Analysis and Commentary Posted in 2012-11

Why Grover Norquist’s Anti-Tax Pledge Is Unenforceable and Unconstitutional

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean takes strong issue with the Norquist Pledge, which Washington lobbyist Grover Norquist has asked Members of Congress to sign. The Pledge says, “I [insert name] pledge to the taxpayers of the state of [insert name], and to the American people that I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.” The Pledge has become significant in the context of raising taxes as a solution to the potential “fiscal cliff” crisis. Dean contends that the Pledge is not only a bad idea, but also one that violates the Constitution. Moreover, Dean points out that, as the pledge is not a valid contract, for it is missing key elements that contract law requires, it is also not enforceable as such.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Considers in Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education Whether Public Schools Can Be Houses of Worship

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on a recent decision from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The decision addressed the question whether the New York City Board of Education can exclude houses of worship from occupying public schools. Hamilton argues that this controversy is part of a much larger issue, regarding religious groups’ seeking government entitlements. She covers the key U.S. Supreme Court cases that are relevant to this issue, and connects the issue to the “church-planting” movement. The ultimate goal of those who seek to allow religious groups to occupy public school, is much more ambitious than just that, Hamilton suggests: It is to convince governments to pay as much money to support religious private schools as it pays to support public schools.

The European Court of Human Rights Upholds German Ban on PETA’s “Holocaust On Your Plate” Campaign: Lessons For Animal Activists and for Animal Product Consumers

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a controversy in Germany in which Germany’s branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA-D, compared animal exploitation and slaughter to the Nazi Holocaust, in a series of seven graphic posters. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) subsequently held that Germany’s censorship of the images was lawful. Colb, who is both an ethical vegan and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, critically analyzes (1) PETA-D’s decision to launch a campaign comparing animal slaughter to the Holocaust; (2) the ECHR’s decision that such a comparison diminishes Holocaust victims and survivors; and (3) the specific nature of the offense that is felt by those who condemn the analogy between animal exploitation and the Holocaust. In her analysis, Colb refers to sources ranging from Adorno, Singer, and Coetzee on animal suffering, to Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi,” a comparison to which most people don’t object, but perhaps logically should.

Who’s the Boss? The Supreme Court Hears Argument on the Meaning of the Term “Supervisor” in Workplace Harassment Law

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on the legal definition of “supervisor” in the context of the law addressing harassment in the workplace. The topic is especially timely because the Supreme Court just recently held oral argument in Vance v. Ball State University, which focuses on this very issue. Grossman begins by covering workplace harassment basics, and then goes on to consider the scope of employers’ affirmative defense to a workplace harassment claim—which has proven to be a highly contested issue. She then focuses on Vance itself, discussing both the facts of that case, and the split among the federal circuits about who qualifies as a “supervisor.” Grossman ultimately comes down in favor of the EEOC’s definition of “supervisor,” arguing that it is clearly correct. She also comments on some of the Justices’ apparent positions on the matter, as likely betrayed by their respective comments at oral argument.

A Mississippi Public School Student’s Rap Song Gets Him a Suspension, and a First Amendment Case

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a federal district court case that was brought after Mississippi teen Taylor Bell was suspended based on the lyrics of a rap song he wrote and posted on Facebook and YouTube, where it was heard by his high school classmates. Hilden explains why the case implicated the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, even if the rap song fell short of constituting a “true threat” under other free speech precedents. Taylor lost before the federal district court, but, as Hilden explains, his attorney has noted a number of key points that will likely help strengthen Taylor’s case in the planned appeal.

In Search of an Agenda for Obama’s Second Term

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the interesting question of what President Obama’s agenda should be, now that he has been re-elected. Past presidents have often faced scandals in their second terms, Dorf notes, but assuming that Obama avoids that fate, what should his top priority be? Dorf argues that it should not be a grand bargain addressing the federal deficit by lowering spending and increasing taxes, as the options currently on offer in that vein could actually be harmful in the short run, and inadequate in the long run. Instead, Dorf says, Obama’s key agenda item should be cost internalization when it comes to health care. That would mean that we would move toward a health-care system in which the people who profit from health-care measures (doctors and patients) also bear the cost of those measures. Although we may already be headed in this direction, Dorf notes, there is much more to be done along these lines.

Facebook’s Mandatory Couples Pages: The Site’s Creating Them May Be Legal, But Is It Wise?

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the new couples pages feature on Facebook, which aggregates a Facebook user’s information with that of his or her self-designated significant other. Ramasastry notes that the feature has been controversial, and explains why some users have been upset by it. She notes, too, that Facebook is entering a privacy gray area with the couples pages feature, under which Facebook relies on its privacy policies, but users feel they have lost control. Moreover, Ramasastry suggests that the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which previously criticized Facebook’s Timeline feature, may want to scrutinize Facebook’s couples pages feature as well. Finally, Ramasastry questions whether Facebook’s couples pages are permissible under Facebook’s recent settlement with the FTC.

