Sunday, February 28, 2021

Federal Judge's Invalidation of the Eviction Moratorium Threatens the Fair Housing Act and More

 by Michael C. Dorf

When I read the headline that a federal district judge had struck down the CDC eviction moratorium, I assumed that the ruling said the moratorium went beyond the authority Congress had delegated to the CDC. I was mistaken. According to the actual ruling of Judge J. Campbell Barker in Terkel v. CDC, even Congress itself lacks the power under the Commerce Clause to enact the moratorium that the CDC adopted by rule.

That decision is not just wrong but potentially dangerously so. As I explain below, its logic threatens federal civil rights legislation. I conclude this essay with a proposal for Congress to circumvent the immediate danger from the moratorium's invalidation. Unfortunately, I do not have a solution to the broader threat to congressional power. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

Rawls at 100: Three Critiques

 by Michael C. Dorf

In an important essay earlier this week, Prof Lawrence Solum marked the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Rawls and the impending fiftieth anniversary of Rawls's landmark book A Theory of Justice. Prof Solum focuses on the ongoing influence of Rawls, both through his students and otherwise. I recommend it to readers, who might also be interested in an essay I wrote in memory of Rawls on the occasion of his death.

Both Prof Solum and I include some personal recollections. My essay noted that as a student I was lucky enough to study with Rawls--from whom I took a large lecture class on moral and political philosophy, with a heavy focus on the usual suspects: Locke, Hume, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Marx, and then, as I recall, skipping over nearly a century to get to Rawls himself. Rawls was very much interested in counter-arguments, but he did not specifically consider what was then (in the early-to-mid-1980s) widely regarded as the leading challenge to his approach--Robert Nozick's libertarianism as set forth in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick was a substantially less rigid and more subtle libertarian than the likes of Ayn Rand, and precisely for that reason, any fair-minded attempt to respond to libertarian objections to Rawls's defense of the liberal welfare state should target Nozick's watchman state.

Rawls and those who followed in his footsteps offered responses to the core argument of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but it's important to understand that even if one thinks those arguments were not successful, it hardly matters for defeating what passes for libertarianism in public debate. On the ground, the sorts of actors who purport to be inspired by libertarian thought either really are relying on Ayn Rand (think of the now-moderate-seeming-by-comparison-to-Trumpers former House Speaker Paul Ryan) or simply using libertarianism as a veneer for crony capitalism (think of Republican elected officials in Texas). Meanwhile, although a fair number of principled libertarians stood against Trump and Trumpism, it is clear that they are no longer a dominant force on the right. The libertarian critique of Rawls remains theoretically significant but not especially significant as a practical matter.

Let us turn then to two other critiques. Each critique can be understood as objecting to the seeming bloodlessness of A Theory of Justice--its claiming to speak from the viewpoint of nowhere, as it were.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Trump's Crimes, and What to Do About Them

by Neil H. Buchanan
Donald Trump left office without pardoning himself, surprising many people -- certainly including me.  Or did he actually pardon himself without telling anyone about it (yet)?  Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen suggested as much shortly after President Biden's inauguration.  Whatever else one thinks about Cohen, he certainly was spot-on when he testified two years ago that Trump would not leave office peacefully.
Being right about one thing, however, does not make Cohen a seer.  Did Trump issue a secret "pocket pardon"?  Maybe, but if he did try to pardon himself -- and somehow overcame all of his brazen reality-show instincts by not bragging about it and daring people to stand up to him -- we will not learn about it until either Trump needs an adrenaline rush of news coverage (perhaps at his upcoming CPAC speech?) or he actually is in danger of being indicted for federal crimes and pulls the self-pardon out of his pocket.

Will any federal prosecutor actually try to prosecute Trump?  Had Trump announced a self-pardon on January 19, that would have made federal prosecution both less and more likely.  It would be less likely because any prosecutor would have to take into account the extra hassle and uncertainties of litigating the pardon question as a threshold matter.  It would be more likely, however, because it would give the Justice Department in a post-Trump world a reason to say: "No one can do this."  But as it stands today, the balancing question is between holding an unrepentant serial offender to account and avoiding an inevitably controversial prosecution at a politically volatile time.

That will not be an easy decision, but in the end, federal prosecutors should pursue every case against Trump and his associates that they can win on the merits.  Why is that so clearly the right approach?

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Texas Energy Policy and the Incoherence of the Efficiency Concept

by Neil H. Buchanan

At this point, it appears that most homes and businesses in Texas have at long last had their electric power restored.  If any are still without service, they are in the second week of living in 18th Century conditions, which millions upon millions of Texans experienced for many days last week.  And even now, houses with electric power restored do not have running water, with plumbers working day and night to work through waiting lists that run into the thousands (per plumber).

