Bostock Opinion Shows Strict Textualism Fails to Deliver on its Central Promise

Bostock Opinion Shows Strict Textualism Fails to Deliver on its Central Promise

Survey says . . .

I’m going to ask you to take an opinion poll.

But first, I have one small request: put aside, for a moment, whether you think discriminating against homosexual or transsexual employees is wrong, or whether you think it should be illegal. Easy, right?

Now here’s the question: Do you think that an employer firing an employee because the employee is gay is firing “because of sex”? You’ve got three choices:

A. Yes. And this is the only reasonable interpretation.

B. No. And this is the only reasonable interpretation.

C. Maybe. The phrase “because of sex” is ambiguous. Both A and B are reasonable interpretations, even if one is better.

If you picked A, you agree with Justice Gorsuch, who wrote the majority opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County. If you picked B, you agree with Justice Alito, who wrote a scathing dissenting opinion. If you picked C, then you agree with Five Minute Law.

Notably, both Gorsuch and Alito purported to apply the method of judging known as “textualism.” My thesis is that this teaches us an important point about textualism: it fails to deliver on its central promise of providing an objective, determinate, non-political basis for deciding hard cases.

Let’s break it down.

What is Strict Textualism?

First we need to distinguish between two kinds of textualism. For convenience, I’ll label them “Modest Textualism” and “Strict Textualism.”

Modest Textualism says when interpreting a statute the court should start with the text. If there is only one reasonable interpretation of the text of the statute, the court should stop there and not consider extrinsic sources.

“Extrinsic” sources means everything other than the text, but most notably, it could include what Congress intended the words to mean, how courts have interpreted the text in the past, pragmatic factors, and considerations of what is fair, just, or good public policy.

Virtually everyone who is serious about the law is at least a Modest Textualist. No serious practitioner—i.e. a judge or practicing lawyer—says “in interpreting a statute, the text of the statute is totally irrelevant.”

No. Everyone agrees you start with the text. Of course you start with the text.

The difference of opinion arises when different people interpret the text differently.

Even then, the Modest Textualist does not immediately jump to extrinsic sources. The mere fact that two litigants disagree over the statute’s interpretation does not mean the court has to look beyond the text. A party’s proffered interpretation must be at least reasonable. The court can reject an unreasonable interpretation without looking beyond the text.

But what if I told you that sometimes, just sometimes, there is more than one reasonable interpretation of a statute? Not only that, but once in a blue moon, there are two reasonable interpretations of a statute that lead to diametrically opposite results.

That’s called a Hard Case. And that’s where Modest Textualism and Strict Textualism part ways.

In a Hard Case, the Modest Textualist says ok, there are two reasonable interpretations of this statute. That means the statute is ambiguous as applied to this dispute. So we’re going to have to look to something else to decide which interpretation to adopt. The text alone just doesn’t give us the answer.

And of course, I’m joking when I say “once in a blue moon.” This happens all the time, at least in the kind of case that makes it up to the Supreme Court. And as a practicing litigator, I can tell you it even happens fairly often in the kind of boring, ordinary business disputes I handle.

So what should the judge do in such cases?

In theory, the Strict Textualist agrees that when a statute is ambiguous, the court can look to extrinsic sources. The difference is that the Strict Textualist tries really, really hard to avoid jumping to extrinsic sources too quickly. The Strict Textualist will first use close reading of the statute, “canons of construction,” and dictionaries to interpret the statute. It is only when those methods fail to yield a clear answer that the Strict Textualist will even consider looking to extrinsic sources. (In theory)

This immediately raises a complication, because Strict Textualism does allow the judge to look at the “ordinary public meaning” of the statute at the time it was enacted, which can include looking at dictionaries, which are an extrinsic source.

And Strict Textualism has a close cousin named Originalism, which says you must look to extrinsic sources—e.g. the Federalist Papers—to interpret the “original understanding” of the Constitution, especially considering that the broadly worded text of the Constitution just doesn’t give you the answers to Hard Cases.

But for simplicity, let’s just say the Strict Textualist tries really hard to confine the inquiry to the text.

