From Scopes to Dover-11: The Scopes verdict appealed

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The Scopes ‘monkey trial’ came to an abrupt end on the eighth day, Tuesday, July 21, 1925.

The judge began the day by stopping the questioning of Bryan from continuing and ordered his previous day’s testimony stricken from the record. But the damage had been done since the point of the case, after all, was not to persuade the jury in the room but to score points to a wider nationwide audience. Darrow had exploited his line of questioning of Bryan to gain a major propaganda victory for science, in the full glare of the national media, by showing that religious beliefs like Bryan’s led to an intellectual cul-de-sac.

Following the judge’s ruling on ending Bryan’s testimony, the defense promptly rested its case and Darrow made a brief statement asking the jury to bring in a verdict of guilty. He told them:

As far as this case stands before the jury, the court has told you very plainly that if you think my client taught that man descended from a lower order of animals, you will find him guilty, and you heard the testimony of the boys on that questions and heard read the books, and there is no dispute about the facts. Scopes did not go on the stand, because he could not deny the statements made by the boys. I do not know how you may feel, I am not especially interested in it, but this case and this law will never be decided until it gets to a higher court, and it cannot get to a higher court probably, very well, unless you bring in a verdict.

The defense’s strategy all along had been to argue against the Butler Act on constitutional grounds in the appellate courts, hopefully all the way to the US Supreme Court. In order to have grounds for such an appeal they needed to have Scopes found guilty in the lower court. Since pleading guilty at the outset would not have allowed Scopes to appeal, he had to plead innocent and yet be convicted, which explains the seemingly strange request of a defense counsel asking the jury for a guilty verdict.

But there was an additional benefit by resting the case without presenting a closing statement for the defense and simply asking for a directed verdict of guilty. According to trial rules, the defense not making a closing statement meant that the prosecution could not make one either. The defense was executing a deliberate strategy to prevent the prosecution, especially Bryan, from having the last word and making its own closing statement. So rather than Bryan ending the case with the kind of grand, eloquent, and sweeping speech that The Boy Orator was famous for, the last impression that he left was his dismal performance on the witness stand. Darrow had outmaneuvered Bryan again.

The jury duly complied with Darrow’s request and after just a few minutes deliberation returned with the verdict, finding Scopes guilty. There then occurred a seemingly trivial bit of court business that would result later in the case not having the legal impact that had been sought. The jury said they had not decided on the size of the penalty and judge said he would impose the minimum sentence required by law, which was $100. The chief prosecutor said that he thought that Tennessee law required the jury, not the judge, to set the fine, but the judge said it was his understanding that as long as it was just the minimum fine, he could set it. All sides agreed to go along with this.

The case ended with both sides claiming victory, the prosecution getting a guilty verdict, the defense claiming that they showed the superiority of science over religion.

As epilogues to this part of the story, William Jennings Bryan died in his sleep just five days later, his death so soon after the grilling by Darrow giving him the air of a martyr and recapturing some of the momentum that the antievolution movement had lost because of the trial. Scopes accepted a scholarship offer to the University of Chicago and became a petroleum engineer. For most of the rest of his life he avoided the limelight and passed up speaking offers. Dayton, Tennessee returned to being a sleepy little town.

The case now went to appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Many people on the defense side, including the ACLU, tried to have Darrow removed from the defense team for the appeal since they wanted the appeal to focus on the issue of free speech and feared that Darrow’s strong antipathy to religion would result in the religion issue dominating once again. But Darrow and his allies outmaneuvered them and he stayed on.

The Tennessee Supreme Court heard oral arguments in May 1926. There were many briefs filed on both sides, the state again arguing the majoritarian view that what the elected representatives decided was binding whatever its merits, basing its argument on a recent US Supreme Court judgment that had upheld compulsory school vaccinations because of the public good. The case for the state said, “What the public believes is for the common welfare must be accepted as tending to promote the common welfare whether it does in fact or not.” (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 214) The state also argued that the Butler Act was not meant to promote any sectarian religious belief but instead was designed to level the playing field in education, that since the Bible could not be taught in public schools, anti-Biblical theories should also not be taught. They asserted that those challenging the statute were doing so to advance atheistic views and referred to Darrow’s well-known opposition to religion to support their case.

The defense countered that “this theory would absolutely nullify constitutional government and inaugurate the dictatorship of the majority.” In oral arguments, defense counsel Arthur Garfield Hays said that the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution prevented the state from enforcing unreasonable laws and “Tennessee’s “absurd” antievolution statute violated this standard as much as a law against teaching Copernican astronomy would.” (Larson, p. 215)

Darrow argued a point that has continued to be debated to this day, that the anti-evolution statute in question was not designed to foster neutrality in education but that opposition to the theory of evolution essentially sprang from a religious foundation that was hostile to science, and thus any attempt to suppress its teaching was an attempt to advance religious views at the expense of science, and that this went counter to the purposes of public schools.

Even while the appeal was being made, the defense expected that the Tennessee Supreme Court would uphold the lower court conviction, and set about planning the appeal to the US Supreme Court, which is where they hoped to win the case on free speech grounds and thus advance individual liberties.

But in a surprise maneuver, the Tennessee Supreme Court did something that prevented the defense team from achieving its goal of having the Scopes trial serve as the first major victory for the ACLU in defense of free speech. In its ruling, the court first upheld the constitutionality of the state law saying that the Butler Act did not give any preference to any religion since it did not require teachers to teach anything specific. But it then overturned Scopes’ conviction on a technicality that neither side had raised in the appeal or objected to in the original trial, and that was that according to Tennessee law, the fine of $100 levied on Scopes should have been set by the jury and not the judge.

Since Scopes was now unexpectedly a man with no conviction against him, no further appeal was possible and this particular constitutional challenge ended with a whimper and not a bang, with no constitutional principle established. The issue of whether it was constitutional to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools was not resolved for another four decades, when the US Supreme Court ruled in the 1968 case of Epperson v. Arkansas, to be discussed later.

In fact, the Butler Act stayed officially on the Tennessee books, but not enforced, until 1967, when the threat of legal action was raised by another biology teacher. The state legislature then decided that having Tennessee associated with one Scopes-like spectacle was enough and the Act was finally repealed.

But while the Scopes trial did not set a legal precedent, the publicity surrounding it and the play and film depicting it ensured that ever since then it is never far from the minds of people who have had to grapple with the teaching of evolution in schools.

Next: The historical role of religion in US public schools

POST SCRIPT: Bob’s amazing mind reading ability

In a previous post, I described the funny TV sitcom from the 70’s called Soap. Bert’s son Chuck treated his even-present ventriloquist dummy Bob like he was real and eventually so did some of the others. Here is a clip from the show. Look at Bert’s wife Mary. She does not say much but Cathryn Damon was superb in the way she used facial expressions for comedic effect.

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