is in effect to answer it.” Indeed. The dissent asked a different question: could the state justify discrimination “between male and female owners of liquor establishments?” The dissenters answered that question (in the negative) in two quick paragraphs. Other, even crazier, frames are possible on the Goesaert facts. The statute discriminated against corporations who own taverns, because they are not "male owners" capable of having a "wife" or a "daughter." The state is facilitating cheaper labor for certain sole proprietors, but owners who exercise their Citizens United right to assemble in the corporate form must hire from a slightly smaller and hence more expensive all-male labor pool.
* (As noted in an earlier post, alcohol pops up Con Law teaching more often than one might expect.)
All disparate impact cases are a variation on the frame game. Did the law in Geduldig v. Aiello (1974) classify along the lines of male v. female or, as the majority thought, “pregnant women and non-pregnant persons?” Did the law in Personnel Administrator v. Feeney (1978) classify between veterans and non-veterans, or between men and women?
The frame game is inescapable in substantive due process cases where the task is to define the relevant unenumerated right. Did the terminally ill plaintiffs in Washington v. Glucksberg (1997) seek to enforce “a right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so” or “the right to a humane death” or “freedom from pain and indignity”? Did the biological father in Michael H. v. Gerald D. (1989) seek “parenthood” or “parental rights [of] the natural father of a child conceived within, and born into, an extant marital union [to which he is not a party]?” And as we await a result in Obergefell v. Hodges, one can ask whether the couple in Loving v. Virginia (1967) sought the right to enter into “marriage” or into “interracial marriage.”
Finally, one may consider an often explicit choice among legal frames, with the most common nominees in individual rights cases being freedom and equality. This is likely to arise in Obergefell, which is a case about the freedom to marry and about equality among marriages. While abortion rights were framed as a matter of freedom of reproductive choice in Roe v. Wade (1973), pro-choice advocates also argue that legal abortion is necessary for women to have the same options as men. In many such cases, the frames would not necessarily generate opposite answers; this is seen in an earlier post about jury selection cases, where the right of a juror to be seated correlates with the right of the defendant to a representative jury. In these situations, students can develop the lawyering skill of choosing which frame to emphasize.