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Professor honored for rhetorical work surrounding Supreme Court

November 6, 2019 | UWF Communications |

Dr. Kelly Carr is an assistant professor of communication with the UWF Department of Communication.

Dr. Kelly Carr, assistant professor of communication with the UWF Department of Communication, recently received a prestigious award for her book "The Rhetorical Invention of Diversity: Supreme Court Opinions, Public Argument, and Affirmative Action." The publication won the Michigan State University Press Kohrs-Campbell Prize in Rhetorical Criticism. The Kohrs-Campbell Prize is one of the largest awards ever established to sustain and advance the study of rhetoric in American higher education. The prize was created to encourage and recognize original research and scholarship of the highest quality in the field of rhetorical criticism.

Carr expounds on the inspiration for her publication, what she hopes readers will learn and a big question which the Supreme Court continues to wrestle.  

What was your inspiration behind writing this book?

I've loved the law since I can remember. Most of my research looks at legal arguments, primarily Supreme Court cases. I became interested in the 1978 Regents v. Bakke case - the case that this book examines - for a few reasons. First, it was an incredibly important case for higher education, as it upheld affirmative action as a constitutionally valid educational practice. Second, it wrestles with two of America's biggest and longest held values - equality and diversity. And finally, the justice who wrote the opinion, Justice Lewis Powell, donated his papers to the Washington and Lee School of Law, so I actually had access to the internal memoranda and draft opinions between the justices! I am very interested in the Supreme Court decision-making process, but the Court is notoriously secretive and researchers have to rely on the goodwill of retirees to donate their papers for public access.

What do you hope readers learn?

First, I hope they can view Supreme Court decisions as a process, rather than just as a final product. My book tries to show how the interplay of public arguments, party briefs, institutional expectations, and even justices' personalities influence the final opinions. I examine how the justices go about writing their decisions, and I would love for more of the public to understand that process. Final opinions are written in the language of certainty, but they rarely start that way!

Second, I'll hope they'll learn a bit more about the complexity of affirmative action as a policy, including its historical justifications, its purpose within higher education, and its placement amongst other complex admissions decisions.

I also hope they learn that public values have a shelf life. We maintain them by continuing to advocate for them in public discourse.

Do you dive into how the Supreme Court's makeup and decision making has changed over the years?

Yes and no. Because my book focuses on a single Supreme Court case from the 1970s, it's mostly a deep dive into the Burger Court. But my theory of the Supreme Court rhetorical invention process - how justices go about writing their decisions - is not meant to be limited to this case. And I extend my analysis to the more recent Supreme Court cases about affirmative action in my conclusion, both in 2003 and more recently with Fisher v. University of Texas in 2013 and 2016. In those cases, Powell's reasoning was largely upheld. But the Court is still wrestling with this question, and we will likely see it before the Court again in the next few years, with several new justices on the bench.

To learn more about the UWF Department of Communicaiton, visit and follow the department on Instagram at @uwfcommunicationdept.