Friday, February 15, 2019

Comparing the Handling of the Justin Fairfax and Brett Kavanaugh Situations

by Neil H. Buchanan

The intense media coverage of the situation in Virginia -- with the Governor and Attorney General admitting to having engaged in racist behavior, and the Lieutenant Governor having been accused by two women of sexual assault -- has looked at the situation there from seemingly every angle.  Although I acknowledge that I might have missed it, however, I have not yet seen more than passing remarks comparing the Lieutenant Governor's situation to the grotesquely mishandled confirmation process for now-Supreme Court Justice (ugh) Brett Kavanaugh.

Before trying to fill at least a bit of that apparent void, I should note that I have a somewhat closer than usual six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon-style connection to Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, because a colleague at my law school is an immediate relative of Fairfax.  I am passingly friendly with that colleague, but we are not friends, and I have never met the lieutenant governor.

Even so, it is true that my school took genuine joy and felt a special connection in celebrating the election of a man in a state where his ancestors were once enslaved.  Indeed, on the day that I mentioned in class the moving story about Fairfax having carried the manumission document of his great-great-great grandfather, my eyes were not the only ones in the room that were tearing up.  This was a big moment for Virginia and for America, but it also felt somehow more personal.

Now, Fairfax faces two credible, corroborated claims of rape and sexual assault.  Given this shocking turn of events, we have to ask what people on the left think and are willing to do when one of their best recent feel-good stories takes such a shocking turn.  This is all the more important because Fairfax, at age 39, had been seen as rising star in the Democratic Party.  Although it is now all but impossible to imagine that his career has any remaining upside no matter what happens, it is still important to ask what should be done now.

The good news is that, within an excruciatingly difficult situation, Democrats in Virginia and nationally are handling the Fairfax question rather well -- certainly better than Republicans handled Kavanaugh.  As we have seen so often, Democrats hold themselves to the standards that they expect of others -- even when Republicans repeatedly and shamelessly refuse to do so.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Green New Meal

by Michael C. Dorf

The Green New Deal (GND) resolution pending in Congress sets ambitious goals for attacking climate change while also promoting job growth. I applaud its authors and sponsors for recognizing the urgency of the problem and the need for bold action. I especially appreciate two aspects of the template: (1) it does not bow to the conventional wisdom that addressing environmental harms conflicts with prosperity, because, after all, a healthy economy ultimately depends on a livable environment; and (2) neither does it compromise in advance with deniers, skeptics, and self-described moderates, because anything that will ultimately make it through Congress (even a Democratic Congress with a future Democratic president) will be watered down somewhat, so one should at least start with what makes sense as policy.

Accordingly, and as a friendly amendment, I want to point out an important omission from the resolution: it fails to recognize or respond to the very large role that animal agriculture plays in generating climate change and other environmental damage. That omission is especially disappointing, because the most prominent spokesperson for the Green New Deal, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, understands that animal agriculture substantially contributes to global warming. She recently touted plant-based milk and urged a group of schoolchildren to avoid meat and dairy for at least one meal per day as a concrete action they can take to reduce their carbon footprint.

Even that advice strikes me as insufficiently bold and thus out of step with point (2) above, but it is still better than what the resolution itself states. In her advice to the schoolchildren, AOC recognized that animal agriculture itself is problematic. The GND resolution does not.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Does It Really Matter Why I Do What I Do?

by Sherry F. Colb

This week, my Verdict column takes up the question of the Virginia proposed abortion bill. I specifically focus on the possibility of a doctor approving an abortion for a woman at the very end of her pregnancy. I consider some of the reasons that people have for favoring abortion rights and how each reason, respectively, fares in offering a defense of a third-trimester abortion. I suggest that the reasons for being pro-choice start to matter when some of the reasons provide no coherent rationale for protecting the right to the particular abortion.

