Four Supreme Court Decisions: Abortion, Guns, Affirmative Action, Corruption…And Ethics. Part I: Fisher v. University of Texas

Abigail Fisher: Not dark enough to get "an equal shot"

Abigail Fisher: Not dark enough to get “an equal shot”

The under-populated U.S. Supreme Court recently made four decisions on issues with ethical principles involved. This is the first of four posts reviewing the ethics implications of the decisions.

I. Affirmative Action: Fisher v. University of Texas

The University of Texas’ admissions program guarantees admission to top students in every high school in the state. It is dubbed the  Top 10 Percent program, though the percentage cutoff is flexible. A second part of the admissions program admits other students from Texas and elsewhere using standards that take into account academic achievement and other factors, including race and ethnicity. Many colleges and universities base all of their admissions decisions on such grounds. The case before the Court challenged that part of the program, and presented an opportunity for the Supremes to finally declare affirmative action unconstitutional, as previous opinions hinted they might do some day.

This was not the day, however. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, said courts must give universities significant but not total autonomy in designing their admissions programs, writing:

“A university is in large part defined by those intangible ‘qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness.’ Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.But still, it remains an enduring challenge to our nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.”

This defines either an ethical dilemma, which the Court’s majority is punting, or an ethical conflict…which the Court majority is punting. Is diversity an ethical objective, or a practical one, that is, a powerful non-ethical consideration? It is hard to argue that diversity in a student body isn’t desirable—to enhance the educational experiences of students, to avoid having a permanent, under-credentialed underclass, to “look like America.” However, fairness and common sense argue that admitting one candidate over another who is better qualified simply because of ethnicity or race is per se wrong. I don’t blame the Court at all for not making a clean call.

As usual, President Obama described the result in simplistic terms. “I’m pleased that the Supreme Court upheld the basic notion that diversity is an important value in our society,” he told reporters at the White House. “We are not a country that guarantees equal outcomes, but we do strive to provide an equal shot to everybody.”

Thank you, President Obvious. The crux of the case, however, was what should be done when using race as a standard for admission to attain that diversity denies an “equal shot” to someone who has the misfortune to be white, like Abigail Fisher, or Asian-American. Continue reading

Ethics Observations On Georgetown Law Center’s Scalia Foofarah

Scalia-Georgetown

I am a Georgetown University Law Center grad, as well as a former administrator there. I also know and have personal relationships with several members of the faculty. None of this especially informs my ethical analysis of the community argument there that arose from a rather innocuous official expression of respect and mourning in the wake of Justice Scalia’s death, but if anyone wonders why I’m posting about this rather than many other ethics issues nipping at my heels, that’s part of the reason. The other reason is that this academic dust-up raises interesting ethics issues, and has received national publicity.

Observations on the tale as it has unfolded:

1.  Georgetown Law Center issued a press release mourning the death of Antonin Scalia, including a statement from Dean William M. Treanor that read:

Scalia was a giant in the history of the law, a brilliant jurist whose opinions and scholarship profoundly transformed the law. Like countless academics, I learned a great deal from his opinions and his scholarship. In the history of the Court, few Justices have had such influence on the way in which the law is understood. On a personal level, I am deeply grateful for his remarkably generous involvement with our community, including his frequent appearances in classes and his memorable lecture to our first year students this past November. The justice offered first-year students his insights and guidance, and he stayed with the students long after the lecture was over. He cared passionately about the profession, about the law and about the future, and the students who were fortunate enough to hear him will never forget the experience. We will all miss him.”

[Note: In the original post, I missed the first line, and kept missing it. Don’t ask me why. The text has been finally, after a couple botched attempts, been revised to include it.]

Is there anything inappropriate about the dean’s statement? Not in my view. This is nothing but a traditional expression of professional respect on behalf a prominent institutional member of the legal community. There is nothing in the statement, save for the last sentence, that anyone could argue is untrue. Countless academics, as well as Scalia’s more liberal colleagues, did learn “a great deal from his opinions and his scholarship.” He was an influential and significant figure on the Court. Scalia was generous with his time and passion as a teacher, and by all accounts he was a good one.

The opening statement,  “Scalia was a giant in the history of the law, a brilliant jurist whose opinions and scholarship profoundly transformed the law,”  seems to be what rankled Scalia critics. It shouldn’t have. At worst it is standard memorial puffery. But calling Scalia a giant “ in the history of the law” seems fair whether you agree with his jurisprudence or not: he is certainly among the 20 or so most quoted, most debated, and most provocative justices. The rest shouldn’t be troubling to anyone who isn’t suffering from Scalia-phobia. A Justice can be brilliant and transformational while being wrong.