Autonomous Cars and Surgical Robots: A Discussion of Ethical and Legal Responsibility

Justia columnist and attorney David Kemp comments on the legal and ethical issues raised by self-driving cars and surgical robots. He describes current tort (including personal injury) and products liability law, and discusses why these bodies of law may fall short in addressing these technological innovations. Kemp introduces several hypotheticals to illustrate both the legal and ethical issues presented. In addition, he suggests that we should establish dynamic legal and ethical frameworks to keep up with new technologies, and encourages the law—and ethics—to begin to focus not on parties’ individual liability, but rather on the entire system of persons, machines, institutions, and governments that are relevant to a given instance in which something has gone wrong, and injury has occurred.

The Politics of Polarization and Obstructionism

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean takes strong issue with Republican polarization and obstructionism. Moreover, Dean explains why and how these strategies have worked for Republicans over the years, tracing them back to Newt Gingrich and his supporters, who innovated a three-day work week for Representatives, with their families living in their home districts—the result of which, Dean points out, was that Representatives did not get to know one another well, and there was little chance of collegiality. Now, too, Dean observes, Republicans are also employing obstructionist and divisive tactics. Dean urges that, in light of these developments, it's urgent that journalists and other s chronicle and expose these strategies. Dean is confident, though, that in President Obama, the obstructionists have met their match.

The Global Child Sex Abuse Scandals in Institutions Continue, With Australia Now Joining the Countries That Are Investigating: What Congress and the President Should Do Here in the U.S.

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton discusses the child-sex-abuse investigation in Australia and developments regarding child sex abuse here in the U.S. Hamilton argues that America’s response to evidence of child sex abuse in our institutions has been woefully deficient. While some local or state prosecutors have moved forward, Hamilton argues that what is needed, as well, is a response at the federal level. Hamilton suggests that Members of Congress are afraid to take on the relevant institutions, despite the terrible toll that child sex abuse takes on children and the monetary costs that are associated with that toll. Hamilton argues, however, that addressing child sex abuse is not only the right thing to do, but also ultimately in Members of Congress’ political interests. In particular, she urges Republicans to change their focus from “unborn children” to actual children who are suffering due to child sex abuse. Hamilton also urges Democrats in Congress and President Obama to investigate and act on this important issue, including by reforming the insurance industry's role.

Brinksmanship or Statesmanship: The Looming Fight at the Edge of the “Fiscal Cliff”

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the fiscal cliff—the combination of higher taxes and across-the-board spending cuts that America faces if Congress and President Obama fail to reach agreement in the next few months. Dorf explains exactly what the cliff is, how we came to its edge, and why there is no guarantee that our elected leaders will avoid taking us over the cliff. In so doing, Dorf addresses both aspects of the cliff—higher taxes and spending cuts—and the deadlines that pertain to each. Dorf also addresses the question whether compromise is possible on these issues, and explains why the outcome, if there is no compromise, may have stark consequences, as everyone involved knows—and yet still might occur.

An Historic First: Voters Support Same-Sex Marriage at the Polls

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman evaluates the meaning of the votes cast across the nation on the various pro-same-sex marriage referendums. Such referendums passed in Maryland, Maine, and Washington State. Grossman describes the details of the various referendums and other ballot measures relating to same-sex marriage, and notes the split, in each state she discusses, regarding votes for Obama and for Romney, respectively. Grossman explains why such referendums are noteworthy: (1) the common but not necessarily correct idea that this is an issue for the people (not courts) to decide; (2) the fact that the referendums may augur the future of same-sex marriage in America; and (3) the referendums show that young voters tend to be pro-same-sex marriage, and as more and young people reach voting age, there very likely will be even more pro-same-sex marriage voters. Grossman concludes, citing relevant statistics and developments, that among young people, and Americans generally, we are seeing a sea change toward support of gay marriage.

A First Amendment Fight At Oregon State University Leads to an Interesting Decision From a Panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit panel decision arising out of a controversy regarding the treatment by Oregon State University (OSU) of a conservative student newspaper, The Liberty. While OSU's traditional newspaper, The Barometer, was allowed to use on-campus newsbins, The Liberty first had its copies dumped out of its newsbins, with no prior notice, and then was allowed to put The Liberty in only two designated areas on campus, whereas The Barometer suffered under no such restrictions. Hilden argues that the Ninth Circuit panel was right to rule that the student newspapers should have been treated equally, with The Liberty accorded the same access as The Barometer.

