Schuette and Quidditch

When I read Justice Sotomayor’s powerful Schuette dissent, I found myself thinking about Quidditch, that favorite game of constitutional scholars and other wizards.

As Justice Sotomayor recounted, Schuette arose from political disagreement in Michigan as to the appropriateness of race-based affirmative action in higher education.  To simplify the back-story, several years ago Michigan universities had more or less decided that affirmative action was a good idea and began to implement it.  At that point, opponents of affirmative action could have engaged in political action to change university policy, such as by lobbying board members.  Instead, Michigan voters adopted a referendum that prohibited state universities from making admissions decisions based on race, including race-based affirmative action.  To trump the referendum, proponents of affirmative action would have to engage in their own state-wide political movement.  For that reason — and with ample support in case law — Justice Sotomayor viewed the referendum as a procedural faux pas.   As the Justice put it: “Michigan voters changed the rules in the middle of the game.”

That’s what made me think about Quidditch.  If you’ve stuck with me this long, you probably know how the magical game is played, but in case you don’t, here’s the basic idea.  Wizards and witches fly around on broomsticks essentially playing soccer.  Meanwhile, there is a highly maneuverable, fast-flying object (the “golden snitch”) also fluttering around.  For reasons that only JK Rowling knows, if you catch the golden snitch, then your team typically wins — right then and there.  Obviously, the existence of the golden snitch has nothing to do with creating an easy plot device for a certain owl-eyed protagonist to turnaround losing matches and thereby instantly become Quidditch MVP.  But I digress.  The point for now is this:  there is nothing inherently objectionable about having two parallel sets of rules: one that is just incrementally scoring points toward an ultimate total, and the other that trumps all the normal points and thereby brings instant victory.  Boxing, for instance, is similar: you can win slowly on points, or you can score a knockout.

To me, the Michigan referendum — whatever its merits or demerits generally — does not seem like a mid-game rule change.  Rather, it seems to be a product of the fact that state politics is a multi-level game, like Quidditch.  You can “win” slowly, one university or board representative at a time; or you can “win” all at once, through something like a referendum.  Of course, when a boxer scores a knockout or Harry miraculously catches the golden snitch, folks on the losing side are obviously going to be disappointed and frustrated — and they may well demand a rematch.  But they also lost, fair and square.

UPDATE:  Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Will Baude has given Re’s Judicata a very nice launch.  Will’s post also elicited some comments that complicate the “basic” depiction of quidditch that I provided above.  In particular, the commentators point out that while catching the “golden snitch” instantly ends the game and confers a large number of points on the catching team, the catching team can still lose if it chooses to catch the snitch at a moment when it is sufficiently far behind on points.  In this respect, Quidditch is an imperfect illustration of the point I wanted to make, as compared with, for example, boxing.   To reflect this point I have edited the post above to indicate that the catching team typically wins instantly at the time of the catch.



Filed under Harry Potter Analogies

6 responses to “Schuette and Quidditch

  1. A-Non E Mous

    So I’m not sure your analogy is as good as you wanted. Catching the Snitch is actually the only way to end the game and the team that catches it receives 150 points. That is a good deal more points than the other scoring mechanism (10 points for a goal) but it doesn’t guarantee a win, even if it is the game-ending event. (This is a side point in one of the books when one of the Quidditch players caught the Snitch even though his team was down 160 points; they still lost despite catching the Snitch.)

  2. William S

    It’s sort of like Roe v. Wade – you can try to change abortion laws state by state or you can get the Supremes to declare, sua sponte, that doctors have a constitutional right to perform abortion. Once that happens, the only way to bring about a change is to (1) change the Court personnel, or (2) amend the constitution.

  3. Griff

    The quidditch analogy seems inapt to me; boxing is better but I guess understandably less enticing to use as the hook for a blog post.

    In quidditch, the team who catches the snitch doesn’t automatically win. Goals are worth ten points, the snitch is worth 150. Also, the game cannot end until the snitch is caught. (Also notable: teams are ranked by total points scored, not by their W/L record.) So, quidditch doesn’t strike me as an example of two parallel sets of rules. Instead, it is a single set of rules which happens to be kind of stupid.

    Incidentally, the inherent stupidity of the rules of quidditch is another reason I wouldn’t use it to defend the concept of parallel rule sets. At least in boxing the KO makes sense as a kind of forfeit based on the loser not being able to continue the round.

  4. Colin Starger

    The problem with the “lost, fair and square” conclusion is that in any potential re-match in Quidditch or boxing, the prior bout’s loser can still win without capturing the snitch or scoring a knockout. In Michigan, however, the old “lobby the board” maneuver is now permanently excluded from the game. In that way, the game-change in Michigan is more permanent and disabling than in Quidditch or boxing.

  5. Not much of a Harry Potter fan, are you? You have misstated the rules of Quidditch regarding the Golden Snitch. It is worth 150 points to the team of the Seeker that catches it, which is not an automatic victory. This actually resulted in a loss for the Seeker’s team in GoF.

    Doesn’t negate the point of your article, but you chose the analogy.

  6. Ben Jackson

    The “changing rules in the middle of the game” complaint from Sotomayer is rich with irony. In the late 60s and early 70s proponents of a woman’s right to choose abortion were slowly winning the fight, one state legislature at a time. Then, suddenly, Roe v Wade changed the rules. Someone please post the link to Sotomayer’s complaint about that rule change!

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