"US Supreme Court West Facade" by Matt Wade / CC BY-SA 3.0

Storytelling at the Supreme Court

May 26, 2020

By Linda Greenhouse

Every Supreme Court decision tells a story, its author attempting to marshal the facts and the law in such a way as to make the conclusion appear not only obvious but inevitable. A divided decision will tell two or more competing stories, which is why I usually read dissenting opinions first. That way, by the time I get around to the majority opinion, I’m aware of the alternative narrative path that could have led the court to a different destination.

Often there’s nothing particularly subtle about this. Take the case the court heard last week on whether three committees of the House of Representatives are entitled to see President Trump’s personal and business-related financial records.

What’s the story of this high-octane dispute? Partisan-driven legislative overreach that threatens to weaken the presidency? Or unjustified stonewalling that will impair Congress in its oversight role?

Other times, it takes more work to unearth the competing story lines. That’s particularly true in religion cases, because we’re not inclined to frame these disputes as stark dichotomies. Rather, we start from the shared premise, embodied in the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause, that the state should give religious believers room to practice their faith without undue interference. Rather than either-or, the question often becomes how much room, under what circumstances.

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