Condoms and Content-Based Discrimination: The First Amendment Implications of “The Safer Sex in the Adult Film Industry Act”

Justia guest columnist and Cornell Visiting Scholar Antonio Haynes comments on an issue that was raised recently in a Los Angeles Proposition best known as Measure B: Should pornography industry performers be required to use condoms while on set? L.A. voters said yes, but Haynes contends that there is a strong First Amendment argument against the measure, based on the tenet that speech cannot (with very limited exceptions) be regulated based on its content. Although decreasing the incidence of unprotected sex is a compelling government interest, Haynes notes, Measure B does not seem to solve an “actual problem,” to use the Supreme Court’s phrase, as the adult film industry has self-regulated with great effectiveness. Thus, the objection to pornography without condoms seems to arise not from the fear of disease, so much as from the objective of controlling the content of pornography. Ultimately, too, Haynes says, performers’ dignitary interests are at stake—just as all Angelenos’ would be if everyone, not just porn performers, were subject to Measure B.

The Establishment Clause and the Free Speech Clause in the Context of the Texas High School Cheerleader Religious Banner Dispute

Justia columnist Vikram David Amar and Justia guest columnist Alan Brownstein, both U.C., Davis law professors, comment on an interesting lawsuit that involves both the Free Speech Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The suit was brought by a group of public high school cheerleaders against the school district that told them to stop displaying religious-themed banners bearing bible verses and proclaiming things like “If G-d is for us, Who Can Be Against Us?” at football games. Does the Establishment Clause forbid what they are doing? And does the Free Speech Clause come into play? Amar and Brownstein address the complex constitutional issues that the case presents.

What Do We Really Owe to Future Generations? The Devastation of Hurricane Sandy Exposes the Fallacy of Focusing on the Federal Government’s Deficit and Debt

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan connects the election, Hurricane Sandy, and the well-being of our children and the children of future generations of Americans. Analyzing a Romney/Ryan ad that had expressed worry about “saddling our children with debt,” Buchanan warns that what might be truly worrisome would be, conversely, to fail to spend money in ways that will improve the lives of future generations, with infrastructure high on the list. Buchanan cites Hurricane Sandy as an example, arguing that if floodgates are indeed necessary to protect New York City, then even if taking on debt would be necessary, the floodgates should be built. Buchanan also generalizes his point to apply to other infrastructure and other inter-generational government programs.

Does the Republican Party Want to Win? If So, Some Suggestions

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on Mitt Romney’s election loss and on the future of the Republican Party. Hamilton ascribes the loss, among other factors, to Republican candidates’ widely criticized comments on rape and abortion, which many found deeply offensive. She also points to other factors such as (1) Republicans like Paul Ryan’s extreme views, such as the refusal to have the government fund any part of Planned Parenthood’s activities; and (2) the Party’s lack of a laserbeam focus on key issues like jobs and the state of the economy. The result was that women disproportionally voted for President Obama, Hamilton concludes. Hamilton also raises interesting questions about whether—and how—the Republican Party can reshape itself as a viable party, now and in the demographically diverse future—a party that could, in coming years, attract women and people of color in larger numbers.

The U.S. Supreme Court Considers Dog Sniffs and the Fourth Amendment

In the second in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her commentary on the constitutional issues raised by dog sniffs, in light of two cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court will address the issue. As Colb explains, one case asks whether a dog sniff is itself a search, for Fourth Amendment purposes; and the other asks what is the evidentiary significance of a dog’s positively alerting after a drug sniff for narcotics. Here, Colb builds on her prior commentary on the cases, and also addresses related precedents. In addition, she discusses the complexities that may arise because dogs have minds of their own—and are able to sniff not only drugs but, for example, cancer and pregnancy. Moreover, dogs can also sense humans’ feelings, and will want to please humans with whom they have bonded. Colb considers these and other factors as they play into the Fourth Amendment analysis. She also predicts the likely outcomes of the cases before the Court, and describes the issues the Justices seemed to find salient at oral argument. She also predicts which Justices will be the “swing votes” in the case.

George McGovern: R.I.P. (1922–2012)

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the life and times of former Senator George McGovern, who recently passed away. In addition to chronicling the key events of McGovern's life, McGovern’s passionate campaign to eradicate hunger, and his own friendship with McGovern, Dean also comments on the perhaps unlikely friendship between McGovern, a Democrat, and Republican Senator Barry Goldwater—the kind of cross-party bond, forged to serve the good of the nation, that Dean notes that we are, unfortunately, unlikely to see today.

Meet our Columnists

Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Co... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George Washington U... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University. Colb tea... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973. Befo... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He has w... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School of L... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is one of the country’s leading church-state scholars and the Fox Professor of Pra... more

David S. Kemp
David S. Kemp

David S. Kemp is an attorney and managing editor at Justia. He received his B.A. in Psychology from... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record... more

Anita Ramasastry
Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of... more

Ronald D. Rotunda
Ronald D. Rotunda

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley Chair and Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence, at... more