You might object to my sharp distinction and argue the difference between the Modest Textualist and the Strict Textualist is only a matter of degree. And you’d have a point. But still, the difference is pretty easy to spot in the wild. If a judicial opinion gets down into  the punctuation of a statute and parses multiple definitions of ordinary words from multiple dictionaries, that’s probably a Strict Textualist writing the opinion.

You might also object that my distinction is too abstract. So far, I’ve ignored the elephant in the room (no pun intended). Strict Textualists are almost always Republicans.

Now, in the abstract, there is nothing inherently “liberal” or “conservative” about either form of textualism. But in practice, one political ideology tends to favor Strict Textualism.

Everybody knows that conservatives and Republicans like Strict Textualism, while liberals and Democrats like Modest Textualism. But why is that? Modest Textualism does not necessarily lead to a liberal result, and Strict Textualism does not necessarily lead to a conservative result (again, in theory), so why the stark difference?

I’ll come back to that. First we need to understand the rationale behind Strict Textualism.

Strict Textualism’s Central Promise

The rationale behind Strict Textualism has two parts.

First, Strict Textualism says that judges must have an objective, non-political basis for deciding Hard Cases. Otherwise, judges would just be deciding cases based on their own personal opinions on what is fair, just, or good public policy. That would not be the rule of law, the proponent of Strict Textualism says. That would be legislating.

Thus, even if Strict Textualism did not exist, the Strict Textualist says, judges would have to invent it.

Second, Strict Textualism says that Strict Textualism provides an objective, non-political basis for deciding Hard Cases. When Strict Textualism is applied correctly, it yields a single determinate answer, even in Hard Cases where there appear to be strong arguments on both sides. This is the central promise of Strict Textualism.

Now, let’s clear aside one obvious objection to this central promise. Strict Textualism does not claim that the answer will always be obvious, or that all reasonable people will agree on the answer.

No, the Strict Textualist realizes that reasonable people will disagree on the correct application of Strict Textualism. Not only that, even the foremost legal experts, or even members of the Supreme Court, will sometimes disagree. But the fact that they disagree doesn’t change the fact that there is still a single correct answer.

The Strict Textualist might analogize to medicine. Two doctors who are renowned experts in their field could examine the same patient and come up with diametrically opposite diagnoses. The fact that they disagree does not change the fact that only one of them is correct. The one true diagnosis is “out there,” even if it is sometimes hard to discern.

So even if judges applying Strict Textualism sometimes get it wrong, the important thing is that they apply it, Strict Textualism says. That is the only way to maintain the rule of law and avoid turning judges into de facto legislators.

In short, Strict Textualism promises political legitimacy.

And one more thing. The corollary is that other theories of adjudication are illegitimate. Strict Textualism does not just claim to provide determinate answers to Hard Cases. It claims to be the only theory of adjudication that does so (with the possible exception of Originalism, but that’s another can of worms).

This turns Strict Textualism into a sword that can be used to attack a judicial decision as not only wrong, but as illegitimate. This is the key to its political appeal. And for various reasons I don’t have time to get into here, this appeal is especially strong for conservatives.

But does Strict Textualism deliver on its promise? Oh, if only we had a test case.

Enter Bostock.

Bostock v. Clayton County

Bostock is almost the perfect test case for Strict Textualism. It has it all: a hot-button social issue that turns on the interpretation of just three words in a statute, i.e. “because of sex.”

Specifically, Bostock presented a question of statutory interpretation concerning Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act: does discrimination “because of sex” include discriminating against an employee for being a homosexual or transsexual. Writing for the 6-3 majority, conservative Justice Gorsuch said yes.

Screen Shot 2020-06-21 at 7.06.55 PM
The results of my highly scientific poll about Bostock

In a role reversal, Justice Gorsuch’s opinion offered a “textualist” rationale for this “liberal” result. Chief Justice Roberts, another conservative, joined in the Gorsuch opinion, along with the four liberal justices. The three most conservative justices—Alito, Thomas, and Kavanaugh—dissented.

Justice Gorsuch reasoned that the text of the statute provided one—and only one answer—to this question. Therefore, it did not matter what Congress intended when it passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “When the express terms of a statute give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another,” he wrote, “it’s no contest.” Only the “written word” is the law.

This was textbook Strict Textualism, at least on its face. “This Court normally interprets a statute in accord with the ordinary public meaning of its terms at the time of its enactment,” Gorsuch wrote.

