Source, para 2: The importance of Stevens’ good manners, by Prof Pamela Harris, 2010 Apr 26.

For the public, Justice Stevens' manners are perhaps most evident at oral argument. Since the Justice announced his retirement, many lawyers already have commented fondly on the Justice's habit of prefacing his remarks with a request: "May I ask you a question?" And what follows is indeed a question"” [sic for these two quotation marks] an exceptionally hard question, usually, but an actual question, in search of an actual response, so that the advocate becomes a meaningful part of the process rather than a foil for a Justice's rhetorical gambit. In substance as well as form, Justice Stevens' style of questioning accords real respect to the lawyers who appear before him, treating them as valued participants with something important to offer. No wonder that so many of them speak so highly of the Justice.

I can infer that foil here is used figuratively and am guessing that it means a static sounding board or passive tool, which is how a Justice, who cares only about blazoning a rhetoric gambit, would treat an advocate? Yet which definition applies?

  • 2; but 2 is derived from 2.1, which is a special instance of 1. Jan 25, 2015 at 3:40
  • @StoneyB Thanks. Definition 2.0 was also my guess, but I'm unsure because it seems too limited for the context above; it states 'that contrasts with ... the qualities of another:'? Yet the passage says that a Justice intends to use the advocate to contrast the Justice's view? Maybe the Justice just wants to herald her own?
    – user8712
    Jan 25, 2015 at 3:50
  • 1
    Perhaps "straw man" might have better expressed what you are suggesting. This is when one pretends what your opponent's argument might be, in terms you can easily refute. But foil is accurate here, in that the lawyer is there to pesemt a contrasting opinion. What the writer says is that Justice Stevens is actually interested in hearing that opinion on its own merits. Jan 25, 2015 at 9:31
  • 1
    contrast, for example, the way that Republican (and some Democratic) congressmen ask "questions" in committee hearings. These are almost always phrased so as to advance the opinion of that congressman, not to gain any actual knowledge. Jan 25, 2015 at 9:34
  • @BrianHitchcock +1. Thank you! Yes, 'straw man' truly is the better expression!
    – user8712
    Jan 25, 2015 at 16:38

1 Answer 1


A "foil" is something or someone whose appearance contrasts with that of something or someone else, the better to show the other thing or person off.

The "foil" is a metaphor often used when describing the role of a character in a drama. A tired example: a bungling, good-natured pal might be the sidekick of a slick casanova, to highlight the lover's smooth-talking ways and make him seem all the more accomplished in that domain.

So we have the expressions "a mere foil" or "merely a foil", which describe characters whose role is simply to make another character look better or to highlight that other character's personality traits.

Judge Stevens didn't ask a question of the lawyer just so the judge could then proceed to say what he wanted to say, using the lawyer as a way to broach a subject (a "rhetorical gambit") and present his own views on it; rather he was actually interested in what the lawyer had to say.

  • Thank you. What do you mean by 'the better' in the last phrase of your first sentence?
    – user8712
    Jan 25, 2015 at 16:33
  • @Law Area 51 Proposal - Commit: Why does Granny have such big eyes in Little Red Riding Hood? "The better to see you with", i.e. "to you see better".
    – TimR
    Jan 25, 2015 at 18:01
  • To see you better. Typo, caught too late.
    – TimR
    Jan 27, 2015 at 3:47
  • ell.stackexchange.com/questions/38977/…
    – TimR
    Jan 27, 2015 at 14:56

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