The Carolina Reader

"The UNited States Vs. Virginia et al."

The following is an introduction and discussion questions I wrote for a reading selection within THE CAROLINA RHETORIC, the textbook used in English 101 at the University of South Carolina for the 2016-2017 school year. The reading selection included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's majority opinion and Justice Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinion in "The United States vs. Virgina et al," a Supreme Court case from 1996.   

Introduction

The Virginia Military Institute is a state-supported college founded in 1839 dedicated to education of “citizen-soldiers.” Throughout its history, the school maintained male-only admissions. In 1996, two decades after the U.S. Congress opened the federal military academies to women, the United States Supreme Court ruled VMI’s male-only policy unconstitutional in a 7-1 decision, citing the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Below is the Court’s decision, authored by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a dissenting opinion by Antonin Scalia, the only Justice to disagree with the Court’s ruling.

Justice Scalia predicted the Court’s ruling would “have consequences that extend far beyond the parties to the case.” Indeed, the decision paved the way for numerous Equal Protection rulings—including Obergefell v. Hodges which guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry in 2015—and it fueled the debate which continues today over the role of the Supreme Court and how much power it should wield.

Discussion Questions

  1. Supreme Court rulings are a unique genre of writing in that they must be legally and logically solid enough to hold as precedent for decades, perhaps centuries of future deliberation, and yet straightforward enough for learned U.S. residents to understand. In the Court’s opinion and Scalia’s dissent, what instances do you notice of the Justices’ rhetorical efforts to make their writing accessible? Which parts of the arguments are still not so clear?
  2. In her argument why Virginia’s efforts to establish a “sister school” to VMI did not satisfy the Constitution’s demand for equal protection, Justice Ginsburg notes how she is reminded of a 1946 decision in Texas which set up a separate, inferior institution for black law students rather than admit them to the University of Texas Law School. What might have been Ginsberg’s rhetorical plan in relating this historical, race-centered case to VMI’s gender-centered case?
  3. Justice Scalia notes that the federal military colleges (West Point, the Naval and Air Force Academies, etc) began accepting women in 1976, a decision which “came not by court decree, but because the people, through their elected representatives, decreed a change.” What might Ginsberg and the Court majority have to say about why the Court was wise in not deferring this decision to the legislative branch of government?

Activities

1. Justice Scalia claims that single-sex education environments have distinct advantages to both sexes. Two decades later, does recent research support his claims? Investigate what contemporary scholarship has concluded about the advantages and disadvantages of single-sex schools. Has the number of these schools increased or decreased since 1996? What percentage of your peers have been educated in a single-sex school? What percentage of graduates have been women at VMI since the United States v. Virgina decision?

2. Websites like SCOTUSblog.com maintain statistics concerning the voting patterns of Supreme Court Justices. Track the voting records of Justices Ginsberg and Scalia around the time of United States v. Virginia. Find a case in which Ginsburg authored the opinion of the Court and Scalia dissented. What is similar and different about how each Justice argues his or her side? Can you find a case in which Ginsburg and Scalia agreed in opposition to other Justices?

3. Develop an outline describing step-by-step the argumentative moves Justice Ginsberg makes in the Court’s opinion. Identify where important components, like Ginsberg’s thesis statement, appear, and how much space she dedicates to providing background information, providing evidence, and addressing counterarguments. Where does Ginsberg engage specifically with issues raised by Scalia’s dissent?

Excerpted from: THE CAROLINA READER. Eds. Ben Harley & Nicole Fisk. USC Columbia Dept. of English. Hayden-McNeil. 2016.

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Hart Plaza & Cobo Arena from the Renaissance Center - Detroit, MI