And he offered the textbook justification for this method of adjudication: constraining judges and thereby providing legitimacy. “If judges could add to, remodel, update, or detract from old statutory terms inspired only be extratextual sources and our own imaginations,” he said, “we would risk amending statutes outside the legislative process reserved for the people’s representatives.”

Justice Gorsuch then made a painstaking logical argument for why the plain meaning of “because of sex” necessarily includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Under the Supreme Court’s precedents, discrimination “because of sex” means any discrimination where the individual’s sex is a “but for” cause of the employer’s action. Applying that standard, Justice Gorsuch reasoned, there is just no way for an employer to take an action because of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity that does not in some way take into account the individual’s sex. His logic hypotheticals would make the LSAT proud.

Some of you will buy his argument, and others will not. I’ll wager this will depend largely on whether you think discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity should be illegal or not. It will be a rare case where someone says “I strongly believe discrimination based on sexual orientation should be against the law, but the statute simply doesn’t say that,” or vice-versa.

I only hope you will agree that Justice Gorsuch’s interpretation of “because of sex” is at least one reasonable interpretation. I mean, he’s a pretty smart guy, with generally conservative views. The idea that he just made it up to “appeal to college campuses and editorial boards” doesn’t seem credible. And the justices who joined him are intelligent too. They all have degrees from fancy law schools and years of judicial experience.

Of course, none of this proves they are right, but isn’t the fact that six out of nine justices on the highest court in the land agree with this interpretation some indication that their interpretation is at least reasonable? Surely they haven’t all lost their minds.

Alito’s Dissent

So how did Alito respond? Ever the gentleman, he began by saying:

My learned colleague Justice Gorsuch has written an opinion that sincerely attempts to decide this hard question through the good-faith application of textualism, a theory we both agree with, but I fear he has gone astray and applied the method incorrectly.

I’m kidding, of course. It was quite the opposite. Alito’s anger was palpable. He lashed out at Gorsuch’s opinion as not only incorrect, but as dishonest and illegitimate. “There is only one word for what the Court has done today: legislation,” he led off. “The document that the Court releases is in the form of a judicial opinion interpreting a statute,” he said, “but that is deceptive.”

Why so angry?

I think it was a combination of three things. First, the result. Second, the fact that Gorsuch and Roberts joined the liberals. Third, and perhaps the most galling, was the fact that Gorsuch wrote a textualist opinion justifying the result. “The Court’s opinion is like a pirate ship,” Alito  wrote. “It sails under a textualist flag,” he said, but it actually reflects the illegitimate theory that courts should “update” old statutes so they reflect the “current values of society.”

Let’s put aside Alito’s anger for the moment and just look at what the disagreement tells us about textualism.

Alito characterized the majority opinion as holding that the only reasonable interpretation of “because of sex” is that it includes sexual orientation and gender identity. In Alito’s words, the majority argued “not merely that the terms of Title VII can be interpreted that way but that they cannot reasonably be interpreted any other way.” “According to the Court,” he said, “the text is unambiguous.”

On this point Alito got the majority opinion right. Gorsuch did not argue that “because of sex” is ambiguous and then offer an argument for choosing one of two reasonable interpretations. No, Gorsuch argued that application of the plain meaning of the statute yields only one result: discrimination based on sexual orientation or sexual identity is inherently discrimination “based on sex.”

Alito wasn’t buying it. “The arrogance of this argument is breathtaking,” he wrote. “The Court’s excuse for ignoring everything other than the bare statutory text is that the text is unambiguous,” Alito said, “and therefore no one can reasonably interpret the text in any way other than the Court does.” But “to say that the Court’s interpretation is the only possible reading is indefensible.”

You might expect Alito’s next move to be an argument that the majority’s interpretation is only one reasonable interpretation, and that the statute is therefore ambiguous.

But no. Alito believes that the majority’s interpretation is not only wrong, but that his opposite interpretation is the only reasonable one. In other words, Alito would pick option B, not C, in my opinion poll above. “The Court’s argument is not only arrogant,” he said, “it is wrong.”

