Crimes of Compassion
It's not just liberals who play the empathy card.
Posted Friday, May 15, 2009, at 3:56 PM
Pity poor Frank Ricci. You probably already do. Ricci is a white firefighter from New Haven, Conn., who is the plaintiff in an important civil rights case before the Supreme Court this term. Ricci suffers from dyslexia, which made passing a written exam established by New Haven for promotion to lieutenant especially challenging for him. He studied hard and got the sixth-highest score on the exam—qualifying him for one of the eight open spots. But despite all that, Ricci still hasn't received his promotion, which is the basis of his lawsuit.
What does Ricci's dyslexia have to do with the law? Very little, actually. The city of New Haven threw out the results of the test he took because it feared that the examination was discriminatory. That's because none of the African-American candidates, and only two of the 50 minority candidates, who took the test would have been eligible for promotion based on the results. Regardless of how you and I may feel about Frank Ricci or how much he deserved to be promoted, discriminatory results like that can run afoul of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And in this case the results of the test far exceeded the statistical cutoff that suggests a constitutional violation has occurred.
When the case was argued before the Supreme Court last month, all of the justices seemed to agree that New Haven had to comply with valid federal statutes. Mr. Ricci did not challenge the constitutionality of Title VII. So the only real question before the court was whether New Haven had reason to believe that if the city used the test results it would be sued under Title VII. Mr. Ricci's specific circumstances—his race, his dyslexia, and his professional aggravation—have no bearing on that legal question at all.
So why did every report on the case begin and end with Ricci's compelling employment story? Might it have something to do with the fact that the conservative organizations supporting Ricci used his sympathetic tale as the centerpiece of a successful media blitz leading up to oral argument before the court? Could it be that they wanted to make sure the justices understood just how Title VII could impact the lives of ordinary Americans like Frank Ricci? Could they—oh the horror!—have wanted the justices to empathize with Ricci's plight?
We have heard a great deal this week from the right about the stomach-churning evils of empathy. How it's a call to "emotive," lawless, unhinged judicial conduct that turns the federal bench into a cross between Oprah's studio and a lunatic asylum. The quality of empathy—which President Obama has said is a priority in a Supreme Court pick—has been derided, mocked, scorned, and brought into close contact with Michael Steele's behind. Which makes it rather problematic when you consider that conservatives have in fact been playing the empathy card a lot more effectively than progressives in recent years.
The truth is that conservative organizations have been beating the hell out of their liberal counterparts in the empathy game for some time now. More Americans can probably identify Susette Kelo and Wilhelmina Dery as the plaintiffs who had their homes snatched by the government in an eminent domain case in 2005 than can name any Supreme Court justice. That case, Kelo v. New London, had absolutely nothing to do with the adorableness of Kelo's Victorian house and the tenacity with which she fought to keep it. But to read about it in the press, you'd think Justice David Souter himself showed up on Kelo's doorstep, punched her in the mouth, then moved into her home and ate off her good china.
Doug Kendall is president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a think tank, law firm, and action center dedicated to the progressive promise of the Constitution's text and history.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.