In a column last week, I noted how quickly life becomes truly elemental when the foundations of modern living disappear.  Being thrust into a feral life is jarring, and humans understandably have psychological safety mechanisms that allow us to forget very quickly how awful things felt while we were waiting for normal life to return.  And as I pointed out, even when a power outage is relatively short, the temptation to say that it was "only 10 hours" or "only two days" misses the fact that we cannot know during the events themselves when they will end.  It is similar to a job search that stretches on for months, and after a job offer comes in, downplaying the crippling uncertainty and depression that the person suffered.

We should, therefore, fight the temptation to minimize a crisis that lasted "only" a week or so (but which, again, is still not actually over for the people without running water).  The people in Texas's government who are to blame will do everything possible to say that the problem is solved and that we should all move on -- just as they have been saying that Trump's "only four hours and a couple of hundred people" insurrection is nothing to dwell on.

As a policy matter, however, the Texas disaster is a perfect moment to reflect on the concepts of regulation, deregulation, the so-called free market, and that ever-elusive concept called Economic Efficiency (cue the triumphant music).  I have argued for years that efficiency is a meaningless concept (see, for example, the article that Professor Dorf and I co-authored that will be published soon in Cornell Law Review), and last week's collapse in the Lone Star State is a perfect illustration of the emptiness of free-market bromides.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Yesterday Appeared to be a Bad Day for Trump and Trumpism at the Supreme Court: SCOTUS Kremlinology Part 3

by Michael C. Dorf

The big news out of the Supreme Court yesterday was the denial of the stay sought by Donald Trump in the NYC grand jury investigation into his finances and related matters. The ruling in its entirety stated: "The application for a stay presented to Justice Breyer and referred to the Court is denied." No dissents or reasons were recorded.

That's not especially unusual. The Supreme Court routinely takes summary actions without explanation. And despite understandable calls for greater transparency on the Court's so-called shadow docket, there is almost certainly some irreducible minimum of work that the Court--like any reasonably complex institution--can and should be permitted to do without giving reasons.

Indeed, we might worry about the opposite problem: In the four cases involving clashes between state public health measures and religious freedom claims since last spring, various Justices arguably said too much, and thereby changed the underlying law governing religious exceptions without full briefing and oral argument.

In any event, watching the Supreme Court is, as I have noted before (here and here) something of an exercise in attempted mind-reading or Kremlinology. For example, an article last week in USA Today quoted three scholars (including me) hypothesizing that the Court is taking a brief breather from hot-button issues in order for the new conservative supermajority to coalesce. The article is sensible, but as I wrote its author after it appeared:

all of the scholars you interviewed had the same basic reaction: seems like they’re going slowly for now/probably won’t last/we’re really just guessing at what’s going on. I might add . . . that there might not even be a there there. That is, we’re acting as though the Court has a plan and we’re trying to infer it as kremlinologists. But the Court is a "they," not an "it," so its/their actions are the vector sum of complex individual decisions that could be at cross purposes with each other.

With that gigantic caveat--that so much of what I say about the Supreme Court is really just guesswork--I'll venture a brief reaction to the financial records decision and a few observations about the Court's denial of cert in the cases from Pennsylvania challenging that state's supreme court's decisions regarding the 2020 presidential election.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Why Harvard Can't Just Give Cornel West Tenure - And Why That Shouldn't Matter

 by Diane Klein

Noted public intellectual, best-selling author, and co-chair of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign Cornel West is threatening to leave Harvard, for a second time.  He has stated that "the administration disrespected him by denying his request to be considered for tenure."  A statement like this was crafted carefully, and it has to be read carefully.  First of all, West has not been denied tenure.  It would appear that he was turned down after requesting "to be considered for tenure."  Why would he have to make such a request? Presumably, because he holds a position that is not eligible for tenure.  Is turning him down a sign of "disrespect," as he claims?  Or did West voluntarily accept a position that was ineligible for tenure - only to complain a few years later that Harvard refused to consider him for a status that was never part of the job? And why does it make such a difference?

Friday, February 19, 2021

"Playing Politics" While Texans Freeze and Die: Nonsensical Bothsidesism Again

by Neil H. Buchanan
The crisis in Texas this week is causing misery on a vast scale.  People who rely on electrical devices to keep themselves alive are not able to recharge batteries.  Hospitals have been without power or water for days.  People are being forced to live in group settings with strangers during a pandemic -- where such options are even available -- simply in order to survive.  Some are sitting in sub-freezing homes, trying not to die of hypothermia.  Not all are succeeding.

