Less is More

On the sixtieth anniversary (this month) of  the most important decision of the Supreme Court in 20th century legal history, there are three things about Brown vs. Board of Education that strike a note: its brevity, its unanimity and its tone. Brown contrasts with today’s Supreme Court decisions which are often lengthy, divided compositions (and Brown certainly wasn’t an easier case in 1954).

American historian (from Brown University) James Patterson, in his book Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy, notes that Chief Justice Earl Warren “mended a badly fractured Court in 1953-54” and, with his talent for harmonizing, wrote a short opinion (only 13 paragraphs plus footnotes) that persuaded unanimity from some of the most willful judicial minds the Court has ever seen (Frankfurter, Douglas). Patterson cites a memo that Warren wrote to fellow justices noting his draft was “prepared on the theory that [it] should be short, readable by the lay public, non-rhetorical, unemotional, and, above all, non-accusatory.”   

Chief Justice Warren had more than his fellow justices in mind—he was mindful of the “lay public”. After all, Warren’s opinion was founded on the principle that public education “is the very foundation of good citizenship.” So Brown itself would be publicly educational and readable. Striking down de jure segregation and the separate but equal doctrine would be controversy enough without a divisive and unreadable judicial novelette.

As Patterson’s book title states, the Warren Court’s decision was a civil rights milestone with a troubled legacy. Public education in a democracy still has, may forever have, unfinished work; but de jure segregation had to go. Warren’s opinion has been picked over by legal scholars and criticized (e.g. its reliance in famous footnote 11 on social science research in support of the idea that segregation led to a “sense of inferiority”).  

But to this lawyer, Brown is a masterpiece of law and art combined. Why? Because Brown, for all its flaws, grasped a moment in history to do what the highest calling of law does: strikes down injustice; and did so with a less-is-more economy inherent in masterpieces… like the profound simplicity of a Mark Rothko meditation on color.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
"Brown, Orange, Blue on Maroon"
Cincinnati Art Museum

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