Alito argued that “because of sex” does not include sexual orientation or gender identity. He supported his interpretation with evidence that included:

  • The fact that Congress has considered—but rejected—attempts to amend the statute to expressly add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”
  • Dictionary definitions showing that “sex” did not mean “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” in 1964. (Remember, textualists love dictionaries.)
  • The fact that ordinary people in 1964 would not have understood “discrimination because of sex” to include discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity. (This is textualism’s “ordinary public meaning.”)
  • Evidence that Congress didn’t intend to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

I’ll let others get into the weeds on these points. Conservatives will tend to find Alito’s evidence compelling. Liberals will tend to reject it.

I only hope to make the modest point that Alito’s interpretation of the statute, like the majority’s, is at least one reasonable interpretation.

Ask people on the street, either today or in 1964, if discrimination “based on sex” includes discrimination based on sexual orientation—without telling them the effect of their answer—and plenty of people will say no. As Justice Kavanaugh emphasized in his separate dissent, textualism means applying the “ordinary” meaning of a phrase, not the “literal” meaning of an isolated term.

Surely, Justice Alito’s interpretation of “because of sex” to mean “because the person is male or female but not because of that person’s sexual orientation” is at least one reasonable interpretation, even if you ultimately disagree with it.

Failure to Deliver

If I’m right—if both Justice Gorsuch and Justice Alito have reasonable interpretations of the statute—then Bostock shows that Strict Textualism fails to deliver on its central promise, at least in practice.

Remember, the promise was that Strict Textualism would provide an objective, determinate way to decide Hard Cases, i.e. a method that would yield only one correct answer. But Strict Textualism had its chance in Bostock, and it failed spectacularly.

Instead of a single correct answer, there was a reasonable textualist argument for construing the statute one way (Gorsuch’s) and a reasonable textualist argument for construing it the other way (Alito’s). That left each side to pick the reasonable interpretation that would yield the result it wanted. The fact that each side acted like its interpretation was the only reasonable one did not change this.

Thus, Strict Textualism did not provide any constraint on the justices choosing the interpretation they considered fair or just. In other words, it did not prevent them from making a political judgment about the better outcome.

Objection, the Strict Textualist says, Bostock proves no such thing. The mere fact that judges will sometimes disagree over the result of applying Strict Textualism does not mean that Strict Textualism fails to provide a determinate answer, the Strict Textualist will protest. Remember the medical analogy.

This argument strikes me as plausible in theory, but unpersuasive in practice. I’m not saying Strict Textualism must provide a determinate answer that is obvious to everyone. But if Strict Textualism cannot yield an answer that can be demonstrated to people skilled in the law to be the single correct answer, I just don’t see how it provides any meaningful constraint on judges. In practice, it simply fails to provide the special legitimacy it claims.

But doesn’t this leave us in an untenable state of affairs? If Strict Textualism fails to deliver on its central promise, doesn’t that mean that judges will be allowed to do what Justice Alito accused the Bostock majority of doing, legislating instead of judging? And if judges decide cases based on what they think is fair or just, do we even have the “rule of law”?

Fair questions, but there are no easy answers. Trouble is, there’s just no avoiding this problem. You can argue that judges shouldn’t decide cases by picking the interpretation they think is fair and then reasoning their way into that interpretation. But isn’t that effectively what judges are already doing–what they’ve always done–regardless of the label they put on it, and even if they sincerely think they are doing something else?

We just have to muddle through somehow.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Follow @zachwolfelaw on Instagram to keep up with his latest shenanigans.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

MLK Day Lessons from the Movie “Selma”

MLK Day Lessons from the Movie “Selma”

If you’ve read my morning routine you know that one piece of it is listening to sports talk radio to find out for the final time if Lebron James is better than Michael Jordan. Another perennial drive-time debate is whether Bill Belichik has won so many games with the New England Patriots because he has Tom Brady as his quarterback, or if Brady has won so much because he has Belichik.

Wherever you come down in this debate, you have to admit the Patriots have had an amazing run in the Brady-Belichik era. Thirteen AFC Championship appearances. Eight Super Bowl appearances. Five Super Bowl wins. So far.

This is infuriating for fans of other teams because the NFL is supposedly built for “parity.” In contrast to college football, it rewards winners by giving them worse draft picks. Perhaps this is why, sadly, the Patriots have replaced my Dallas Cowboys as the NFL’s most hated team.