Having argued for the proposition that reasons matter, however, I want to reconsider that position. Of course, if one is defending the right to a late third-trimester abortion, one relies on the "non-personhood" of the 30-something-week fetus at one's peril. It is accordingly important that we defend our own positions with arguments that actually bear on those positions and, ideally, that rely on premises that our interlocutors share rather than categorically reject.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Coeducation as Radical Reform and Perfectly Normal Reality

by Neil H. Buchanan

The push toward greater empowerment of women is one of the most exciting political and social changes of the past few years (and, viewed from different perspectives, of the past few decades and centuries).  In a time when a knuckle-dragging caricature of the most vulgar kind of sexist became President of the United States -- and did so by running an openly sexist campaign ("Trump that B*tch!") against the first female major party presidential nominee -- one of the most positive developments in our political culture has been the mobilization of outraged women.

From pussy hats to suffragettes' white frocks to six (and counting) women running for president, we are seeing what one hopes is the permanent flowering of a more inclusive politics.  We are still gingerly figuring out the contours of the #MeToo awakening, but as frustratingly slow as the pace of change has been, it seems to have accelerated recently, and it is at least possible to imagine that there will be little to no backsliding -- although Susan Faludi's classic Backlash still serves as an important reminder of the power of regressive forces.

I mentioned in a recent column that I am currently enjoying the honor of being a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge in England.  One of my affiliations here is with Christ's College, one of the 31 colleges within the university that are essential parts of undergraduates' (and, to a somewhat lesser extent) graduate students' educations.  This year, Christ's is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of coeducation within the college, "40 Years of Christ's Women," which is now noted in a logo on the college's website.

This is, by any measure, an important celebration. As I understand it, 1979 was the year when not just Christ's but nearly all of the university (and other universities here) became almost fully coeducational.  Seeing the college's efforts to note this anniversary has led me to think about how strange it is that it was only forty years ago that this was a radical -- if by then inevitable -- move.  I hereby offer a few thoughts about how that radicalism became so utterly unremarkable within only a few short years.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Are Court Decisions Law, and why that Matters to Whether Originalism is Our Law

By Eric Segall

I recently had the great privilege of debating Professors Christopher Green and Stephen Sachs at the University of North Carolina School of Law (we are all friends so I'll call them Chris and Steve). The debate was sponsored by UNC's Federalist Society and American Constitution Society. I learned a lot and enjoyed the back and forth.

The title of the debate, inspired by my book, was "Originalism as Faith or Originalism as Law?" Although we had interesting conversations about that question, the most provocative part of the day occurred when Steve argued that judicial decisions in general, and Supreme Court decisions in particular, aren't law. He said court decisions may bind legal actors, political officials, and the public, but they are not law, as opposed to the Constitution and statutes, which are law.

Similarly, Chris argued that he cares much more about what the Constitution is, and what it says, than what the Court says it means. He repeated his argument made many times in his fine scholarship (and in our Twitter conversations) that the meaning of the Constitution never changes even when judicial applications of constitutional text change.

As I am the author of the essay, "The Constitution Means What the Supreme Court Says it Means," I couldn't let all this pass.

SCOTUS Alabama Imam-less Execution Case and the Chaplain Question

by Michael C. Dorf

The Supreme Court's stay of the Louisiana abortion law on Thursday night overshadowed another 5-4 order it issued roughly simultaneously. In Dunn v. Ray, the Court lifted a stay of execution that the Eleventh Circuit had granted. That court wanted time to consider inmate Ray's claim that Alabama's denial of his request for spiritual counseling from an imam during his execution violated the Establishment Clause, in light of the fact that Alabama "regularly allows a Christian chaplain to be present in the execution chamber." That quotation comes from the dissent of Justice Kagan, who was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.