My worst personal experiences with power outages have been two 3-day disruptions during winter storms, but in each case the weather dramatically improved while I was without power.  Also, because the outages were spotty and not region-wide, the only question was whether I would need to drive two towns over to get a hot meal from a restaurant.  Nonetheless, it was amazing how quickly life could change, where even sitting in a house that is 50 degrees Fahrenheit can make one feel that survival is at stake -- especially because we could only know after the fact that the outage was "only three days."  While it is happening, with no information (and in some cases, no way even to try to obtain information) about when it might end, it makes life seem very, very harsh and primitive.
Even people who might think that we as a society have become too spoiled and consumerist would have to concede that suddenly being deprived of the things that we take for granted is a recipe for disaster.  Yes, humans survived (with much shorter life expectancies) for centuries without central heating and running water, and even now, people go camping.  Still, suddenly putting people into survival mode, including people who are in serious danger of not surviving, should be unthinkable.
That means that we should rightly be angry that this crisis was the result of political blindness by the Republican Party.  But when is it okay to "be political" when responding to a crisis?  It turns out that making political arguments during a crisis can be perfectly appropriate.  What is inappropriate, however, is for news reporters to revert to meaningless talking points and both-sides-do-it accusations.  With the return to "normal" politics in the Biden era, we unfortunately see journalists lapsing back into their lazy attempts to sound objective.  This is dangerous.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Does Texas Order Keeping Natural Gas In State Violate the Dormant Commerce Clause?

 by Michael C. Dorf

The ongoing crisis in Texas and other states that have experienced atypically wintry weather is first and foremost a humanitarian challenge for the people affected. I feel nothing but concern for those suffering from cold, power outages, unsafe drinking water, and the associated ills. I urge readers who share that concern to donate to one or more relief organizations providing direct aid. I also hope that no one will mistake the following analysis of legal issues raised by one aspect of the response to the crisis for callousness or insensitivity.

As was widely reported, yesterday Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered that natural gas slated for delivery out of state be offered first to in-state power operators. In a moment I'll turn to the question that titles today's essay, but I want to begin with some procedural complexities. The story just linked refers to "a copy of Abbott’s order seen by Bloomberg" News. Likewise, a press release issued by Governor Abbott states that he "has ordered natural gas producers not to export product out of state until February 21st and instead sell it to providers within Texas." However, neither the Bloomberg story, the press release, nor any source I could find links to an actual order of the Governor. Instead, there are multiple references to a letter that Abbott sent to the Texas Railroad Commission--which, despite its name, has long had authority to regulate the energy sector in Texas. That letter apparently states:

I hereby mandate that all sourced natural gas be made available for sale to local power generation opportunities before leaving the state of Texas, effective through February 21, 2021. . . . I ask that you immediately take all reasonable and necessary steps to ensure that this mandate is carried out.

It is not clear whether there is a separate order that Governor Abbott issued or whether the letter itself is the order (as its use of "hereby mandate" suggests). In any event, nothing in my ensuing analysis turns on whether there is a stand-alone order as well as the letter or only the letter. The two key points I wish to raise are (1) it is unclear whether the Governor of Texas has the authority under state law to mandate the diversion of natural gas or whether that authority, if it exists anywhere in Texas, is lodged with the Railroad Commission; and (2) assuming that the Governor has the authority under state law or that if he doesn't, the Railroad Commission adopts the same order, the substance of the order could violate the dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Below I'll explain why the uncertainty of issue (1) could actually aid Texas in evading review of issue (2).

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Constitution is a Disaster, But Designing a Sound Impeachment Rule for a Polarized Country Would be a Challenge Anyway

 by Michael C. Dorf

After an assault on the democratic order, it is understandable to glorify the legal basis for that order, especially in the United States, which tends to Constitution-worship even in the best of times. Yet a moment's reflection reveals that the despicable attack on democracy by Donald J. Trump and those in the thrall of his personality cult was not merely an attack against the Constitution; it was facilitated by the Constitution's flaws.

Here are some features of our Constitution that combined to enable Trump's assault: (1) The Electoral College--our byzantine system for choosing a chief executive whose current powers are better suited to one elected by plebiscite---not only distorts campaigns to focus on a handful of swing states at the expense of voters in all the others but periodically turns what should be easy-to-call election-night outcomes into nail-biters that then make contests over a relatively small number of votes consequential. Elections that are not close thus fall within what we might call the "margin of propaganda." (2) The Electoral College also enables the loser of the majority vote to win the presidency "legitimately." (3) The decentralized nature of our election system (enshrined by Article II) creates multiple pressure points for threats of primary challenges or physical violence against elected officials if they do not "find" enough votes for the would-be autocrat. (4) The dispute-resolution mechanism set forth in Article II for a contested election disproportionately favors rural voters who are vastly over-represented in the Senate and in House delegations when counted (as they are under that mechanism) on a one-vote-per-state-delegation basis. (5) The super-majority requirement for a successful impeachment combines with party politics to prevent accountability for even the most outrageous conduct, so long as the demagogue retains support of about 30% of the population, which suffices to win primary elections. (6) The super-majority and state-centered nature of the Article V amendment procedure make it nearly impossible to change any of the foregoing.

