Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in constitutional criminal procedure, evidence, and animal rights. She has published articles in a variety of law reviews, including Stanford, Columbia, N.Y.U., and G.W., on such topics as privacy from police searches, incarceration, reproductive rights, and why courts are more offended by wrongdoing that results in concrete rather than abstract harm. Colb has also published a book about sex equality in the Twenty-First Century, entitled When Sex Counts, and a book about veganism entitled Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger?. Before beginning her career in law teaching, Colb clerked for Judge Wilfred Feinberg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and Justice Harry A. Blackmun of the U.S. Supreme Court. She received her J.D. magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and her A.B. summa cum laude and valedictorian from Columbia College.

Columns by Sherry F. Colb

Some Reflections on the Texas Pre-Abortion Ultrasound Law, a Year After Its Passage: Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

Updated:

In the first in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb considers the constitutionality of the Texas law, enacted about a year ago, requiring abortion providers to (1) perform an ultrasound on a patient seeking an abortion; (2) expose the patient to the resulting visual ultrasound image, as well as any extant fetal heart sounds; and (3) provide an explanation of the embryo or fetus as pictured on the screen. Colb focuses especially on the question whether a law mandating ultrasounds, as the Texas law does, imposes a burden on women that is qualitatively different from the burdens that the U.S. Supreme Court has already approved in the context of abortion, which express a pro-childbirth value judgment.

Iowa Passes an “Ag-gag” Law: The Power and Limits of Free Speech

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on “ag-gag” laws, which prohibit people from gaining entry into, or employment in, an agricultural production facility, including an animal agriculture facility, under false pretenses. Colb notes that Iowa recently passed such a law, and that North Dakota, Montana, and Kansas also have such laws. Colb argues that the laws are aimed at concealing the true facts about how animals are treated in such facilities, because of the fear that if consumers knew the truth of the cruelty that is perpetrated there, they might change their eating habits. Supporters of that view see those who enter these facilities knowing they will convey information about them to the outside world as undercover reporters and whistleblowers, while the animal industries see them merely as trespassers. Colb details ways in which consumers are misled or misinformed about animal agriculture, suggesting that there is a need for undercover reportage so that the truth can be known. For instance, she explains how milk production entails slaughter, contrary to popular opinion, and not just on factory farms. Colb questions, though, whether consumers really want to know a truth that could complicate their lives with new ethical questions leading to possible dietary changes, and whether if consumers do learn that truth, they will really change their behavior. Colb also examines why humans may not feel empathy for animals, citing the coping strategies that often accompany humans’ acceptance of systematic violence, including violence toward other humans.

How the Government May, and May Not, Punish People’s Thoughts and Words

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on instances in which the criminal law punishes people’s thoughts and/or words instead of—or in addition to—their acts, despite the First Amendment’s protections for speech and thought. Colb analyzes the uneasy relationship between criminal and civil litigation, on one hand, and guarantees of free speech, on the other. She also covers the categories of speech that the Supreme Court has deemed unprotected by the First Amendment. Moreover, Colb notes that it is perfectly constitutional to use a person’s words as evidence of what he or she has done, or is planning. In addition, Colb describes the subtle answer to the question of whether limits on free thought can constitutionally be imposed, for thought is the essence of culpability. Finally, she concludes by describing the permissible use of evidence of thoughts in determining what may be deemed a hate crime (as well as what may be deemed a violation of discrimination law).

“Stand Your Ground” Laws and Competing Visions of “Fight or Flight” in the Real World

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb addresses several legal questions that have arisen in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, such as what do “Stand Your Ground” laws really mean, and what vision of reality do these laws reflect? Colb begins her analysis by explaining related criminal law concepts such as the duty to retreat, and the “castle doctrine,” which holds that one need not retreat in one’s own home. She then explains the idea behind “Stand Your Ground” laws: They operate to protect an individual’s liberty to lawfully occupy a place, in the face of threats, and even in the face of an ultimatum from an attacker who announces that one must leave or die. Using hypothetical examples, Colb explains the difference that an “SYG” law could make in a potentially deadly confrontation, noting that almost half the states have such laws. She also uses an imaginative hypothetical regarding a person who does not know he has a deadly, communicable disease to illustrate the role that the assailant’s culpability takes in “Stand Your Ground” situations. Finally, Colb explains why she herself ultimately opposes “Stand Your Ground” laws.