The justices in the majority did not respond to the dissenters' objection on the merits. The entirety of their analysis consisted of the statement that they could take into account the "last-minute nature of an application to stay execution." Ray's request came a little more than two-and-a-half months after the execution date was set and ten days before the scheduled execution. However, it is hardly clear that Ray sandbagged, given that he was first informed of the relevant prison policy only five days before he filed his federal court complaint. In any event, as a consequence of the Court's order, Ray (who murdered three teenagers in the mid-1990s) was executed--without an imam by his side--about two hours after the Supreme Court ruling.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

The Significance of Chief Justice Roberts Joining in the Stay of the Louisiana Abortion Law

by Michael C. Dorf

Tonight's decision in June Medical Services v. Gee, the Louisiana abortion case, is less significant than it would have been had the Court denied relief--for that would have signaled that five justices could be prepared to overrule the abortion right sooner rather than later. By staying the Fifth Circuit ruling, the Court merely preserved the status quo. In 2016, in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt,  the Court invalidated a Texas admitting privileges requirement that was not substantially different from the Louisiana requirement that the Fifth Circuit disingenuously distinguished here. One might therefore readily conclude that the granting of the stay is simply a preservation of the status quo.

And yet, while June Medical Services should not be read for more than it is worth, it also should not be read for less than it is worth. No justice who was committed to overruling the Court's abortion jurisprudence has ever voted to block an abortion law from going into effect. (I discount Justice Alito's earlier stay in this very case, which expressly stated that it was not in any way based on the merits.) Thus, the fact that CJ Roberts joined the remaining members of the Whole Woman's Health majority is important.

What Kind of Constitutional Mess Might a Wealth Tax Create?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Republicans and some nominally non-Republican billionaires are becoming increasingly alarmed by the popularity of proposals to increase taxes on the rich.  More accurately, they are apoplectic because many Democrats have finally started to take seriously progressive tax proposals that have in fact been popular for a long time.

In my Verdict column today, "Can We Tax Wealth? Yes, and Even if Not, Still Yes," I gingerly wade into a constitutional claim that some conservatives have floated recently, which they believe will allow the Supreme Court's newly fortified conservative bloc to invalidate anything that a future -- perhaps very near-future -- Democratic president and Congress might pass.

I will get into as few details as possible here, allowing readers with further questions to link to today's column, but the short version is that the Constitution requires that direct taxes be apportioned whereas indirect taxes need not be apportioned (but must be uniform).  Do you suspect that the meanings of each of the italicized terms is highly contestable?  Ubetcha!

Again, my purpose here is not to dive back into the constitutional details that I cover in the column (although some of that is necessary) but rather to explore how a victory on what conservatives view as their devastating argument would actually lead to something unexpected and objectively worse than a standard wealth tax, though still better than the status quo.  The bottom line is that we definitely can have a wealth tax, but conservatives might force us to choose the least sensible version of one.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Uncanny Valleys

by Michael C. Dorf

In my latest Verdict column, I discuss the decision by the US and various other countries to recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. I frame my discussion around the question whether, and if so why, it is appropriate for outside states to deny recognition to Nicolás Maduro on the ground that his election was tainted when such states continue to recognize authoritarian leaders of other countries (I name Saudi Arabia and North Korea) who have no democratic legitimacy.

I offer two answers. First, I note that there are practical/prudential reasons why democratic regimes recognize undemocratic ones. Second, I argue that there is something particularly bad about subverting a democratic regime. To make that second point, however, I need to address the fact that some wholly undemocratic regimes have "sham constitutions" that purport to be democratic. While hardly approving of sham constitutionalism, I nonetheless acknowledge that in most cases (as in North Korea), it is easy enough to see that the constitution was never meant to be taken seriously.

To illustrate the possibility that it could be worse--at least along one dimension--for a leader to subvert his country's genuine democratic norm than for a leader to rule autocratically without the serious pretense of democratic legitimacy, I draw on the concept of an "uncanny valley," familiar from the study of robotics. A robot that looks nothing like a human is not creepy. Neither is an actual human. But a robot who looks pretty close but not quite close enough to a human is creepy. It falls within the uncanny valley. I suggest an analogy for systems of government.

Here I want to ask whether we can find other uncanny valleys. Depending on how loosely one defines the concept, my guess is that we can find a great many.