The Remarkable Conventionality of Allen v. Milligan

There is no doubt that the opinion and outcome in Milligan is both unexpected and quite remarkable. But what makes Milligan remarkable for me is its utter conventionality. By and large, Milligan is a fairly straightforward application of precedent, doctrine, and legal analysis.

The majority applied the correct standard of review to the lower court’s findings of fact, which ought not be disturbed unless clearly erroneous. The majority applied its prior precedents, particularly Thornburg v. Gingles, almost mechanically. The recitation and deployment of legislative history was fairly standard. There were no convoluted interpretations of the statutory text. There were no gaslighting quips about race. Instead, the Court recited the Shaw/Miller line that there is a difference between racial awareness, which is necessary if we are to give full effect to section 2, and racial predominance, which violates the Constitution. There were no disingenuous attempts to restrict the power of Congress. Instead, we get a reaffirmation of the powers of Congress anchored in prior precedents.

In the last substantive paragraph of the opinion, Roberts writes that the outcome of the case is determined by “a faithful application of our precedents and a fair reading of the recored before us.” It is remarkable that this statement is in fact true. It has been such a long time since I’ve expected a majority of the Court to fairly apply its prior voting rights precedents, to interpret the VRA without malice, and to read the record fairly that I have forgotten what that looks like. It would be naive to get used to it. Eventually, they will square up to the stare decisis question. So, we should profit from the reprieve. But it is remarkable that a conventional legal analysis can elicit surprise, even delight.

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