None of the reports of the controversy ignited by this standard issue sentiment mention it, but Georgetown Law Center isn’t on the Georgetown campus. It has its own campus that is a 15 minute walk from the Supreme Court. Law students regularly attend oral arguments; I did: it was one of the great advantages of studying law there. More than any law school, the Law Center has good reason to feel a special affinity to the Court and all its justices.

2.  What about the last sentence? Is it appropriate for Treaner to speak for the law school community and say that “We will all miss him”? He was reasonable and fair to assume that.  Unfortunately, in today’s vicious partisan divide where opinions and sincere positions reached after thought and research are too often treated as proof of consort with Satan, and ion which even lawyers, who are trained not to take legal arguments personally, are frequently unable to respect a colleague for a well-reasoned argument that they may still think is completely wrong, it was not a safe assumption. Pillory the dean, then, for giving all members of his community the benefit of the doubt, and assuming they are capable of grace, compassion, fairness, professional respect and civility.

It’s still not unethical to assume one’s colleagues have some class.

3. They all don’t, unfortunately. Law Center professors Gary Peller and Mike Seidman (I know Mike, never met Gary) then used the Campus Broadcast system, usually used for event announcements, invitations and policy changes, to send a message  to all members of the student body titled, “Responses to Dean Treanor’s Press Release Regarding Justice Scalia.”  Peller’s statement reads,

Like Mike Seidman, I also was put-off by the invocation of the “Georgetown Community” in the press release that Dean Treanor issued Saturday. I imagine many other faculty, students and staff, particularly people of color, women and sexual minorities, cringed at headline and at the unmitigated praise with which the press release described a jurist that many of us believe was a defender of privilege, oppression and bigotry, one whose intellectual positions were not brilliant but simplistic and formalistic….That ‘community’ would never have claimed that our entire community mourns the loss of J. Scalia, nor contributed to his mystification without regard for the harm and hurt he inflicted.”

This was partisan grandstanding of the worst kind. The professors, of course, have a right to proclaim their opinions to the student body any time they want to, but their complaint here was petty and mean-spirited. It also models behavior that is poisonous both to the legal profession and the culture as a whole. The are saying, in essence,We don’t mourn him, we won’t miss him, and we’re glad to be rid of him, because his legal theories aren’t our legal theories, and we are on the side of the angels while he was an uncaring villain.” Such a message accomplishes nothing positive, and much that is destructive. The professors engaged in demonizing, when their profession and their duty is not to denigrate but reason. If they really think they can prove that Scalia was a defender of privilege, oppression and bigotry, they can make that case in a scholarly paper: I doubt that they can. Scalia often defended the rights to engage in conduct that he did not personally support, as well as some he did: the sloppy rhetoric of Seidman and Peller echoes the legally ignorant who accuse criminal defense attorneys of defending robbery and murder. Continue reading

Update: Some Perspective On Justice Scalia’s “Racist” Question About Affirmative Action

Big fish, meet small pond...

Big fish, meet small pond…

Ethics Alarms recently discussed the unfair attacks on Justice Scalia, now even extending to calls for his resignation, for his legitimate question in oral argument about whether black students accepted into elite schools via affirmative action might be better off being able to excel in less competitive institutions. The question was not racist, reflecting common sense, nor was it necessarily Scalia’s position, as it was an argument raised in one of the briefs on the case. Never mind: much of the media still characterizes the query as outrageous, and social justice warriors are trying to make the episode out to be smoking gun evidence of Supreme Court bias in anticipation of a negative ruling in the case regarding affirmative action.

As the Daily Beast reveals, however, there is a much better explanation than racism for why Scalia might find the argument powerfully supported by the research of Richard Stander and Stuart Taylor in their book “Mismatch” compelling. Young Nino Scalia was a star in elementary school, but failed the entrance exam for the Jesuit High School in Manhattan. His father told him that he might ultimately be better off at a less competitive school where he could shine, and that’s what happened.  Scalia later graduated first in his class at a less prestigious high school. Then he was rejected again when he applied to Princeton University.  Again he took a step down, attended Georgetown University instead, and was first in his class. Continue reading

Race-Baiting Scalia (For Doing His Job)

Ignore them, Nino.

Ignore them, Nino.

