In my college career, I’ve watched and listened to just a few hearings and court cases for the purpose of rhetorical analysis, and have read at least a few more. After hearing the audio of the Oral Argument for Wisconsin v. Yoder in 1971, I was struck by just how bizarre this one was compared to the others.

(Scroll to the end or click here for the audio/video version of this post.)

For a case concerning the education and livelihood of Amish children, every person besides Yoder’s attorney sounded like they had something better to do that day. The very first thought I had after hearing this audio was about how utterly weak John W. Calhoun — attorney for the state, which was supposed to work in the best interest of the children — was as an advocate for his own message in this case. His wording was vague and his point of view was almost entirely without clarity. He rarely ever moved on from complete passivity until the very end of the proceedings, after William B. Ball — attorney for the parents — had already blown him out of the water. Calhoun had a good point or two at the end, but his credibility was decimated by his own wishy-washiness on the subject as well as his opponent’s ferocity.

While Ball’s arguments were based almost entirely on fantasy and bias in favor of the Amish community, he had a solid point of view, solid statements, and a solid position that the Court could more easily engage with. Calhoun, on the other hand, undermined his own position by . . .

. . . using passive language and unconvincing verbal cues. It was so bad I really questioned his purpose and credibility in the courtroom.

Ball’s claim that an Amish person had never committed a crime is one I’m sure could never be admitted as fact in the courtroom of today. Here is the section of his statement that I found most shocking:

“We asked what kind of people these are and we put the Sheriff of Green County on the stand. We asked him question after question after question about those crimes of violence which are most typically committed by young people today: arson, looting, rape, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. 

The sheriff gave these people a complete bill of health. They have never been known for the commission of crime.

Dr. Littell, an authority in the history of the Amish people, stated that they have not been known to have committed a felony in 250 years on this soil. They are a peaceable people and an asset in our society, not in terms of gross national product or the building of missiles, but certainly in terms of the goodness that they have afforded as an example for the rest of our society.”

No group of people for any reason can be characterized as pure, complete saints. Ball panders here to the Supreme Court by upholding the Amish people as more morally upright than other American young people — and the Supreme Court seems to accept that without question. Even more shocking is the assumption that, because Amish people are not reporting crimes within their community to the outside police, Amish people have never committed crimes and are therefore incapable of committing crimes. Why would a member of an insular community — a community well known even at this time to shun its own members when they commit a religious transgression — report a crime done against them to an outside police force, knowing their relationship to that community would be utterly shattered forever when an investigation is conducted? 

And considering that that community is insular and keeps to itself, and claims to completely sustain itself, what motive would an Amish person have to commit a crime against an outsider, who would undoubtedly report it and destroy the community that way?

Ball somehow successfully argued that because no crimes are reported in the Amish community, no crimes — including child abuse — have been committed. In the age of the #MeToo movement, an implication like that would never stand in the courtroom of today. A statement like the one Ball made is grossly unjust.

Then there is the obvious fact that the Court itself in this case did not conduct itself well either. The justices seemed to barely be familiar with the case at all, and they were obviously entirely unfamiliar with the Amish as a group. The clarifying questions the justices asked often seemed barely anything to do with the actual meat of the case and unfortunately had much more to do with clarifying Calhoun’s vague and uninspired language and rhetoric. 

Obviously the Court was not as invested in the case as they should have been, and for this, the rights of Amish children in America were easily signed away.

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