by Paula Abrams. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. 296pp. Cloth. $65.00. ISBN: 9780472117000. eBook. $65.00. ISBN: 9780472021390.

Reviewed by Staci L. Beavers, Political Science Department, California State University San Marcos. E-mail: sbeavers [at]


The Supreme Court needed just “five scant pages of opinion” (p.198) to decide PIERCE v. SOCIETY OF SISTERS in 1925. Lest the brevity of the Court’s unanimous ruling allow the impression that the case was inordinately simple, Professor Paula Abrams’ CROSS PURPOSES brings to life the complexities of the conflict that resulted in this 85-year-old precedent. The PIERCE ruling struck down Oregon’s 1922 “compulsory public education” law, which criminalized parents’ decisions to forgo public education in favor of private schooling. The Court accomplished this by declaring that the law infringed upon constitutionally protected parental rights under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. Since it was handed down, PIERCE has evolved as a “constitutional chameleon,” lending itself as precedent in cases ranging from the right to privacy to religious freedom and freedom of speech (p.4), in addition to economic liberty (p.214).

The book provides a thorough narrative of the PIERCE case, weaving together a variety of sources to provide both historical background and legal analysis. The book flows logically: Part I focuses on the passage of Oregon’s 1922 “School Bill” via an unsavory initiative campaign; Part II turns attention to the litigation that ensued almost immediately upon the measure’s passage and ultimately ended at the Supreme Court; Part III carries the case forward by discussing the precedent’s legacy to date as well as its potential future.

Abrams’ weaving of PIERCE’s history proves eerily intriguing for today’s reader. For example, today’s constitutional debates over public subsidies to private schools can only seem tame compared to the furor at the turn of the previous century over criminalizing parents’ choices in favor of private schools. This policy was enacted with the Oregon “School Bill,” passed via a Klan-backed initiative campaign in 1922. As a political scientist unfamiliar with Oregon’s unique history, I found Abrams’ opening chapters particularly riveting in their explication of the KKK’s critical role in a state that had already legally excluded “blacks and mulattoes” (p.67). Abrams makes a convincing case that the public school measure was directed primarily against private Catholic schools, but that “the call for compulsory public schooling grew out of [a] crusade to Americanize immigrants” by using public schools as crucibles of indoctrination and assimilation (p.2). Her description of the measure as a backlash against the influx of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century ironically counters today’s [*208] debate over excluding certain immigrant children from public schools, thus arguably depriving them of the critical opportunity to be indoctrinated.

Only after thoroughly examining the context of the case does Abrams turn her attention to the PIERCE litigation itself. The tale is mostly compelling here as well, as Abrams lays out the series of decisions and compromises that resulted in the arguments ultimately presented at the Supreme Court. Abrams provides an excellent illustration of early interest group litigation at work, capturing the strategic choices from the hiring of attorneys to later decisions regarding litigants and the actual crafting of the arguments presented for the Court’s consideration. Despite some bickering within the Catholic Church’s leadership over the matter (pp.108-111), prominent scholar and litigator William Guthrie was ultimately chosen to serve as lead attorney, and Abrams shows how his choices proved critical in framing the case considered at the bench. When Guthrie’s preferred strategy of highlighting parental rights was “complicate[d]” by a parallel litigant’s premature move to challenge the new law before it went into effect, Guthrie’s team shifted gears for the trial. They turned to the order that ran several Catholic academies in the state as their sole plaintiff to better exploit existing precedents’ support of economic rights (pp.125-134). One point I found less convincingly explained was how, by the time the case had reached the Supreme Court, Guthrie was able to shift gears back toward arguing his original thinking on parental rights (pp.166-175), though there were still no parents directly attached to the case. But overall, exploring the strategies behind the arguments submitted for judicial consideration sheds a helpful light on judicial policy-making that is often overlooked in favor of focusing primarily on the ultimate decision makers, i.e., the judges or justices rendering the actual rulings.

The one place where the story drags just a bit is in its literal recounting of the oral arguments presented before a 3-judge U.S. District Court panel (Chapter 14); however, neglecting these records and this piece of the conflict would detract from the book’s fulfillment as a truly comprehensive narrative of the case, so Abrams’ decision to be consistent in the level of detail makes logical sense.

Abrams’ very clear prose provides an account that would be both readily accessible and relevant for undergraduates in courses ranging from civil liberties and judicial process to state politics. The book’s excellent background on a variety of constitutional debates of the early 20th century would be useful for undergraduates studying that era of constitutional history. Particularly useful here was Abrams’ discussion of the Taft Court’s critical incubation of the selective incorporation of civil liberties protections despite its heavy emphasis on substantive due process as a protection for economic liberty. As Abrams argues the matter, the PIERCE ruling “served as a bridge to” selective incorporation, as PIERCE’s “reliance on substantive due process kept the Court in familiar doctrinal territory, even as it extended the scope of constitutional liberty” (p.212) by extending substantive due process’ reach to encompass a parent’s right to determine his/her child’s educational path. Additionally, the book’s insights [*209] into the seedier underside of progressivism, with its strong strains of bigotry, would also be useful for classes giving special attention to direct democracy in state-level politics. In short, this book could serve as a useful supplemental text in a range of courses.

As Abrams notes at the beginning of her book, PIERCE continues to resonate today. Over 144 separate cases decided by the Supreme Court have included references to PIERCE (p.214), and the range of cases included here is a bit startling, giving credence to Abrams’ description of the PIERCE precedent as a “constitutional chameleon” (p.4). As she argues, justices have disagreed over “whether the decision is primarily about privacy or the free exercise of religion or free speech rights,” simply because “the decision speaks to all these values” (p.4). This discussion proves helpful in explaining why the conflict addressed in PIERCE is still worth keeping in our sights today.

In short, CROSS PURPOSES illustrates the complexities underlying a decision that appears deceptively straightforward. Such a work allows the reader to grapple with the context and strategizing that are always relevant, if often overlooked, aspects of judicial decision-making.

PIERCE v. SOCIETY OF SISTERS, 268 U.S. 510 (1925).

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Staci L. Beavers.