As is often the case with topics here, I heard about the uproar over Justice Antonin Scalia’s controversial question during oral argument on the latest challenge to affirmative action accidentally, when a Facebook friend re-posted a furious message from his friend calling Scalia a moron and a racist. Even reading a second hand account of what somebody read that Scalia said (the transcript hadn’t been released, but never mind: that was enough for my friend’s African-American friend to call a Supreme Court Justice a racist and for my friend, who is a liberal-minded professor, to endorse it), I could tell that the attack was unfair and worse, outright race-baiting.

What Scalia was alleged to have asked a lawyer was whether affirmative action actually hurt blacks by putting them in “more advanced” institutions, that they “don’t belong” in elite schools. I knew, no matter what Justice Scalia really said, that he was talking about some blacks, not all blacks. That’s obvious: if an African American student can be admitted to an elite school without the “thumb on the scale” of affirmative action, obviously he or she is qualified and belongs there. But more importantly, I knew from personal experience that being admitted to a top school when the student’s credentials wouldn’t normally warrant it could be disastrous.

I worked in the administration of Georgetown Law Center in the late seventies and early eighties, as the school was trying to increase its percentage of black students. I was involved in the process sometimes, and was stunned by its unfortunate revelations: for example, some of the black students we accepted from elite colleges lacked basic reading, writing and critical thinking skills. I remember one Yale grad in particular who could not write a comprehensible sentence.

Georgetown Law set up a special class for these minority students (and a couple of  white “legacy” admits who were sons of wealthy alums, one of which I had specifically told his father could not possibly graduate, based on his college grades and test scores.) Then the school was sued by one of the affirmative action students, who claimed that making him take the remedial class was demeaning and racist. Of course he would have been better off in a less demanding law school. Affirmative action did none of these students any favors. In my opinion then and now, their welfare, confidence and self-esteem was  sacrificed so Georgetown could look progressive, and to the dubious objective of diversity for diversity’s sake.

It wasn’t just my Facebook friend’s friend that was bashing Scalia as a racist. It was much of the news media. “Justice Scalia Suggests Blacks Belong at ‘Slower’ Colleges” reported Mother Jones. “Scalia: Maybe black students belong at ‘less-advanced’ schools” reported The Hill. MSNBC’s slur was Justice Antonin Scalia floats ‘lesser schools’ for black students.  A New York Times editorial—the paper has, it appears, lost its mind– said that Scalia raised an “offensive premise which has not gotten such a full airing at the Supreme Court since the 1950s.” The New York’s Daily News  headlined“SUPREME DOPE” over a photo of Nino. Continue reading

Ethics Hero: Judge Richard Posner

Sure, you have a right to think there's something wrong with that, but the state has no business acting as if it thinks so too.

Sure, you have a right to think there’s something wrong with that, but the state has no business acting as if it thinks so too.

Because Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court was appointed by Ronald Reagan, he is usually describes as a conservative judge. He’s better described as an unusually smart, articulate, thoughtful and courageous judge, and in responding to oral arguments  lawyers for Wisconsin and Indiana defending their state’s marriage bans, he proved it.

I have frequently attempted to draw a distinction between those guided by archaic religious morality that causes them to regard same-sex marriage as sinful, and the attempt to use the government, which must not be guided by religion to make such marriages illegal. Morality doesn’t have to be defended by logic—God works in mysterious ways, you know—but laws do. A complete evisceration emanating from a place of authority of the specious and often absent reasoning behind gay marriage bans was much needed, and knowing that he risked criticism as a “judicial bully” for doing so with gusto, Judge Posner came through.

Here is a sampling of the barrage he placed on Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher and Wisconsin’s assistant attorney general Timothy Samuelson: Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: Law Professor Josh Blackman, Too Desperate To Take A Cheap Shot At Justice Scalia

Supreme Court Justice Scalia, though not quite to the absurd degree of Sarah Palin, is a conservative who inspires such visceral dislike from the residents of the American Left that he often inspires them to behave irrationally in their eagerness to express their contempt. Such was the case this week, when Scalia sharply rebuked a lawyer making his oral argument before the high tribunal in the case of Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, a property rights dispute over the conversion of abandoned railroad rights of way into public trails. The advocate, Steven Lechner, was before Scalia and his colleagues for the first time, and began his argument by reading from his notes. This is not cool, and violates Supreme Court tradition, rules, and long-observed standards.

Tony Mauro, blogging at the Legal Times, explains: Continue reading