To recognize that the Constitution is profoundly flawed is not to attribute all the blame to its framers, deeply flawed though they were in their desire to protect or acquiesce in the protection of the institution of human bondage. For despite the framers' moral blindness, they designed a system that has many admirable features. The core issues that continue to bedevil us might be thought to be problems of under-correction: (1) The election of 1800 revealed that the Constitution the framers designed for a nation without political parties fit very awkwardly with a nation with such parties, but the Twelfth Amendment corrected only one small aspect of that mismatch. And (2) In the wake of the Civil War, the Reconstruction Amendments left far too much of the ancien regime in place and, in one crucial respect (repeal of the 3/5 clause) actually enhanced the long-term political power of the most racist elements of the country (by increasing the representation in the House of the states of the former Confederacy).

If I had a magic wand, I would wave it to replace our barely-amended 18th-century slavery-preserving constitution with something much better suited to a multicultural 21st-century polity. Of course, neither I nor anyone else has such a wand. In future essays, I hope to provide some suggestions for measures that can achieve some tangible progress despite our profoundly flawed legal order. For today I want to turn my attention now to a genuinely difficult question of constitutional design that we would face even if we could amend our Constitution: what should the impeachment mechanism look like?

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Technicalities and Constitutional Incompleteness: Banning Insurrectionists from Holding Office

by Neil H. Buchanan

What is a technicality?  In the echo chambers of political punditry, certain words and phrases gain favor, allowing writers not to think deeply about issues even as they sound familiar notes to project seriousness.  Lately, among those who are disappointed that the Senate did not reach the two-thirds threshold to formally convict Donald Trump in the impeachment trial, the unfortunate move is to describe Republicans' dodging of the issue as hiding behind a technicality.
Aaron Blake, a Washington Post reporter, wrote that "Trump was acquitted at his second impeachment trial largely — if not completely — on a technicality: the argument that the trial itself was unconstitutional."  Similarly, Michelle Goldberg, the progressive New York Times columnist, yesterday disparaged Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for relying on the "manufactured technicality ... that a former president is 'constitutionally not eligible for conviction.'"
Blake's larger point is about Republicans' hypocrisy, and Goldberg does say that this was a manufactured technicality, but there is still a problem: The Republican senators who said that a no-longer-sitting president cannot be impeached, tried, or convicted were simply wrong.  Hypocrites or no, their argument that the Constitution required them to vote to acquit on jurisdictional grounds is baseless nonsense.  They did not manufacture a technicality.  They failed to manufacture a technicality, and they then went rogue.

This matters, both for the immediate discussion of Trump's second impeachment and for the question of whether Democrats can use a Fourteenth Amendment provision to the same effect that a Senate conviction would have had: disqualifying Trump from running for president in the future.  That gambit might or might not work, but understanding what is happening requires us to know what is a technicality and what is simply bull crap.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Say Anything II: Top Ten Ethical Violations by Trump's Lawyers in the Second Impeachment (and One That Wasn't)

by Diane Klein

Have you ever heard of Sidney Carlton?  I hadn't, until very recently.  I had of course heard of Emmett Till, the 14 year old whose murder in 1955 by vicious White supremacists seared the nation's conscience and helped impel the Civil Rights Movement.  I had also heard of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, the men who killed him, brutally and unapologetically, then brazenly pleaded "not guilty" at trial, celebrated their acquittal - and then openly admitted their crime in Look magazine a year later, protected by double jeopardy.  But I hadn't heard of Sidney Carlton, one of their lawyers, the man who closed his argument by telling the all-White, all-male jury, "Your ancestors will turn over in their grave, and I'm sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men."  Sure enough, they did, just over an hour later.

 [Left: Sidney Carlton confers with Milam and Bryan, 1955; right: the Emmett Till jury, 1955]

Sidney Carlton won an acquittal for men he surely knew were guilty of a horrible crime.  He did so by appealing, successfully and openly, to the most loathsome prejudices in the American character.  Under the circumstances, it didn't require brilliant lawyering.  As one of the team of Bryant and Milam's lawyers said, "After the jury was chosen, any first-year law student could have won the case."  Still, Carlton and his colleagues said what they said, and did what they did. They were the coachmen driving one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in twentieth-century America.

Trump's impeachment defense team are little better, and their role in what we can only hope is the beginning of the end of Trump's outsized influence on American politics and American life ought at least to be an object lesson in the training of American lawyers.  Much of what they said infuriated and inflamed those who believe Trump should have been convicted for his role in the January 6 insurrection. Much of it struck many listeners as outrageously wrong and misleading, when not irrelevant or flat-out false.  Some may have found themselves wondering, Can lawyers do that?  Can they say anything at all, to try to get their client acquitted?  And does it make a difference if the client is being impeached, rather than charged with a crime?

