Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Some Thoughts on Historians and Advocacy

I'm excited to join the conversation on Legal History Blog this month.  In particular, I hope to offer a grad student perspective in some of my future posts.

Today, though, I wanted to address an entirely different topic--namely, the role of legal historians as advocates, an issue raised for me by Justice Scalia's dissent in the recent decision in Arizona v. U.S.  The dissent attracted attention (at least until Thursday) for its critique of the Obama administration's immigration policy, but I was struck by its heavy reliance on historical argument, even for an originalist like Scalia.  Parts invoked strange counterfactuals, like Scalia's assertion that the delegates to the convention would have run to the exits when confronted with the prospect of an exclusive federal power to limit immigration (an unlikely fear when states were anxious to attract, not exclude, immigrants).  But it also rested on more solid ground, in particular drawing heavily from Gerald Neumann's article on the "Lost Century of Immigration Law." (My sense is that Neumann's account of antebellum immigration policy is respected and influential; my adviser steered me to it to crib for a lecture on the history of immigration in a legal history survey.)

My point is not to critique Justice Scalia's historical claim about state authority, nor to evaluate the argumentative leap from the descriptive conclusion that states regulated aspects of immigration in antebellum America to the normative conclusion that their continued exercise of this authority does not conflict with federal policy.  What struck me was that Scalia's historical argument went unchallenged, either by the majority or by an amicus brief by legal historians. (I haven't read all the amici, so it's possible others made a historical argument; the United States did not in its brief, apart from a couple citiations to the Federalist).  Scalia lost, so it wasn't necessary to rebut him; still, his reliance on states' antebellum regulation efforts, which Neumann and others have recognized were heavily intertwined with race and slavery, and the omission of any mention of the Reconstruction amendments, left his claims open to an easy line of criticism.

Many legal academics I've talked to are sometimes frustrated by historians' unwillingness to give them what they want--namely, a useable past that can be used in advocacy, and, particularly for those of a liberal bent, to challenge the arguments advanced by conservative originalists.  And my coclerk asked me why historians criticize decisions after the fact, rather than try to influence them during deliberation. 

These criticisms are somewhat unfair, since historians do file amicus briefs, particularly in prominent cases: for instance, in Heller, in Lawrence, and this term, in Kiobel (among others).  And there are good reasons for historians to abstain from advocacy in certain cases.  Besides the general concern about the distorting effect of advocacy on scholarship, briefs rarely capture the complexity that good history depicts.  Historically oriented cases also attract briefs by historians on both sides, in a sort of arms race that may end--at least in the mind of a non-historically-trained outsider--as a wash.  Finally, it may not be effective: much compelling historical scholarship on legal issues has had little effect on the direction of jurisprudence.

Despite these caveats, I feel that legal historians have an obligation to speak up during some of these debates.  Since we have a foot in both methodologies, we are especially well-positioned to craft legally convincing historical arguments, in a field where history matters.  And there is no shortage of ideologues of all stripes who will peddle pseudo-scholarship and much-maligned "law office history" to achieve their desired results.  As someone who studies the history of Indian law--where history plays such an important role and yet is often poorly understood--I feel this responsibility particularly keenly.

I would love to hear the views of readers on this topic in the comments, particularly if (unlike myself) they have experience in employing their scholarship in public debates.


Josh Stein said...

You raise some great issues. I'm actually working on a study of historians' amicus briefs. Suffice to say, they are most successful when there is a narrowly defined historical issue they can address. There's definitely some handwringing over professional integrity, advocacy, etc.

Anonymous said...

I'm a lawyer and I have a grad degree in international relations. I practice criminal defense and immigration. I read this blog everyday and consider myself an avid reader of legal history.

Before I really start blabbing, let me just say that it is often very easy to tell who has practiced law and who hasn't, not that this is always important. Generally, and I can only speak to criminal and immigration law, there is an obvious lack of courtroom relevance to a lot of stuff that gets published.

I can either use it in a courtroom or I can't. And if I can't, well, it can sit on my bookshelf in silence. If you can't publish something that helps change a profoundly broken system blah blah blah what's the point? Otherwise, you're just talking to your learned friends while downing cheap wine and bland cheese.

Whenever possible, I integrate history into my advocacy, though it may not be evident to opposing counsel or the judge. Recently, I handled an asylum case involving a woman who was kidnapped by a Contra in Honduras in the early 80s. She was not able to leave for over 25 years!! Without a doubt, my knowledge of US foreign policy toward this region and the devastation wrought by that policy informed almost every aspect of my approach to this case. We won!!

I also used that knowledge to articulate an argument that would have overturned a significant amount of case law. Unfortunately, I was not able to pin down my expert. I continue to search for an asylum case that will allow me to make this argument. When that happens, I will almost certainly need someone, an "expert witness," to help me make this argument. The point is, not surprisingly, attorneys use legal history to advocate on a regular basis. Legal historians do not, and I think this is unfortunate.

I suppose it depends on what the purpose of your scholarship is. If you simply want to reconstruct history and have a conversation with other legal historians, and to remain irrelevant to the outside world, stay "objective" and "neutral" or "concern[ed] about the distorting effect of advocacy on scholarship[.]" But that does not have to be the case.

Take the Summer 2010 issue of Daedalus, "On Mass Incarceration." There are some great articles inside, but, in my opinion, only "Class, race & hyperincarceration in revanchist America" by Loic Wacquant captures what happens in criminal courts across the US on a daily basis. Whatever that guy is doing in terms of research and advocacy needs to be reproduced. I could have written that, but, somehow, I don't know how, this guy captured reality AND got published.

Anywho, cheers, I love your blog.

Greg Ablavsky said...

I hope I didn't accidentally steal your thunder for next month! If so, I apologize. But I look forward to reading your study when it comes out.

Karen Tani said...

Michael Grossberg penned some thoughts on this back in 2010: http://legalhistoryblog.blogspot.com/2010/12/grossberg-on-historian-as-amicus.html

Tomiko's more recent musings on historians and public advocacy are here:

Josh Stein said...

Thunder is not stolen, Greg! But I do think I'll muse on some of my findings here. And the resources that Karen mentions are definitely worth checking out.

Kalyani Ramnath said...

Great post! I have been thinking about this issue in the context of India's constitutional jurisprudence. There are interesting parallels to be drawn between Lawrence and India's anti-sodomy decision in 2009. In the latter, there were no scholars appearing as amici, both parties used historical texts in their argument. Perhaps due to the difference in the way the constitutional court process plays out? I am working on seeing how legal procedure shapes how useable pasts are.

Legal history also plays an key role in the colonial continuities debates and is often employed in legal reform projects, campaigns and such like (the repeal of sedition laws in India comes to mind).