It is so ordered : the storytelling power of the United States Supreme Court

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Kristie L. Ellison (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Nancy Myers

Abstract: This project considers how narrative is employed as a rhetorical strategy to materially alter the laws that govern individual rights in the United States legal system. Rather than existing as a concrete set of rules, the law is a series of rhetorical events that is intended as an affirmation and reflection of the community values that govern society. Using reproductive rights as an example, I offer a rhetorical analysis of three US Supreme Court opinions and demonstrate that the Court uses its role as primary legal storyteller to impact individual rights in ways that are often unrecognized and thus fail to prompt a public response. This leads to expanded judicial power and rights that increasingly fail to reflect the governed community’s values. Specifically, I trace the Court’s narratives in opinions that rule on abortion rights, beginning with the right’s creation in 1973 in Roe v. Wade. I then examine two cases that altered abortion rights in material ways while crafting narratives that obscured the changes made: Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 and Gonzales v. Carhart in 2007. This analysis shows how the Court employs rhetorical choice to persuade multiple audiences that its decisions are just and right in order to gain acceptance and compliance. As the latter cases move further away from the initial right’s protections, the analysis reveals the considerable legal power granted to the Court by virtue of its rhetorical power, including the ability to subvert its duty to adhere to precedent. This project proposes that scholars be more precise about rhetorical situations in legal contexts to ensure that analyses lead to effective insights. Once recognized, narrative possibilities in rights-making can be used by the governed. This analysis also calls for consideration of the role the press plays in conveying the Court’s messages to a public audience. Critically, the findings identify systemic weaknesses and have potential application far beyond reproductive rights.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2023
Judicial Rhetoric, Narrative, Press, Reproductive Rights, Storytelling, Supreme Court
United States. $b Supreme Court $x History
Abortion $x Law and legislation $z United States $x History
Rhetoric $x Political aspects $z United States $x History

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