Haters will claim it’s the cheating. But some part of the credit for the Patriots’ astounding run should go to the well-known philosophy posted in their practice facility: Do Your Job.

This is a great mantra because in three little words it conveys two distinct messages, one of exhortation, the other of relaxation. “Do Your Job” says first, take care of your responsibilities. Your teammates are counting on you. But second it tells you not to worry too much. You don’t have to do anything spectacular, just do your job. Trust that if your teammates do their jobs too, the team will succeed.

As I wait to watch the Patriots play on the day before Martin Luther King Day, this reminds me of a scene from the 2014 historical drama Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Selma tells the story of Dr. King leading the protests that culminated in the famous march(es) across Edmund Pettus Bridge, and ultimately, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend checking it out on Netflix.[1]

The scene that sticks in my mind takes place about 18 minutes into the movie, in the modest kitchen of the King home in Atlanta. Mrs. King is folding laundry at the kitchen table. The phone rings.

Coretta: Hello? [We hear a man speaking in ominous tones over the receiver, she hangs up as Martin walks in.]

Martin: Same thing? [She looks at him knowingly then turns away.] 

Coretta: When are y’all heading out? 

Martin: We, uh, head back to Selma at 5 am. Turned out to be an ideal staging ground. There’s a . . . a full couple of weeks planned, quite a bit to be done.

Coretta: [drinks from a glass of water] I see.  [Martin takes the trash bag out of the kitchen trash can.] That highway is nice now, get you there in a couple of hours. Good people in those parts, though. [She hands him a new garbage bag.][2] 

Martin: Well, I’m worried about the ones who ain’t so good. [He puts a new bag in the trash can]. This local sheriff, Jim Clark,[3] is supposed to be bad business. Won’t go down without a fight, they say. And since we don’t fight . . . Well, good a place to die as any, I guess. 

Coretta: I wish you wouldn’t talk like that.

Martin: It just takes the edge off. 

Coretta: You and your friends can joke about that. I don’t joke about that.

Martin: You’re right. I’m sorry.

Coretta: I’ll uh, put these things away in your bag now, I didn’t realize you were leaving so early [she walks out carrying some folded clothes]. 

[Martin turns off kitchen light, hesitates.]

This is a great, economical scene. It conveys a lot of information without a lot of action or dialog. You know the Kings are receiving harassing phone calls. You sense tension in their marriage. You get the exposition about what’s happening with the sheriff in Selma. And, perhaps most important, you see that Dr. King is a real flesh and blood person who has to balance his family life with the very real possibility that his activism could get him killed.

But there’s one part of this scene that really resonated with me. Did you spot it? Remember, this is Martin Luther King, who we see in the opening scene preparing to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King, the hero who led the Civil Rights movement. I mean, today the dude has his own national holiday. Yet in this scene we see him taking out the trash?

Why did the director or screenplay writer include this detail? The Kings could have simply stood in the kitchen, or sat at the kitchen table, talking.

Maybe it was just to give the actors something to do so the dialog would sound more natural. But I suspect there was more to it. When we see Dr. King emptying the trash can, it’s a reminder. Even a person who is doing great things still has to deal with the mundane necessities of daily life.

Of course, when the people doing the great things are rich, they pay other people to do the tedious things. The wealthy can’t be bothered with even the simplest of tasks, like folding their own umbrellas.

But still, even Very Important People have to do a lot of the same things ordinary people do. They put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us. Or to vary a common saying, their trash stinks too.

And seeing Martin Luther King take out the trash was a small but important lesson for white-collar “professionals.” It was especially necessary for me because I work in the profession with the whitest of collars: the law. There is a tendency for us lawyers—especially lawyers in the more “elite” firms—to think we’re above everyone else. We have advanced degrees. We have licenses. We don’t take out the trash; we have people who come through the office after 5:30 to do that.

And when your hourly rate is $500 or higher, you start to think your time is more valuable than other people’s. Why should you spend an hour doing yardwork when you could be billing that time?

I’m not saying lawyers–or other busy professionals–shouldn’t pay someone else to mow the grass. I’m more concerned with the mindset. Do you get frustrated with the time you have to spend doing “ordinary” things when you’re trying to accomplish something important? I know I do. And all I’m trying to do is build a law practice. It’s not like I’m leading a movement to overcome 100 years of state-sponsored terror and voter suppression.