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Another Big Lie: Incitement is in Fact All About Context

 By Eric Segall

The defense team defending Donald Trump said on several occasions Friday and Saturday that incitement is "only about the words of the speech," and that events that happened before and after that speech are irrelevant. Although the requirements for incitement for criminal conviction do not technically apply to impeachments, it is beyond doubt that even in criminal trials context is often the deciding factor in incitement cases. Trump's lawyers are just flat out wrong on this, but it is easy to see why they are making this demonstrably false argument. They don't want to admit the months of lying, inciting, and taunting by Trump, all of which led to the tragic attack on the Capitol. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

Are the Consequences of Trump's Impending Acquittal by Senate Republicans Definitely All Bad?

by Neil H. Buchanan

The House's impeachment managers rested their case yesterday, powerfully concluding a necessary national immersion into the events that led up to the January 6 insurrection and the horrors of that day.  If nothing else, the Democrats successfully reversed the shocking national amnesia that had set in over the last five weeks.
Republicans have, all too predictably, continued their contradictory and bad faith responses -- "What kind of trial has no witnesses?" "If the Democrats dare to call witnesses, we'll freak out!" "They're going through this too quickly!" "They're going through this too slowly!" -- and the outcome is so little in doubt that Trump's lawyers are going to essentially submit a Post-It note for their defense today and then rest.

Although I have argued passionately that there is only one right outcome to this trial on its own terms, I have also expressed doubts about whether the outcome matters going forward.  It is a strange situation indeed, with Democrats truly having no choice but to impeach on these facts and then to proceed to trial and hope for a conviction, even knowing that this could all end up helping Trump and the Republicans in the political realm.  "Could," however, does not mean "will," and it remains possible that Democrats will gain politically from doing the right thing.

But what if we knew with certainty that the Democrats' seemingly required response to the insurrection would lead to Republicans taking back power in 2022 and never giving it up again?  Obviously, the strategy would have to change, and impeachment -- no matter how justified -- would have to be abandoned.  Because it is just as easy to picture a future in which Democrats gain by having impeached but lost in the Senate as it is to picture the opposite, however, the only thing to do now is to defend the rule of law and hope (and fight peacefully) for a better future.

Here, I want to explore the possible political implications of the trial from a slightly different angle.  As I wrote in my Dorf on Law column yesterday, "I am less convinced than ever that the Senate's vote in this trial matters, as I will explain in greater detail in my next Dorf on Law column tomorrow."  In particular, I want to disagree rather strenuously with two arguments that the Democrats' impeachment managers laid out as a warning to any wavering Republicans.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Trump's Lawyers' Theory Could Give a President More than One Way to Game Impeachment

by Neil H. Buchanan

The ongoing Senate trial of Donald Trump has been riveting, to say the least.  If ever there were any doubts about the value of following the constitutional process, even when the outcome is a foregone conclusion, those doubts have been definitively extinguished.  The public now has a much better, more complete understanding of what led up to the January 6 insurrection, as well as the horrors of that day itself -- which, we now are seeing, could have been much, much worse.

On Tuesday of this week, I published a column on Verdict under the somewhat misleading title, "Would Senate Republicans Abandon Their Baseless Arguments if There Were a Secret Ballot?"  I describe that title as misleading because the vast majority of my analysis was not devoted to the secret ballot question in any direct sense.  Instead, I used comments by retiring Ohio Senator Rob Portman to expand on my recent critiques of Republicans' text-based claim that the Senate trial is unconstitutional.
I then used Portman as an illustrative counter-example to the supposition -- one widely believed by well informed people -- that Republicans would overwhelmingly vote to convict Trump if only they could do so without anyone finding out how they voted.  Portman, who will be 67 when he leaves office and will never face Trump's voters again, is as close as possible to being in a consequence-free zone to cast a public vote of conscience, yet he is as committed to the crazy as ever.

Although I initially expected that I would endorse the secret ballot idea in that column, I chose not to do so for two reasons: (1) My Verdict colleague Dean Vikram Amar and his colleague Professor Joshua Mazzone wrote a persuasive column on this very topic during Trump's first impeachment, and much more importantly, (2) I am less convinced than ever that the Senate's vote in this trial matters, as I will explain in greater detail in my next Dorf on Law column tomorrow.  Therefore, when I finally reached the point in my column at which I explicitly addressed the question of a secret ballot, I shrugged and said something that is rather out of character for me, which is that I do not have a strong opinion either way.

