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Holmes’s Dissent in Bartels v. Iowa

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Literary Theory & Criticism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Writing on June 18, 2014 at 8:45 am

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Bartels v. Iowa, 262 U.S. 404 (1923), is short and to-the-point, extending and confirming the principles released by the United States Supreme Court that very day in Meyer v. Nebraska,[i] a companion case to Bartels that is also short and to-the-point. In Meyer, the Court struck down a Nebraska law restricting the teaching of modern foreign-languages to students from kindergarten to eighth grade. The majority in Meyer found that the law violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment on the grounds that it infringed upon the liberty interests of teachers, who had a right to practice their profession without the interference of the state with their curriculum so long as that curriculum did not violate explicit State policy.[ii] There was, the Court reasoned, no link between the putative purpose of the law—to protect the welfare of children—and a threat to the public interest.[iii] The law was deemed arbitrary and not reasonably related to a legitimate state interest and, therefore, unconstitutional.

Holmes reserved his Meyers dissent—which maintained that this Nebraska law was constitutional—for the Bartels opinion. In Bartels, the United States Supreme Court addressed an Iowa law similar to the Nebraska regulation and reversed a decision of the Iowa Supreme Court, which had upheld the criminal conviction of a teacher who taught German to his students. “We all agree, I take it,” Holmes began his dissent, “that it is desirable that all the citizens of the United States should speak a common tongue, and therefore that the end aimed at by the statute is a lawful and proper one” (Bartels 412). The pronoun “we” lacks a clear referent. Does Holmes mean “we” justices or “we” Americans? The answer is probably the latter because “we” was (and is) widely and fluidly used to signify the assembled justices on the bench.

Holmes claims that the “only question is whether the means adopted deprive teachers of the liberty secured to them by the Fourteenth Amendment” (Bartels 412). He submits that he will not judge the law according to whether it is good or right but only pursuant to the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment. He states, to that end, that he may “appreciate the objection to the law” (“I think I appreciate the objection to the law”) but that the role of the judge is not to take sides on moral or political issues “upon which men reasonably might differ” (Bartels 412). “I am not prepared to say that it is unreasonable,” Holmes explains, using litotes, “to provide that in his early years [a student] shall hear and speak only English at school” (Bartels 412). If it is not unreasonable, then it is reasonable, and “if it is reasonable it is not an undue restriction of the liberty either of teacher or scholar” (Bartels 412).

Holmes’s dissent in Bartels is not known as one of his most notable or outstanding dissents. Nevertheless, it has been referenced not only by the United States Supreme Court[iv] but also by federal and state courts.[v] Although the majority opinion has never been overruled, Holmes’s dissent generally is cited favorably. My approximate calculation based on Westlaw searches is that this dissent has been cited almost 200 times in cases, administrative decisions, and federal court documents such as amicus curiae briefs.

The topic of his dissent—foreign languages in public schools—has been revisited by later courts because it remains relevant, and in that respect, it is not surprising that the dissent continues to be cited. Yet the topic alone does not explain why Holmes’s dissent in particular remains popular, especially if it is not binding precedent. There are other non-binding documents on the topic, including social science studies and law review articles, that are also relevant but that have not been cited in large numbers. Although Holmes’s reputation has something to do with the abundance of citations to his dissent, insofar as his legal opinion carries great weight among jurists, the properties of his dissent likely contribute to its ongoing appeal.

What are these properties? Besides litotes, mentioned above, there is also aphorism: “No one would doubt that a teacher might be forbidden to teach many things.” These words are carefully chosen. It would be absolutist to state that no one would doubt that a teacher is forbidden to teach many things, or to state that no one doubts rather than no one would doubt that a teacher might be forbidden to teach many things, or to state that no one would doubt that a teacher might be forbidden to teach a particular thing rather than many things. This short sentence is so well qualified that it manages to articulate a pithy generalization without succumbing to embellishment or misrepresentation. Moreover, the phrase “no one would doubt that a teacher might be” is anapestic, sharing the same feet of such memorable verses as “’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house.”