But maybe we shouldn’t look at household chores as a hindrance. Why should we expect to be trusted with great things when we can’t be trusted with the little things? Selma reminds us that taking care of minor tasks we don’t really want to do is perhaps the simplest form of morality.

So do your job. Take out the trash. Or whatever the equivalent responsibility is for you.

And trust that if you do your job, and other people do theirs, great things can happen.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Like most lawyers he’s still at the office when the housekeepers empty the trash.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] I recommend the movie with one significant caveat. As you may recall, there was some controversy over the film’s historical accuracy, particularly its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as a reluctant ally who King had to pressure into supporting the Voting Rights Act. Former Johnson aide Joe Califano blasted this portrayal as inaccurate. Director Ava DuVernay responded that she was telling a story, not making a documentary. This raises thorny questions: How much historical inaccuracy we should accept as artistic license? Do factual inaccuracies lessen the quality of a historical drama? Are minorities held to a double standard when they use artistic license? Interesting issues that I will save for another day.

[2] Apparently the clear plastic trash bag in the scene was an anachronism; such bags were not used in 1965. Also, you can see the blender on the counter is plugged into an outlet that has a green LED light. But let’s not quibble.

[3] Sheriff Clark was an ardent segregationist known for recruiting a horse-mounted posse of KKK members, wearing military style clothing, and carrying a cattle prod that he infamously used on black protestors. In his later life, Clark sold mobile homes, got accused of embezzlement, and even served time for conspiring to smuggle marijuana from Colombia. He was unrepentant to the end. In a 2006 interview, Clark said “I’d do the same thing today if I had to do it all over again.” See Jim Clark, Sheriff Who Enforced Segregation, Dies at 84.

Lessons From “I Have a Dream”

Lessons From “I Have a Dream”

On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stepped up to a podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered what would become the signature speech of the American civil rights movement. You know the words. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

Today, the high points of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech are so familiar to most Americans that there is some danger of the speech fading into mere orthodoxy.

But it was not always so. In a confidential memo following the speech, the head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division gave this assessment of King:

Personally I believe in the light of King’s demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation . . .

In a sense, the FBI was right. King was the most “dangerous” leader of the civil rights movement, just not in the way the FBI thought. The danger King posed was his ability to influence the nation to effect real change in the advancement of civil rights for African-Americans. If he was dangerous, it was because he was inspirational and persuasive.

Persuasiveness is critical for lawyers, especially litigators, who are called upon to persuade judges, juries, and arbitrators—and from time to time their own clients and the opposing party. So aside from the obvious political and historical significance of the “I Have a Dream” speech, I wondered what it could teach lawyers and other humans about effective persuasion.

There is of course King’s incomparable speaking style. Just the sound of his voice still gives me goosebumps. And the brilliant way he wove Biblical references and imagery into his message must have resonated with a large part of his audience.

But for most of us, adopting King’s speaking style would be too much to pull off. So what can the substance of the speech teach us about effective persuasion? For me, two things stand out.

First, King rejected radicalism. He brilliantly characterized his demand for civil rights as delivering on the nation’s founding principles, not as a revolution seeking to establish new principles. Second, King rejected what we might call moderate gradualism. He made it clear his movement was insisting on immediate and substantial political change.

As we will see, these were two sides of the same coin.

FBI memo on MLK
Excerpt from FBI memo shortly after the “I Have a Dream” speech

King’s first rhetorical move was to characterize the struggle for civil rights as the fulfillment of the promises made in the founding documents of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, using the metaphor of a check or promissory note:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This interpretation of the nation’s founding seems almost obvious now, but it is not universally shared. The “white nationalist” would say that when Thomas Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal,” he really meant that all white men are equal. After all, Jefferson himself was a slaveholder.

And this view is not necessarily confined to neo-Nazis or white supremacists. There are radicals on the left who effectively agree with the white nationalist view that America’s founding was essentially racist. “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock,” Malcolm X said, “Plymouth Rock landed on us.”

In a sense, the radicals agree with the white nationalists that America’s founding documents excluded non-whites (this is before we even get to the further complication of the status of women). The difference is whether they view this as a good or bad thing.