Here, I want to pick up on an idea that I briefly discussed on Tuesday and which Democrats have emphasized in their case against Trump.  Specifically, they warn that a president should not be allowed to escape all constitutional accountability by committing impeachable offenses shortly before leaving office.  This encompasses Lead Impeachment Manager Jamie Raskin's "January Exception" idea as well as the notion of a strategic resignation.
My question here is: Could a president -- under the Republicans' crackpot theory that Raskin rightly mocks -- craft a strategy that would allow him to stay in office even if two-thirds of the Senate were to convict him of high crimes and misdemeanors?  The surprising answer is: Maybe!

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Harvard Law School Won't (And Shouldn't) Discipline Prof. Mark Ramseyer For His Apologia For WWII Sex Slavery ( And What Should Happen Instead) - UPDATED

 by Diane Klein

J. Mark Ramseyer, Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies at the Harvard Law School, has published one of those law and economics papers that so many of us have come to dread - you know, the kind that revisits some historical horror to explain to us why "game theory" makes that historical horror perfectly OK, if you look at it just so.  Or why some reactionary or bigoted political position somehow just makes rational sense. It's the kind of pseudo-scholarship that demands that the reader first abstract away from everything that actually matters in law (like the fact that human beings are involved), and then reasons tendentiously but triumphally to its preordained conclusion.  The most notorious of such papers also typically contain an aspect of the "naughty"/prurient - these brave scholars are daring to say what no one else will, about some taboo subject or other.  This time, it's Ramseyer's argument that "well, actually" Korean sex slaves during World War II (sometimes known as "comfort women") were rationally contracting parties, and yes, you can guess the rest. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Did the Supreme Court Inadvertently Exempt Movies and Other Secular Expressive Activities From COVID Restrictions?

 by Michael C. Dorf

On Thursday evening, I'll be one of three panelists appearing at a webinar hosted by the Federal Bar Council on the topic Religious Freedom 2021: Too Much or Not Enough? I look forward to an interesting exchange with my fellow panelists, attorney Alphonso David of Human Rights Campaign and Notre Dame Law Professor Stephanie Barclay. I hope we can also engage the substantive views of our moderator, Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky. Attendance at the webinar is free and open to the public, but you need to create an account and register in advance--which you can do by following this link.

Federal District Judge Pamela Chen of the EDNY contacted us about participating in the panel a few months ago, so it is a coincidence that it comes close on the heels of the Supreme Court's latest ruling (its fourth in less than a year), in a case that pits religious freedom claims against state governments' efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19. Late last week, the Court invalidated the most restrictive of California's restrictions on in-person indoor gatherings for worship services (but allowed the singing ban to stand for now).

Last Friday's ruling in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom (South Bay II) marks the continued erosion of the deference the Court had been granting to state officials. As my co-blogger Prof Eric Segall explains in a post on the American Constitution Society Blog, that erosion is ill-advised as a matter of public health. Moreover, as Prof Leah Litman writes on Take Care, the decision also appears to change the law without acknowledging having done so; for over three decades, the Court's jurisprudence has officially reserved heightened free exercise scrutiny for laws that targeted religion for disadvantageous treatment; yet a majority of justices in South Bay II appear to depart from that approach, applying something much more like a disparate impact test.

One topic for our Thursday panel will be whether the Court should formally overrule Employment Division v. Smith. That case held that no heightened scrutiny applies when laws and policies burden religion but do not target religion for especially unfavorable treatment. I am ambivalent about Smith. In a perfect world, I would not favor the Smith rule. In our actual world, I worry that a majority of the Roberts Court would use a disparate-impact-on-religion rule to gut legal protections for LGBTQ+ persons. In fact, we seem to be barreling headlong into just that post-Smith dystopia even without the case's formal overruling.

Monday, February 08, 2021

Social Norms in Fourth Amendment Law

By Matthew Tokson

I recently wrote an article with Ari Ezra Waldman, "Social Norms in Fourth Amendment Law," forthcoming in the Michigan Law Review. We look at how courts use social norms throughout Fourth Amendment law and point out several problems with this quasi-sociological approach. 

In theory, social norms can provide an objective basis for courts’ constitutional decisions, grounding Fourth Amendment law in familiar societal attitudes and beliefs. But in reality, social norms can shift rapidly, are constantly being contested, and frequently reflect outmoded and discriminatory concepts. We explore some contemporary sociological literature on social norms and the social construction of technology that bear this out. And we examine how courts’ reliance on norms leads to identifiable errors in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

Trump's Impeachment Defense and the Problem of "Insider Political Violence"

 by Michael C. Dorf

Last week Donald Trump's (latest batch of) lawyers filed their formal Answer to the impeachment charge. It makes two main arguments: (1) that the Senate trial is unconstitutional because Trump is no longer president; and (2) that Trump was merely exercising his constitutional right to free speech.

