“Should the Actual Facts of Supreme Court Cases Matter?”

March 12th, 2012

Michael Dorf, opining on the actual personalities of John Lawrence, Norma McCorvey (Roe of Roe v. Wade), and Roscoe Filburn, queries:

  The Supreme Court decides cases to establish general principles of law.  Insofar as the facts in a particular case bear on the contours of those principles, the key facts are the facts as perceived by the Court, rather than the facts as they may have actually been.  Judicial truthiness, not the real truth, matters to the law. . . .

I don’t mean to say that we should ignore the real stories behind the stylized statements of fact one reads in judicial opinions.  Quite the contrary.  I edited Constitutional Law Stories precisely because I think that the back story is extremely important in making sense of how the law develops.  But the back story is never just the story of the particular petitioners and respondents who happen to appear in the caption of the case the Supreme Court hears.  The complete back story features a range of such protagonists as well as social activists, lawyers (many of whom are also activists), and the public. The story of the particular protagonists in a case matters most when it tells us something about the broader social context.

In other words–and I’ve told my students something along these lines–the facts are quite irrelevant at the Supreme Court.