Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler delves into the ethical complexities of writing leniency letters in sexual assault cases, particularly when informed by the #MeToo movement. Professor Wexler argues that while society should be forgiving, as Verdict co-columnist Joe Margulies suggests, leniency letters can often perpetuate “himpathy,” where the judge might overempathize with the defendant—especially if white and otherwise privileged—at the expense of the victim, and that these letters should carefully avoid reinforcing tropes rooted in structural misogyny and American rape culture.
UC Davis Law professor Vikram David Amar discusses the ongoing legal battle over congressional redistricting in New Mexico, where Republicans have filed a lawsuit claiming that new district maps favor Democrats and violate the state constitution. Professor Amar emphasizes the importance for the New Mexico state courts to clearly base their rulings on the state constitution rather than the federal Constitution, and to justify their decisions more explicitly so as to demonstrate greater legitimacy.
In this first of a series of columns, Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler explores the ethical and societal complexities surrounding character letters in sex crimes trials, particularly focusing on the controversy created by Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis’s leniency letters for Danny Masterson. Professor Wexler delves into the historical role and changing public sentiment about character evidence, referencing military court cases and the Brock Turner trial, and questions whether it is possible to write a leniency letter that aligns with #MeToo values without undermining victims or perpetuating harmful myths.
Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf discusses the indictment against New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who is accused of accepting bribes to influence foreign relations and other matters. Professor Dorf acknowledges the legal presumption of innocence in a criminal trial setting but argues that due to the ethical responsibility Senators have towards their constituents and the country, they are not entitled to the same presumption in their role, and the weight of the allegations and evidence against Menendez should prompt his resignation or expulsion from the Senate.
UC Davis Law professor Vikram David Amar discusses the controversy surrounding the potential impeachment of new Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz for having expressed her views on gerrymandering during her campaign. Professor Amar argues that sharing one’s views on specific legal topics should not be grounds for impeachment, as it helps the public understand a candidate’s legal philosophy and does not necessarily mean the judge’s mind is fixed on an issue.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat observes that the push for death penalty abolition in the United States faced a year of mixed outcomes in 2023, marked by a rise in executions but also legislative progress in some states like Washington. Professor Sarat observes that states like Alabama and South Carolina are making efforts to proceed with executions using new methods or secured drug supplies, Ohio and Tennessee have shown more cautious or progressive stances, signaling an incremental and complex journey toward abolition.
Cornell professor Joseph Margulies discusses the controversy surrounding Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis writing character letters in support of their friend and fellow actor Danny Masterson, who was convicted of rape. Professor Margulies argues that while Kutcher and Kunis should be allowed to plead for “social forgiveness” for Masterson, they crossed a line by encouraging the judge to doubt the jury’s verdict; the challenge lies in how society can adopt a more forgiving attitude without diminishing the severity of wrongdoings.
Touro University, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, professors Rodger D. Citron and Laura A. Dooley discuss the U.S. Supreme Court’s unexpectedly divided decision in Mallory v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co. case, which addressed whether a corporation can be sued in a state where it has registered to do business but is not a citizen. Professors Citron and Dooley argue that the case is notable for the alignment of ideologically diverse justices and its potential to significantly alter the landscape regarding where plaintiffs can sue corporations, shedding light on the current Court’s approach to originalism and federalism in the context of personal jurisdiction.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that Donald Trump has weaponized free speech to undermine American democracy and legal institutions, posing a complex challenge for the judicial system and society at large. Professor Sarat emphasizes the importance of a pending legal motion for a gag order against Trump, arguing that it could be a critical step in countering the destructive effects of his inflammatory speech on the legal process and public trust.
Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf discusses a recent legal battle over Texas’s placement of buoys and barriers in the Rio Grande River to deter migrants, a move ruled likely unlawful by Federal District Judge David Ezra. Professor Dorf criticizes Texas’s subsequent emergency stay appeal, argues that the state’s legal justifications are implausible and undermine federal supremacy, and suggests that the state is improperly attempting to sidestep federal authority on issues of national security and immigration.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that American democracy is at a critical juncture, facing existential threats in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. Professor Sarat contends that Donald Trump and his supporters are sowing distrust in the electoral system by labeling legal actions against Trump as “election interference,” a strategy that is dividing public opinion and undermining faith in democratic institutions, potentially leading to dire consequences for the future of American democracy regardless of the 2024 election outcome.
Rutgers Law adjunct lecturer David S. Kemp argues that despite ChatGPT’s limitations in producing accurate legal research, these shortcomings can be leveraged as teaching tools in law schools. By encouraging students to use AI-generated text as a starting point and then to verify its content using reliable sources, educators can enhance students’ research skills, critical thinking, and ethical responsibility.
Law professor and economist Neil H. Buchanan argues that mainstream media’s self-reckoning after the 2016 U.S. presidential election led to an overcompensation, which gave platforms to conservative “outside voices” that did not authentically represent the “Real America” they claimed to understand. Professor Buchanan criticizes this overcompensation for leading to an uncritical amplification of narratives like Gary Abernathy’s, which justify and perpetuate the divisive and false beliefs held by Trump supporters, while failing to meaningfully engage with the deeper issues.
Cornell professor Joseph Margulies explores the journey of Rob Hildum, a former Assistant District Attorney in New Orleans and now a judge in Washington, D.C., who reflects on his past complicity in a system that disproportionately targets and harms Black individuals. Professor Margulies connects Hildum’s narrative with broader issues of systemic racism and police brutality, using recent cases like the killing of Ta’Kiya Young in Ohio to demonstrate that the unwillingness to challenge deeply ingrained beliefs and practices—like the appropriateness of “street justice”—perpetuates injustice.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat criticizes efforts by some Republicans to use the power of the purse to protect former President Donald Trump from criminal prosecutions. Professor Sarat argues that such actions are not only an abuse of power but also potentially unconstitutional, undermining the separation of powers and echoing historic misuses of legislative authority.
Professor Neil H. Buchanan—an economist and legal scholar who is a visiting professor at both Osgoode Hall Law School and the University of Toronto Law, and who has accepted a research sabbatical and retirement offer from the University of Florida—discusses the erosion of academic freedom and tenure in universities, specifically focusing on recent legislative changes in Florida that undermine intellectual freedom. Professor Buchanan argues that the political climate has made it nearly impossible to challenge these changes effectively, leading him to conclude that sometimes a strategic retreat is necessary when facing an unyielding and empowered opposition.
Former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut argues that in deciding whether Mark Meadows’s case should be tried in federal court, the judge should apply a “totality of the circumstances” test—which would result in the case being remanded to state court. Mr. Aftergut points out that this approach would weigh all of Meadows’s actions, rather than focusing on a single official act, thereby accommodating competing legal and social values.
Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf argues that while the recent departure of Stanford’s associate dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is noteworthy, the broader issue is the legal status of diversity initiatives following the recent Supreme Court ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. Professor Dorf contends that despite the Court’s skepticism towards race-based affirmative action, DEI offices still have a legitimate role, albeit one that may need to adjust its approaches to promoting diversity and inclusion.
Responding to an article earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal criticizing spending by state universities, UC Davis law professor Vikram David Amar argues that while public universities have indeed increased spending and tuition, the situation is more nuanced than simply blaming administrative bloat or wasteful spending. Professor Amar contends that higher education today offers a qualitatively different product than it did two decades ago, with enhanced services in career planning, mental health, and academic support, among other things, and that these changes, along with external factors like professorial salaries and underfunded pensions, contribute to the rise in costs.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat criticizes Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Congressman Jim Jordan for decrying the “weaponization” of justice while themselves exerting political pressure to remove duly elected Democratic district attorneys. Professor Sarat warns that such actions undermine the independence of prosecutors and pose a threat to the rule of law, and he cautions voters to be vigilant against this danger in upcoming elections.