Point (1) is very clearly wrong, as numerous commentators, including Prof Buchanan on this blog, have pointed out. Neither Trump's lawyers nor the 45 Republican Senators who accept this makeweight argument have an answer to the objection that under their reading of the Constitution, an officer could evade the express provision for disqualification by resigning the moment after the Senate convicts. I'll say more about Trump's free speech defense momentarily, but first I want to address one other bit of illogic in the Answer.

The Answer walks up to the line of asserting Trump's own lies about voter fraud but does not quite get there, instead contending that there is insufficient evidence for a reasonable jurist to conclude whether Trump's claims about the election were true or false because state and local officials "under the convenient guise of COVID-19 'safeguards'" changed election procedures "without the necessary approvals from state legislatures."

While not endorsing Trump's election-fraud lies, that statement is highly misleading and probably deliberately so. It conflates the "legislatures-only" theory of Article II that a majority of Supreme Court justices seem to like (but which has nothing to recommend it) with a factual claim. Whether a state legislature approved or didn't approve an interpretation of state election law and whether that interpretation is sufficiently implausible to constitute a "change" in state election law have nothing to do with whether, as a consequence of the ostensible change, votes are fraudulently cast or counted. Statements by Trump like "in certain swing states, there were more votes than people who voted, and in big numbers" are demonstrably false and would be false even if one fully accepted the legislatures-only theory and thought that changes to election law occurred outside the scope of Article II.

So sure, Trump's lawyers don't endorse his election-fraud lies, but their claim that it's impossible to tell whether Trump was lying because the truth is obscure is itself blatantly false.

Now let's turn to free speech.

Friday, February 05, 2021

A Biblical Question Posed by the SCOTUS Nazi Art Appropriation Case

By Michael C. Dorf

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected a lawsuit by the heirs of German Jewish art dealers who alleged that Nazi Hermann Goering had forced their ancestors to sell extremely valuable works for about a third of their market value. The bottom line in Federal Republic of Germany v. Philipp may well be defensible on the merits. A German cultural institution and a commission that investigates art stolen by the Nazis concluded that the particular works in question were actually sold at fair market value. That determination might be right and could be entitled to some sort of preclusive effect in any event.

However, the US Supreme Court's decision was not based on the merits or deference to another adjudication. Rather, the Court held that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) does not authorize suit, thus leaving intact Germany's foreign sovereign immunity. Put differently, the Court would have ruled against the heir-plaintiffs even if the evidence of uncompensated appropriation were rock solid. The Court so ruled despite the fact that the statutory text abrogates foreign sovereign immunity in cases "in which rights in property taken in violation of international law are in issue." Genocide violates international law, so the plaintiffs argued that art appropriated as part of a genocide fits the statutory language.

The unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Roberts rejects the plaintiffs' reading of the FSIA. In order to trigger the abrogation, the appropriation must violate the international law of property, not the international law of genocide, he says. Despite the Court's unanimity, that result was hardly foreordained. It also stands in tension with some very old moral wisdom. To be clear, I'm not saying the ruling is wrong; I am saying that the case ought to have occasioned more angst than it apparently did.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Progressives vs. Neoliberals Again: The 'Targeting' Debate

by Neil H. Buchanan

On January 5 of this year, no one could have known precisely what would happen the next day, but at least some of us were on high alert.  In my Dorf on Law column that day, I wrote that many people were "terrified about the treasonous actions of Donald Trump and his parasites."  For weeks, we had noted with alarm that Trump had promised his followers that his January 6 event was going to "be wild," and indeed it was.

Even so, my column that day was not focused on Trump's soon-to-bear-bitter-fruit attempts to carry out a coup to keep himself in power.  Instead, I preferred to imagine that he would fail (as he has so often failed) and that something like the familiar policy debates might again come to the fore:
"This column, then, is an expression of optimism.  We might soon, I dearly hope, be back to arguing about legitimate differences over policy matters.  More interestingly, we might soon be back to waging an important intramural fight among non-Trumpers over the future of neoliberalism -- the incremental, technocratic, intellectually defensive approach to economic policy that is somehow both appealing and disastrous -- and its uncomfortable tension with progressivism."
And here we are.  True, Republicans (when they are not kissing their failed leader's ring or pretending not to know anything about their most extreme colleagues) are back to lying about policy and insisting that everything that Democrats want to do is bad for the economy.  But as anyone could have predicted, Democrats are back inside the not-so-warm cocoon of their intramural debate between progressives and neoliberals.

Indeed, the very issue that motivated my January 5th column, whether to allow relief payments to go in part to upper-middle-class Americans as well as to middle-class and poorer Americans -- that is, to allow the checks to be "poorly targeted" -- has become a flash point among Democrats.  With Republicans having successfully sliced the $2000 relief payments down to $600 in the stopgap relief bill in December, President Biden now wants to give the other $1400 as part of his larger relief bill.