On the whole, I disagree with the radical interpretation, but reasonable people have to concede that it is at least a plausible interpretation. So Martin Luther King could have adopted the radical view in the “I Have a Dream” speech. He could have rejected America’s founding documents as excluding African-Americans. He could have proposed a revolution, a new founding. But of course that’s not what he did.

Instead of rejecting America’s founding as racist, or as a fraud, King interpreted America’s founding documents as a promise of equality encompassing all races. He interpreted “all men are created equal” as universal.

But King did not sugarcoat the blunt reality that America had reneged on the promise:

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

This was a brilliant rhetorical device. With the promissory note metaphor, King laid claim to America’s founding principles on behalf of all races, while simultaneously acknowledging that his race had been excluded from enjoying the benefits of those principles.

And here’s the important thing for persuaders to understand: Whether this interpretation of the founding was historically or philosophically accurate was not the point. The point was to inspire and persuade the audience.

The “I Have a Dream” speech really had two audiences: followers who were already committed to civil rights and moderate whites who were on the fence. King needed to inspire his followers to continue the struggle and to persuade the moderates to get off the fence.

King saw that reinterpreting the American founding as universal was the right way to persuade the moderates. “I’m not leading a revolution against your values,” he was essentially saying to them, “I’m leading a movement to require you to live up to your own stated values.” Paradoxically, his rejection of the radical approach was part of what made him so “dangerous,” to borrow the FBI’s term.

And this leads us the second key point about the “I Have a Dream” speech: the rejection of moderate gradualism. King made it clear his movement insisted on real, immediate reform:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. . . .

Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge. 

These words made it plain that King’s earlier invocation of America’s universal principle of equality was not merely abstract or aspirational.

The rhetoric of “whirlwinds of revolt” may have been jarring to white moderates, but it was an essential counterpart to invoking the nation’s founding principles. Without the insistence on immediate change, the promissory note metaphor would have been merely abstract. The other side of the coin was that “gradual” change wasn’t going to cut it.

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Excerpt from “I Have a Dream”

This is not to say that moderation and gradualism are always wrong. Depending on the situation, the right approach to any political problem could be conservatism (maintaining the status quo), radicalism (revolting against the status quo), or moderation (gradual reform).

But I think Martin Luther King correctly sensed in 1963 that it was time to push for immediate and lasting reform. The arc of history may ultimately bend towards justice, but windows of opportunity don’t stay open very long in politics. You have to know when to seize the opportunity to make a major change. And major change would come soon after the “I Have a Dream” speech, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This gives us the second lesson about persuasion. It’s usually not enough to persuade the audience that your point of view is correct. You’ve got to persuade them to do something about it, even if it’s something they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Once you’ve got people nodding their heads in agreement with you, then you have to push them out of their “comfort zone.”

You have to convince them that, in King’s words, “now is the time to make justice a reality.”

What a dangerous idea.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. He’ll probably get back to non-compete and trade secret law in next week’s post.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

Essential MLK Day Reading for Lawyers and Other Humans

Essential MLK Day Reading for Lawyers and Other Humans

Script Idea for New Courtroom Drama

For this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’ve got a movie idea to pitch. Picture this. A racist white sheriff rules his county in the Jim Crow South with an iron fist. A teenage white girl falsely claims she was raped by a black man. An all-white jury convicts on the flimsiest of evidence. It is very likely the young woman was not assaulted at all.

You think it’s been done before in To Kill a Mockingbird? Well I’m going to spice it up for an audience of millennials. Though undeniably gripping, the courtroom drama in the Gregory Peck classic was, sadly, a fairly ordinary story. An all-white jury convicts a wrongfully accused African-American man of raping a young white woman in the segregated American South? No big surprise. The only parts that are at all hard to believe are that a small-town white lawyer would mount a serious defense of the case, and that the defendant would actually make it to trial without getting lynched.

