Depicting Minority Petitioners' Lives in Appellate Opinions

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Mellouli v. Lynch, decided in June 2015, evaluated whether a state conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia used to conceal unknown pills could trigger an immigrant’s deportation under federal law. Justice Thomas’s dissent chastised the majority opinion, authored by Justice Ginsburg, for “12 references to the sock that Mellouli used to conceal the pills.” In the dissent’s view, this specific fact was “entirely beside the point”—irrelevant to the statutory interpretation. The dissent did not remark, though, on the majority’s extensive discussion of Mr. Mellouli’s life prior to the deportation proceedings. In the 2014–2015 Term, both Mellouli and the more prominent Obergefell v. Hodges discussed the lives of petitioners—members of minority groups seeking relief against state exercises of power—in remarkable depth. This Essay seeks to highlight the similarities between the characterizations of the petitioners in the two opinions, to explore the function of such depictions, and to suggest that such descriptions require careful thought because they may, counterintuitively, subvert counter‐majoritarian goals.

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