Here, I want to talk about the "targeting" question as an entry point to the larger debate about neoliberalism.  Short version: Progressives should not categorically reject targeting of benefits, but they should not allow themselves to be trapped by neoliberals' pious pretensions to being the true guardians of the needy.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Simplicity, Clarity, and Justice

 by Michael C. Dorf

My latest Verdict column uses the border wall litigation before SCOTUS to lament the incredible complexity of federal court procedural law. I direct interested readers to the column for further details, but here's the barebones summary of the background: (1) Trump declared an emergency to move money Congress appropriated for other purposes to border wall construction; (2) environmental and other public-interest organizations that would be injured by the border wall sued to block it and won in the 9th Circuit; (3) Trump's DOJ went to SCOTUS arguing that plaintiffs lack a cause of action and do not fall within the zone of interested protected by the statute on which they rely; (4) plaintiffs, with support from amici including yours truly, argued that where, as here, plaintiffs seek to enjoin unconstitutional action, they do not rely on a statute for relief and thus have an equitable cause of action to which the zone-of-interest test does not apply; (5) President Biden rescinded the wall funding, and his acting SG, with the plaintiffs' consent, asked the Court to take the case off the calendar.

As I explain in the column, the Trump DOJ's argument contesting cause of action and invoking the zone-of-interest test is easy for the casual reader to mistake for an argument that the plaintiffs lack standing. Although I don't go into the point in the column, the zone-of-interest test itself can be conceptualized as a kind of limit on third-party-standing. I won't go deeply into that point here either, except to say, as I do in the column, that there are a great many procedural doctrines that limit (or grant) access to federal court, each with sub-doctrines and sub-sub-doctrines. Citing Jerome Frank, I acknowledge that it is naive to think that the law can always be clear and simple. Nonetheless, I say, the complexity of federal procedural law goes beyond what is needed to keep up with life's complexity.

Here I want to briefly elaborate on a point I make near the end of the column. I note there that "simplifying the law will not necessarily clarify it. Indeed, the two goals often work at cross-purposes. To clarify the law requires specifying the outcome in a great many different circumstances, which will often require a detailed, that is, long and complex, list of rules, not a short simple rule or standard." My suggestion will be that there is often a tradeoff among simplicity, clarity, and justice.

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

What the Constitution's Text Does Not Say Plainly About Impeachment

by Neil H. Buchanan
Last Thursday, I wrote paired columns on Verdict and here on Dorf on Law in which I responded to Senate Republicans' claim that the Constitution does not allow a former president to be impeached or convicted.  I explicitly stated in those columns that my purpose was to show that the constitutional text alone made clear that their argument is wrong.

I did not, of course, endorse textualism as that term is currently understood and used by conservative legal scholars.  And I went to great pains to say that there are excellent non-textual arguments -- based on precedent, original intent, pre-Constitutional history, policy implications, and so on -- that take us to the same conclusion, which is that the Senate can and must uphold our constitutional order by trying and convicting Donald Trump.  One particularly good contribution to that list of other arguments, from Professor Bob Bauer of NYU Law, can be found in today's New York Times.
In short, my sole purpose in writing those columns last week was to point out that even if we were to look at no interpretive method other than the plain meaning of the words in the Constitution, we would have no choice but to conclude that the Republicans are wrong.

Today, I want to think about some of the related issues on which the constitutional text is at best murky and in some cases nonexistent.  What happens when there is no clear, on-point language to which we can appeal?  The possible implications for various situations are surprising.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Of Stone Mountain, Confederate Flags, and American Racism

By Eric Segall

Less than ten miles from my home near Emory University in Atlanta is Georgia's most popular public attraction. Every year approximately 4,000,000 people drive through Stone Mountain Park to visit one of its many exhibits. To get from the entrance of the park to the popular hiking trail at the bottom of the mountain, visitors go down Jefferson Davis Drive and then pass Stonewall Jackson Drive and Robert E. Lee Boulevard. At the bottom of the trail leading up to the mountain is an American flag and four Confederate flags for all to see. Here is a picture:

In addition, at the center of the park is, of course, the largest confederate symbol in the country: a nine story etched carving of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee. Here is a picture that does not do justice to the size of the etched carving.

The flags and the huge carving do not represent anything other than naked racism. Work started on the park in 1915, but it wasn't accessible to the public until 1965 when it opened on the 100th anniversary of, wait for it, President Abraham Lincoln's assassination. As the park was being conceived, an Atlanta newspaper reporter wrote“Just now, while the loyal devotion of this great people of the South is considering a general and enduring monument to the great cause ‘fought without shame and lost without dishonor,’ it seems to me that nature and Providence have set the immortal shrine right at our doors."