“I Don’t Believe I’ve Ever Met A Homosexual”

James Kirchick writes:

“I oppose using a person’s sexual orientation as a job qualification for the same reasons that I oppose the privileging of a candidate based upon their race or sex: It boils individuals down to their immutable traits. The only aspect that Obama should consider as he weighs his options over the next few days is the candidates’ jurisprudence.”

Matt Yglesias responds:

“The nature of the Supreme Court is that a great many of its most important cases concern the rights of women and various kinds of minority groups. It’s absurd to think that a forum of nine white, male, heterosexual Christians could possibly compose the best possible forum for deciding these kinds of issues. The reality is that a nine-person group can’t possibly fully represent the diversity — in terms of religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, etc. — that exists in the country at large. But one can do better or worse on this regard and it makes perfect sense to aspire to do better. That’s not an alternative to caring about the quality of the jurisprudence, it’s part of trying to get good jurisprudence.”

This is absolutely right, and I think it’s why Obama was right to say that he wanted to nominate a justice who is not just “dedicated to the rule of law, who honors our constitutional traditions, who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role”, but who has the “quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles”. This is not opposed to caring about getting the law right; it’s about understanding what is at stake in various cases well enough to see how the law, as it is written, actually applies.

To see why this matters, consider an anecdote about Justice Powell’s deliberations in Bowers v. Hardwick.

Bowers was a case in which Matthew Hardwick, who had been arrested for engaging in consensual homosexual sex in his own home, challenged the Georgia sodomy statute under which he had been charged. One of the crucial questions on which the case turned was: are sexual activities between consenting adults, carried out in their own homes, protected under either the ninth or the fourteenth amendments?

Given previous cases involving the right to privacy, it was crucial to decide whether such acts involved what Justice Blackmun, in his dissent, called “the fundamental interest all individuals have in controlling the nature of their intimate associations with others”, or just a right to engage in homosexual sodomy, as the majority claimed. Is the right to decide which consenting adult to have sex with, and how, one of those fundamental interests that we take the ninth and fourteenth amendments to protect, or is it not?

In their arguments (1, 2, 3), the majority discussed only gay sex, even though the Georgia statute also criminalized heterosexual sodomy. They also described their findings in terms of their application to homosexuals, saying things like: “The Constitution does not confer a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy.”

One might therefore ask: did the various Justices have any clear conception of the importance, to gay men and lesbians, of being able to have sex with the people they love? One might think that anyone would understand that, but that is only true if one accepts the idea that gay men and lesbians are people, rather than members of some strange alien species. So: how did the Justices think about gay men and lesbians?

Here’s some evidence from Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine, pp. 218-219 (note that Justice Powell was the swing vote in this case, and came down in favor of upholding Georgia’s sodomy statute):

“One Saturday in the spring of 1986, Justice Lewis Powell struck up a conversation with one of his law clerks, Cabell Chinnis Jr., about Bowers v. Hardwick. As Chinnis recounted the exchange to Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price, authors of a history of gay rights at the Supreme Court, Powell asked about the prevalence of homosexuality, which one friend-of-the-court brief estimated at 10%. Chinnis said that sounded right to him. “I don’t believe I’ve ever met a homosexual”, Powell replied. Chinnis said that seemed unlikely. Later the same day, Powell came back to Chinnis and asked, “Why don’t homosexuals have sex with women?” “Justice Powell,” he replied, “a gay man cannot have an erection to perform intercourse with a woman.” The conversation was especially bizarre not just because of its explicit nature but because Chinnis himself was gay (as were several of Powell’s previous law clerks.)”

You have to feel for the poor clerk: there he is, a closeted gay man, being quizzed by his boss about why homosexuals don’t have sex with women. (Apparently, Justice Powell wasn’t thinking of lesbians at all.) I think that a good working definition of empathy would be: that quality that allows a straight man or woman to know the answer to that question without having to ask his or her law clerks. And I would think that the fact that Justice Powell had to ask that question might explain why he believed, falsely, that he had never met a homosexual: if you were gay, would you tell him?

Justice Powell was, as I said, the swing vote in a case that upheld criminalizing consensual gay sex carried out in the privacy of one’s own home. It seems pretty clear that he had no conception of what it was like to be gay, and was therefore in no position to decide on the importance of the rights that he was deciding on. That is not a good way to interpret the law when, as in this case, the importance of a right is central to the question whether or not it is protected.

Consider how different things might have been had there been an openly gay man or woman on the Supreme Court, one who might have explained his or her take on this to Justice Powell.

I do not believe that we ought to try to represent every group in existence on the Supreme Court. Most importantly, representation obviously matters less than things like wisdom, devotion to the law and to its faithful interpretation, depth of understanding, and so forth. For another, there are only nine justices, and many more groups whom it would, other things equal, be good to represent. (This is one reason why empathy matters: it’s obviously impossible to represent everyone, so there’s no substitute for Justices being able to understand the impact of their decisions on people unlike themselves.) And the groups people normally think of are not all the relevant ones: in terms of understanding the importance of laws to those they affect, I think that Sonia Sotomayer’s having grown up in the projects is as important as the fact that Kathleen Sullivan and Pam Karlan are openly gay.

(Side note: some conservatives seem to think that empathy necessarily favors criminals. I don’t think this is true at all. Growing up in the projects might give someone a particularly clear understanding of just how much damage crime does to inner city communities. I think that it’s the understanding that matters, not which side it turns out to favor in a given case.)

But Kirchick is not objecting to the idea that we should care only about getting representatives of various groups on the Court, which I agree is absurd. He says that sexual orientation should not be “a job qualification”, which I take to mean that it should not be a consideration at all, even when one is choosing between several highly qualified candidates. For the reasons given above, I think this is wrong. And it’s not wrong because representing groups matters more than good jurisprudence, but because, as Bowers v. Hardwick makes clear, ignorance can lead to bad law.

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