Friday, January 11, 2008

Palmore v. Sidoti in the Voting Booth

In 1981, a Florida family court judge was faced with a battle for custody of a four-year-0ld white girl between her parents, both themselves white. The girl's mother initially had custody when the parents' marriage broke up, but the father sued for a change in custody based on the fact that the mother remarried a black man (after a brief period of cohabitation with him). The judge disclaimed any racist motives on his own part, but said that sadly, children of interracial couples face discrimination, and thus the best interests of the child favored giving the father custody. In a unanimous decision in the case, Palmore v. Sidoti, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the judge's taking account of other people's discriminatory motives amounted to unlawful race discrimination on his part.

The principle of Palmore v. Sidoti is a broad and important one. It explains why, for example, an employer violates Title VII if it denies a job to an applicant based on race (or other forbidden grounds of discrimination) because the employer believes that customers prefer to deal with employees of a particular race. In part the Palmore principle simply eliminates an excuse for discrimination: Someone who is himself a racist (or sexist or whatever) shouldn't be able to hide behind the alleged preferences and prejudices of others. But it's not just about pretexts. The Supreme Court decided the case---rightly I think---even on the assumption that the judge would have made a different decision were it not for the prejudices of society.

And so we come to the election. Suppose you think there is a Bradley effect---in which some number of white voters tell pollsters that they support a black candidate but then vote for the white candidate---or that you think sexism accounts for some of the high negatives of a candidate that you otherwise support. Should you consider yourself bound by the Palmore principle (as a matter of honor though obviously not as a legal matter) to put such issues aside in considering which candidate to vote for in your party's primary? If electability is ordinarily a legitimate criterion in selecting a candidate, does it become illegitimate if you believe that the reason why one candidate is not so electable is racism or sexism?

What if you think the Bradley effect is bunk? Might the "Bradley effect effect" be a reason to deny your vote to the black candidate? Or should you just not worry about such meta-meta considerations on the grounds that they're inherently unpredictable and either way (assuming a two-person race for the Democratic nomination), some people will oppose the nominee on discriminatory grounds?

Special shout to any reader who can give a plausible definition of the "Bradley effect effect effect." (But not to someone who says this post is an example of it: the effect of the Bradley effect effect is that other bloggers write about the Bradley effect effect.)

Posted by Mike "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Meta" Dorf

18 comments:

Sobek said...

Palmore is troubling to me.

Sure, we can all agree that prejudice against mixed marriages is stupid, and that prejudice against a child in a mix-race marriage is a fortiori more stupid. But family cases are decided on the "best interests of the child" standard. The Supreme Court basically said that defeating racism is more important than the interests of the child. Or stated another way, Sorry son, your interests aren't as important as our tinkering with culture.

Never mind that I happen to agree with the direction that the Court wanted to push our culture; using a child as a pawn in a social engineering game disturbs me greatly.

Matthew C. Temkin said...

Is the Bradley-E3 a galvanization of the truly racist voters? That is, those voters who are basically "out" with their racism?

egarber said...

Sobek,

Couldn't one say that a standard of "colorblindness" under the 14th requires the result in this case? In other words, wouldn't a decision that acknowledges discrimination be a raced-based consideration? If this is logical at all, how does your position square with the "colorblindness" embraced by conservatives?

Sobek said...

Good questions. I hadn't considered it that way. Let me think about that and get back to you.

Sobek said...

I'm still thinking about your question, egarber, but I wonder if one answer is the difference between constitutionalizing race (as in affirmative action) and acknowledging racism (as in Palmore).

egarber said...

the difference between constitutionalizing race (as in affirmative action) and acknowledging racism (as in Palmore).

That might be valid, but it's hard to argue that it's "colorblind" I think. The judge did more than merely "acknowledge" racism -- he(?) used it as his basis for applying the law, which unavoidably comes with race-based classification and resulting action.

Bear in mind, I'm not trying to play "gotcha" here; I'm just curious about what "colorblind" really means. Some purists -- as I understand it -- even think it's unconstitutional for the government to track trends based on race -- e.g., educational attainment, etc. In a way though, you could say such tracking is more innocuous than the judge's actions in Palmore, since mere tracking does nothing to impel race-based preference or denial.

And btw, congrats on being promoted to Dorf Law Clerk. First order of business: we need DOL t-shirts :)

Sobek said...

"The judge did more than merely "acknowledge" racism -- he(?) used it as his basis for applying the law, which unavoidably comes with race-based classification and resulting action."

I don't think it does come with race-based classification. That is, it is utterly immaterial whether the child will face discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, socio-economic status, or anything else. The child's identity is utterly irrelevant.

"Some purists -- as I understand it -- even think it's unconstitutional for the government to track trends based on race..."

For what it's worth, I don't go that far. One essential element of equal protection is the "protection" part -- a word that somehow we never discussed in my 14th Amend. class, much to my surprise. Tracking race-based data doesn't seem to implicate protection or discrimination in any way.

egarber said...

I don't think it does come with race-based classification. That is, it is utterly immaterial whether the child will face discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, socio-economic status, or anything else. The child's identity is utterly irrelevant.

But in this case, it seems to me it can be reduced to a "but for" test. In other words, the mother would have won custody, but for the RACE of her husband." So the controlling factor for the judge was race, it appears to me.

In a way, it's kind of like if a black man isn't allowed to obtain a driver's license -- i.e., "but for his race," he would have gotten it.

Sobek said...

"In other words, the mother would have won custody, but for the RACE of her husband."

I read it as 'the mother would have won custody but for discrimination in the community.' Certainly that's the district judge's rule, taken at face value. And if the rule is taken at face value, then if we move the exact same actors into a different community where racial discrimination is nor a reality, then the best interests of the child are not implicated, regardless of the color of parents and child.

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