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I’ve got a book recommendation for MLK Day

My movie will be wilder, crazier, more dangerous.  Instead of one accused black man, there will be three. One of the accused men will not even be in the same county when the “crime” occurred.  Instead of a no-name small town lawyer, the lead defense counsel will be a famous civil rights lawyer. Instead of one trial, there will be two, and in between the two trials the case will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Action and danger? Imagine this. In the opening scene, the civil rights lawyer runs from the courthouse and jumps in a car that speeds out of the county with angry Klansmen in hot pursuit. Sheriff’s deputies beat false confessions out of two suspects, but a third refuses to confess. In between the two trials, the racist sheriff picks up two of the accused from prison, pulls over to the side of a country road in the middle of the night, pulls a gun, and then . . . well I don’t want to spoil it.

I know, it sounds too sensational. But this story is real. You can read it in Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, which won a Pulitzer Prize. If you care about the American civil rights movement, you will want to read this book. If you are a lawyer, you will enjoy learning how Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues handled the actual nuts and bolts of defending three wrongfully accused men under the most difficult conditions. If you are a trial lawyer, you absolutely must read this book.

You can read reviews of the book to find out more details about the story. Here are just a few of the broader points I took away from this riveting account of a chilling episode in American legal history.

Thurgood Marshall, Super Lawyer

I knew that Thurgood Marshall was a pioneering civil rights lawyer who won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and went on to serve as the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. But before this book I did not realize that Marshall was one of the best trial and appellate lawyers in the country. I pictured the young Thurgood Marshall as a political activist who happened to be a lawyer. But Devil in the Grove shows that Marshall was a lawyer’s lawyer, a top-notch practitioner who wrote meticulous briefs and loved to argue cases.

Marshall was also a shrewd strategist who carefully chose the cases the NAACP Legal Defense Fund took on. In the Groveland case, the goal was not only to save three innocent lives, but to set up a legal challenge to a system that denied due process based on race.

A System Built on Dishonesty

Aside from the obvious injustice of the state-sponsored discrimination that reigned in the South until the 1960s, the most striking feature of the system was its fundamental dishonesty. The basic legal problem for southern segregationists was the 14th Amendment. (Remember that one? We had to fight a civil war to get it.) It guaranteed due process and equal protection of the laws, and it was the supreme law of the land.

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The defense table in the second Groveland trial

So ultimately, the law was on Thurgood Marshall’s side. This meant that openly defending racial oppression was not a viable long-term strategy for defenders of the racist status quo. They had to pretend that African-Americans actually had civil rights. They had to maintain the fiction that black and white schools were “separate but equal.” Brown v. Board of Education’s rejection of the separate-but-equal doctrine was like a collective “come on, man!” from the Supreme Court. Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.

Appellate Courts Sometimes Have to Get Real

A related lesson is that appellate courts can’t always take legal arguments at face value. Defenders of the most unjust system can always come up with arguments that have a surface plausibility. For example, when Texas Attorney General Price Daniel and his assistant Joe Greenhill defended Dallas County’s history of all-white grand juries, they could argue with some plausibility that exclusion of blacks from the grand jury was not a denial of equal protection, but merely a result of the fact that the grand jury commissioners did not know any black people who were qualified to serve.

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Thurgood Marshall and colleagues on the steps of the Supreme Court

But this was effectively a lie. Everyone knew the system was designed–formally or informally–to exclude African-Americans. The Supreme Court implicitly recognized as much in Cassell v. Texas, 339 U.S. 282 (1950), when it reversed a murder conviction on the ground that blacks were excluded from the grand jury. One year later, in Sheperd v. Florida, 341 U.S. 50 (1951), the Supreme Court cited Cassell to reverse the convictions in the first Groveland trial. Justices Jackson and Frankfurter wrote a concurring opinion saying they would have reversed based on the failure to remedy prejudicial pretrial publicity of the defendants’ alleged confessions.

Formal Rights Don’t Guarantee Actual Justice

The story of the Groveland trial also teaches a related fundamental point about the law. Formal rights under the law mean nothing if judges and juries don’t sincerely enforce them. When a judge refuses to allow defense lawyers to call to the stand the physician who examined the alleged rape victim, the Equal Protection Clause has not done the defendant much good. When a jury convicts three African-American men based on community outrage and racism, not on solid evidence, the Due Process Clause hasn’t given the defendants much comfort. Favoritism and prejudice on an individual level can make a mockery of even the best-designed institutions.

But these points are way too abstract. At its core, Devil in the Grove is great story-telling.  And it really happened. Hollywood couldn’t make this stuff up.

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients.