Constitutional Faces: Naming Supreme Court Cases

October 28th, 2013

The named plaintiff in Supreme Court cases is always the famous one. Brown, Kelo, Heller, etc. But what about other litigants who are not named? For example, everyone knows the case of Printz v. United States. But what about Mack v. United States, a companion case? (Sheriff Mack, who has unsuccessfully run for progress, insisted to me that the case should be called Mack). And Dick Heller wasn’t even the lead plaintiff. Mary Parker was, but she was tossed out due to a lack of standing. Only Dick remained.

Recently, Justice Kagan hosted a lecture for the Supreme Court Historical Society by Kenneth Mack of Harvard Law School about the case of Bell v. Maryland, where twelve African-American high school students were arrested for sitting in at a lunch counter. Why was the case named after Bell?

Mack offered an interesting tidbit of why the case was named after former Maryland Chief Judge Chief Judge Robert Bell.

And, Mack pointed out, it was only because of the alphabet that Bell was the named plaintiff to begin with. Had one of the students’ last names been Anderson, Bell wouldn’t have been as prominently associated with the case.

Bell chimed in that he was only first because of the alphabet.

“Let me just answer this question,” the Chief Judge chimed in after Mack concluded his remarks. Chief Judge Bell affirmed that Mack’s view of his disposition was closer to reality than those that cast him as a rebel or protest leader.  The retired jurist deferred nearly all the credit to the Morgan State students who were organizing the protests and who had asked him, in his capacity as class president at Dunbar High School, to recruit high school students for the sit-ins. “We did something that was intended to be meaningful,” the Chief Judge told the audience, adding humbly that he was simply grateful for the opportunity to be part of it. “My role was a little more than the alphabet, I had to recruit the students, that’s what I want credit for, but that’s it.”

Yet it’s always the named plaintiff we remember.

By the way, do you know why the health care cases was called NFIB v. Sebelius, and not Florida v. HHS. Because NFIB docketed their case first. Best market ever.