Nobody told Tara Leigh Grove she couldn’t get into Harvard Law School. She knew that’s what she wanted as a sixth grader in Kentucky, after she successfully defended the third Little Pig against a murder charge in a mock trial for killing the Big Bad Wolf. No one told her that her family wasn’t well-heeled or sophisticated enough to get her there, so she remained optimistic and determined, working her way to the Supreme Court chair of the Harvard Law Review before clerking for Judge Emilio Garza on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

But it was at Duke University, where she studied political science, that Grove found her specific path. At 19, she took a class in constitutional law and became obsessed with the topic. “That was almost all my side reading,” she says. “It’s embarrassing how little fiction I read.” She decided to be a constitutional law professor. Again, nobody told her that would be hard to achieve. So she did that, too, after a few years working at the Department of Justice.

She also studied French and Japanese as an undergraduate, because each new language offers “a different point of view about the world.” She credits that experience with helping her to appreciate different perspectives on the law, particularly when working in “interpretative theory.” These days, as America ponders legal questions sprouting from political arguments, Grove sometimes finds herself in the hot seat outside the classrooms at the University of Texas, called by national media to help explain legal controversies.

Deseret Magazine asked her about those and more.

Tara Leigh Grove | University of Texas at Austin

Deseret Magazine: How do you define ‘pluralism’?

Tara Leigh Grove: In the academy, you hear about different approaches to interpreting the Constitution or a statute. Faith in pluralism, which I call metapluralism, is a belief that various approaches are legitimate, even if I may have one that I strongly prefer. It’s recognizing that the way other people approach interpretation is OK. In the public sphere, there are also various ways that people can feel about our legal and political systems. Metapluralism assumes that different approaches are legitimate, even if there are some things that are totally illegitimate. For example, you can think that Nazism is completely illegitimate, and still be a metapluralist who understands that some people are Democrats and some are Republicans and that’s legitimate.

DM: Why is pluralism important?

TLG: I think it is valuable in any society as diverse as ours on many levels. Society and our legal system can work better if there is a background assumption that most people are operating in good faith and from sincere belief, even if they hold beliefs that you don’t share. This idea will lead to compromise and mutual understanding. I think many people in our society don’t think that’s a good thing. It’s about my side should win, your side should lose. I see this on both the left and the right. A broader functioning society recognizes, let me be understanding toward one political faction knowing that I may not always win elections and I would like to be treated with some good faith and understanding when I lose.

Affective polarization is one of the most worrisome dangers for pluralism, because it may be describing a country that we don’t have.

DM: Is pluralism under threat?

TLG: Affective polarization is one of the biggest threats to our pluralism. This is a concept that even if people aren’t actually that divided, even if they do not have certain partisan beliefs, and even if individuals in each party aren’t actually as different as their representatives in Congress are, there is a view among many Democrats that Republicans believe X, Y and Z, which is inherently bad. And conversely, there is a belief among Republicans that Democrats must believe X, Y and Z, which is bad. It is an assumption we are polarized as a society, even if it may not be true. There’s a lot of evidence that Congress and state legislatures are polarized, but it’s not clear that people believe these very clear things. I’m sure you and I know people who have a variety of different views on issues that don’t fall neatly into a Democratic/Republican category. I think that’s why you see more people finding friends and church groups and people they work with that are ideologically aligned with them, because it’s more comfortable and you can trust those folks.

DM: Is that as problematic as it sounds?

TLG: Affective polarization is one of the most worrisome dangers for pluralism, because it may be describing a country that we don’t have. Maybe there are a lot more people who are moderate and complex and pluralistic in their own views. I know people who have very mixed views on issues like abortion and guns and vaccines and government involvement in society — much more complex than one would think by reading news headlines about political parties. But if they don’t trust that other people also have complex views, that makes it hard for them to have friends and trust those who belong to different registered political groups. For people who really do have set views about the world — typically on the far left or the far right — compromise is seen as failure. The only goal is to win and defeat the other side. That’s terrible for our society. 

DM: Should we worry about calls to scrap the Constitution?

TLG: This is a reflection of broader dissatisfaction with our current political culture. Some of the angst and anger comes from the assumption that Supreme Court decisions really do equal the Constitution. I have never equated constitutional meaning with the latest Supreme Court decision. I’ve always believed that different parts of the government and members of the public have both a duty and a right to understand the Constitution in our own way. Nothing happening right now is written in stone. As I tell my students, if there’s something you’re dissatisfied with in our system, you can be the engines of change. The Constitution is so short, so lacking in detail. That’s one of the beauties of our system, that people can read this document and see it as doing very different things. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan had very strong views about what the Constitution should mean. And they were not the same at all. 

DM: Is Supreme Court reform likely?

TLG: I served on President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court commission in 2021. The very existence of a commission studying reform is a sign that all is not well with the Supreme Court’s public reputation. Norms change. One that developed over time was that federal officials and state and local officials had to comply with federal court orders. Another was that federal court judges cannot be removed except by impeachment. Both became norms by the mid-20th century. But the norm against court packing — or expansion, as you call it if you’re in favor — is one of the strongest. 

DM: Roosevelt wanted to expand the court. Is that experience instructive to us now?

TLG: There was actually a good deal of support for FDR’s effort to expand the Supreme Court. A couple of things changed. Sen. Joe Robinson, a leader in the fight to pack the court, died. And the Supreme Court modified its jurisprudence in the spring of 1937. People disagree as to why, but I argue that there was not a strong norm against court expansion at the time. There were mixed views and with overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate, Roosevelt could have gotten it through. The norm against court packing took shape starting in the 1950s. People on both sides of the political aisle began using the term as a political epithet. Whenever anybody proposed court reform they’d say, oh, that’s court packing. When a president would nominate a judge or justice the other side didn’t like, that would be called court packing. Is the current administration going to propose expanding the Supreme Court? Almost certainly not. President Biden has shown very little appetite for that. Could a future president on either side do that? Yeah. I see the appetite for that increasing. I think, for better or worse, there’s a decent chance that conversation will impact how the Supreme Court decides cases.

DM: Any last word?

TLG: Whenever people envision reform, whether of the Supreme Court or the Constitution writ broadly, I want them to ask themselves, what if somebody with whom you strongly disagreed with politically was the person advocating this reform? How would you feel about it then? We’ve always had different factions. But it’s valuable if people treat folks who disagree with them as having good faith and think hard about their own proposals as if someone else was doing it.

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.