In the opening line to a dissent about language, the deliberate use of sigmatism, or the repetition of “s” sounds for dramatic effect, is striking: “[…] is desirable that […] citizens of the United States should speak.” It is as if Holmes defamiliarizes the “common tongue” (his words) as he writes about the “time [of youth] when familiarity with a language is established.” At the very least, he highlights the nuances of language in a dissent expressed in nuanced language and addressing the very legality of language acquisition within a public institution. In addition, Holmes empowers his dissent with a religious-like seriousness by referring to his fellow justices as “brethren,” and he appears figuratively to objectify his “mind” as something separate from his “consciousness” when he claims that “I cannot bring my mind to believe.”

These moves are not merely literary grandstanding but the instantiation of an important feature of Holmes’s philosophical pragmatism: the fallibility of human intelligence. He will not profess certainty but will formulate his reasoning only in cautious qualifications.

Holmes follows, therefore, with the declaration that the objection to the prohibition on the teaching of foreign languages in Iowa “appears to me to present a question upon which men reasonably might differ”  (my emphasis). His belief in the inherent limitations of human faculties prevents him from saying that the objection does present a question upon which reasonable men may differ.

Having introduced the theme of human knowledge, he turns to metonymy by referring to the state legislation as an “experiment” that the United States Supreme Court should not prevent from taking place. For aught that appears, either the term “experiment” or the state legislation may indicate the other; they are reversible concepts within the paradigm that Holmes establishes here. Treating the states as if they were laboratories, he gestures toward his conviction that the widening capacity of the aggregate knowledge of the community is made possible by allowing social experiments to take place on the most local levels, where the consequences of failure are minimized, whereas the failure of United States Supreme Court justices to rule properly regarding some law or another will have vast consequences that affect social coordination throughout the entire country. Subtle turns of phrase are enough for Holmes to implicate this grand philosophical notion to which he owes his most insightful dissents.

[i]262 U.S. 390 (1923).

[ii] “As the statute undertakes to interfere only with teaching which involves a modern language, leaving complete freedom as to other matters, there seems no adequate foundation for the suggestion that the purpose was to protect the child’s health by limiting his mental activities. It is well known that proficiency in a foreign language seldom comes to one not instructed at an early age, and experience shows that this is not injurious to the health, morals or understanding of the ordinary child.” (Meyer 403)

[iii] “The power of the state to compel attendance at some school and to make reasonable regulations for all schools, including a requirement that they shall give instructions in English, is not questioned. Nor has challenge been made of the state’s power to prescribe a curriculum for institutions which it supports. Those matters are not within the present controversy. Our concern is with the prohibition approved by the Supreme Court. Adams v. Tanner [citation omitted] pointed out that mere abuse incident to an occupation ordinarily useful is not enough to justify its abolition, although regulation may be entirely proper. No emergency has arisen which renders knowledge by a child of some language other than English so clearly harmful as to justify its inhibition with the consequent infringement of rights long freely enjoyed. We are constrained to conclude that the statute as applied is arbitrary and without reasonable relation to any end within the competency of the state.” (Meyer 403).

[iv] Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 518-19 (1969).

[v] Examples of federal court cases referencing Holmes’s dissent include the following: Yniguez v. Arizonans for Official English, 42 F. 3d 1217, 1242 (9th Cir. App. 1994); Kramer v. New York City Bd. of Educ. 715 F. Supp. 2d 335, 342 (E.D. New York 2010); and Cary v. Board of Ed. of Adams-Arapahoe School Dist. 28-J, Aurora, Colo. 598 F. 2d 535, 540 (10th Circ. App. 1979). Examples of state court cases referencing Holmes’s dissent include State v. Hoyt. 84 N.H. 38, 146 A. 170, 171 (N.H. 1929), and Hamilton v. Deland, 198 N.W. 843, 227 Mich. 111, 113 (Mich. 1924).




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