Behind the Decision: The Social Background Theory

By: Abbigail Ramnarine

Andrew Millman is a senior at Fordham College at Rose Hill majoring in political science and minoring in English and American studies who has a strong interest in politics and the justice system’s inner workings. His interest stems beyond the classroom, as he interned with the well-known news media station, CNN. While taking Professor Robert J. Humes’ judicial politics course last spring, Millman became intrigued by the subject matter, which led him to research how the social backgrounds of conservative Supreme Court Justices influence how cases are decided. Through his research, Millman aimed to learn more about social background theory and how it is applied. This individual pursuit spanned from the summer of 2019 to this past summer using the Undergraduate Research Grant at FCRH, which enabled him to further his desire to understand judicial politics. 

The theory of social background proposes that past experiences affect successive behavior in opinion writing and voting when applied to conservative judges rather than liberal judges. Millman decided to apply the theory to those who possess traditional characteristics, which are evident in the socially conservative policies of Republicans, such as standing against abortion and other hot-button issues.

Millman began by examining the Supreme Court Justices and what made them atypical in their rulings and ideas. He then researched their socio-economic backgrounds in lieu of finding an explanation of their distinctive behaviors within the courtroom. In regard to social background theory, Millman aimed to detect a correlation between the Justices’ education, experience and social circumstances to see how these factors contributed to their peculiarity. The Justices’ opinions, which can be found in concurring or dissenting opinions and other writings, were then analyzed to discern whether there was a pattern in their reasonings or whether they were anomalous. 

Through this process, Millman discovered that the conservative justice Neil Gorsuch sides with Native Americans in cases of indigenous rights, noting that he “did not find a case in which he decided against them, and I attribute that to him.” Millman further explains, “Coming from Colorado of Western State, where there is a higher proportion of Native Americans, you will interact with them more,” leading him to link the high population of Native Americans with the greater level of sympathy and understanding that Gorsuch exhibits for the circumstances and experiences they present before the court, which the other conservative Justices have not displayed. Thus, a direct correlation is established, given that being surrounded by individuals who belong to a certain group subsequently led to a Justice’s enhanced comprehension of the circumstances the group had been faced with, which guided him to rule in favor of that particular group of people.

Along with Supreme Court case archives, Millman utilized the book “The Chief,” written by CNN reporter Joan Biskupic, with whom he got into contact through his internship, in order to focus on Chief Justice Roberts’ background. Millman cites being able to network at CNN as the most rewarding feature of his research, as he was able to speak with the person who wrote the book that played an essential role in the inspiration of the project. 

In Bostock v. Clayton County, a Supreme Court case involving Gerald Bostock, a gay man who believed that he was terminated from his job because of his sexuality and thus filed a discrimination charge, presents the question of whether or not Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination in the workplace based on an individual’s sexual orientation under its sex clause. This act protects employees and job applicants from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Millman expressed that this case in particular highlights the differences that are present between conservative Justices, despite their belonging to the same political party. He states, “It really shows the differences between all of them and how they are ostensibly conservative, but there are significant differences, especially tonally and in the opinions of those who sided with the liberals.” Gorsuch, a conservative judge, found that Title VII does encompass sexual orientation, as it prohibits discrimination against any person on the basis of an individual’s “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” where “sex” would include orientation. Brett Kavanaugh, a fellow Republican, ruled differently, stating in his dissenting opinion that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, allowing the conclusion to be made that it is because of the upbringings and unique backgrounds of the individuals that cause them to rule in a certain way, in spite of both people identifying as Republicans.

Millman describes his research process as “fairly straightforward.” However, he noted that conceptualizing and quantifying the data he collected was the thorniest aspect of the process, as he was not simply taking a look at how the conservative Justices were deciding on cases, but also with whom they were siding and what it was that influenced their opinions. However, with the help of Professor Humes, who also serves as Millman’s mentor, he was able to overcome this initial hurdle by formulating his data in a way that one would present a hypothesis, followed by the steps outlined for testing. Professor Robert J. Humes is currently Chair of the Political Science department and has authored three books on Law and Policy, making him the perfect source of assistance.

This research is crucial in explaining the decision-making behavior along with the reasoning of Supreme Court Justices, as their decisions impact the everyday lives of Americans. Given the recent nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, whose beliefs have been the subject of scrutiny, social background theory explains that her beliefs and behavior stem from the atmosphere in which she subsists. This demonstrates the importance of noting the biases one may possess that will directly influence decisions on life-altering matters. Supreme Court decisions reign supreme, as they are the ultimate law of the land, emphasizing the need for members of the court to have a variety of perspectives that derive from distinctive social backgrounds.

Millman is currently deciding between law school and pursuing a career in journalism. He plans on conducting extensive research on the implications of Supreme Court Justices and the role of their social backgrounds in regard to their performance in the courtroom, which is sure to be of use in any path he chooses to pursue.

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