Faculty Scholarship Digest

Sharon L. Davies




This book describes, in narrative form, the true story of the 1921 killing of Father James Coyle by Edwin Stephenson, a Protestant minister, in retaliation for Coyle’s marriage of Stephenson’s daughter to Pedro Guzman, a Catholic. The shooting took place in Birmingham, Alabama and Stephenson was represented at his subsequent trial by a young Hugo Black, before Black joined and then resigned the Ku Klux Klan, was elected to the U.S. Senate and appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Stephenson’s subsequent trial was one of the first “trials of the century,” and Sharon brings her expertise in criminal law and procedure to bear on that gripping drama. Yet, through painstaking historical research and compelling writing, the book offers much more. A page-turning narrative places readers in the United States of 90 years ago in fully realized detail. The landscape of the interplay between family, social attitudes and legal regulation on the one hand, and race, religion and marriage on the other, reveals itself through Sharon’s explication of these events, with the result that the book provides some shocking perspectives on the not-so-distant past and some familiar and enlightening perspectives on some debates that are still with us.

Here is the beginning:

There was little to distinguish Thursday, August 11, 1921, from any of the other days that choked Birmingham that week beneath a blanket of heat, with the exception that Ruth Stephenson and Pedro Gussman chose it as their wedding day. And likely the unremarkable character of the day was part of the couple’s plan, as they would have wanted a day with as little to commend itself as possible. A day less apt to stand out; one that would draw no attention. As if only on a day so pedestrian, and by a strategy uncluttered by its particulars, could they ever hope to bring the thing off.

The trouble was not that the law prevented Ruth Stephenson and Pedro Gussman’s union, though in 1921, like most states, Alabama had a great deal to say about who could marry whom, and who could not ....

Supreme Court Briefs

Sharon L. Davies, Brief Amici Curiae Coalition of Black Male Achievement Initiatives in Support of Respondents, Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 11-345 (2012).

In Fisher, the Court faces the question whether the University of Texas’ use of race in undergraduate admissions decisions violates the Constitution. This brief was filed on behalf of a group of initiatives and centers across the United States directed at black male achievement. The brief presents a series of arguments in support of the constitutionality of holistic race-conscious review of undergraduate applications with a particular focus on its relevance for African-American males.

Following the Court’s rubric under Gruter v. Bollinger, the brief argues that holistic review is an absolute necessity for achieving the diverse learning environment that the Court has recognized is a compelling interest for the State in preparing its future citizens. In support of this argument, the brief disaggregates racial and gender data, demonstrating that the numbers of African-American males at selective universities are already shockingly low—and would be even lower without independent review. As a separate argument, the brief contends that the continued disproportionate isolation of African Americans “from educational, economic and social opportunity” creates an independent compelling interest for the State to reduce the conditions that create this inequality of opportunity, and that holistic review “has been one of the most potent tools for keeping the doors of our universities open to these students and attracting them inside.” The empirical evidence in support of both arguments paints a devastating picture.

Sharon L. Davies (w/ Larry H. James & Christina L. Corl), Brief of Amici Curiae Nationwide Coalition of Educators and Centers Working to Expand Educational Opportunity for African American Males in Support of Respondents, Fisher v. University of Texas, (No. 14-981), (U.S. filed 2015).

The Supreme Court will once again examine the constitutionality of race-conscious university admissions in this Term’s reprise of Fisher v. University of Texas. Sharon has coauthored a compelling amicus brief for the Court’s consideration, submitted on behalf of a “nationwide coalition of educators and centers working to expand educational opportunities for African American males.” As the coalition’s description suggests, the brief focuses on the particular plight of African American males in our society—along with their strikingly low representation on campuses. Given the “seemingly endless string of killings of unarmed black males” in recent years, the brief offers a powerful broader perspective on the issues in Fisher.

Sharon and her coauthors draw broadly on social science studies to make their case, including work from Ohio State’s own Kirwan Institute. As the brief explains, unconscious biases deeply affect race relations in the United States; for black men, these biases often provoke unwarranted fear and retaliatory actions. Racially segregated neighborhoods and poverty, meanwhile, “harm cognitive development and depress primary and secondary educational outcomes.” To compensate for and overcome these barriers, the University of Texas uses race as one factor in its full-file review of applicants. On behalf of more than five dozen individual and institutional signatories on her brief, Sharon eloquently urges the Court to affirm the lower court’s finding that this approach satisfies the Constitution’s strict scrutiny test.