Why Interrogation in Jail May Not Count as “Custodial”: The Supreme Court Makes New Law in Howes v. Fields Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

Updated:

In Part Two in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her analysis of an important recent Supreme Court decision, Howes v. Fields, regarding the right to be read one’s Miranda rights—the familiar set of rights that begins with “You have the right to remain silent.” In Part One, Colb focused on a set of Supreme Court precedents that are relevant to the Howes case. Here, in Part Two, Colb takes on the case that is arguably the most relevant of all to Howes: Maryland v. Shatzer. Shatzer, as Colb explains, concerns what implications a “break in custody” might have for Miranda purposes, and whether such a “break in custody” can occur while a person is incarcerated. Colb goes on to explain and critique the Howes Court’s approach to related Miranda issues. She takes sharp issue, in particular, with what she characterizes as a deeply unrealistic view of prisoners’ lives in prison, on the part of the Court.

Why Interrogation in Jail May Not Count as “Custodial”: The Supreme Court Makes New Law in Howes v. Fields Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

Updated:

In Part One in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on an important recent Supreme Court decision, Howes v. Fields, regarding the right to be read one’s Miranda rights—the familiar set of rights that begins with “You have the right to remain silent.” As Colb explains, Fields sets forth the law regarding Miranda in the context of the interrogation of persons who are already incarcerated. In this column, Colb explains the facts and outcomes of the prior Supreme Court Miranda precedents that proved relevant in Fields. In both parts of the series, she takes strong issue with the Court’s reasoning in the Fields decision—in part because she argues that the Court has a very unrealistic view of the realities of prison.

Donor Chains and the Legality of Compensating Kidney Donors: Critically Assessing Our Moral Intuitions

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a recent practice that has made a larger number of compatible kidneys available to those who need them: the “donor chain.” As Colb explains, donor chains allow pairs of people—one person who is willing to donate a kidney, and another who is in need of a kidney (but not immunologically compatible with the intended donor)—to become links in a chain of such pairs, and thus to each receive compatible kidneys. Indeed, through such a chain, willing and compatible donors may be found for each would-be recipient on the chain. There is no question that these chains save lives, but Colb notes that many more lives would be saved if, in addition to allowing donor chains, we also allowed people to sell their kidneys to those who need them. Thus, she considers the rationales for banning kidney sales—while pointing out that people with one kidney typically live as long as those with two. In the end, Colb asks whether it really makes sense for federal law to allow donor chains, but not to allow kidney sales—using a hypothetical where the would-be kidney seller himself needs the money urgently to cover a loved one’s health care needs.

The Supreme Court Decides the GPS Case, United States v. Jones, and the Fourth Amendment Evolves: Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

Updated:

In Part Two in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her commentary on the Supreme Court’s recent GPS (Global Positioning System) decision, which concerned the scope of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. As Colb explains, the Court was unanimous regarding the decision’s result: The police had, indeed, performed a Fourth Amendment search or seizure by—without a warrant—attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s car, and then using the device to monitor the car's movements over a four-week period. Yet, as Colb points out, the Court was divided as to the reason for the result, offering two alternative rationales for the case's outcome. Here, in Part Two, Colb explains why Justices Scalia and Alito—both deemed to be conservative—nevertheless differed regarding what the proper rationale for the Court’s unanimous ruling ought to be. Colb argues that Justice Alito’s rationale is the more compelling of the two.

The Supreme Court Decides the GPS Case, United States v. Jones, and the Fourth Amendment Evolves: Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

Updated:

In Part One in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on the Supreme Court's recent GPS (Global Positioning System) decision, which concerned the scope of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. As Colb explains, the Court was unanimous regarding the decision’s result: The police had, indeed, performed a Fourth Amendment search or seizure by—without a warrant—attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s car, and using the device to monitor the car's movements over a four-week period. Interestingly, though, Colb points out that the Court was divided as to the reason for the result—offering two alternative rationales for the case’s outcome. Here, in Part One, Colb explains the seminal precedent of Katz v. United States, and other key Fourth Amendment precedents, including one that involved tracking a car with a beeper device. In Part Two, appearing here on Justia’s Verdict next Wednesday, February 15, Colb will consider why this case divided Justices Scalia and Alito.

Governor Cuomo Urges New York Constitutional Amendment Legalizing Casino Gambling: Good Idea or Serious Mistake?

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposed amendment to the New York State Constitution, which would legalize casino gambling. Even Cuomo’s father, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, opposes the measure. But is he correct to do so? Colb notes the common argument that casino gambling is, in effect, a regressive tax—that is, one that disproportionately burdens less affluent people. However, she argues that for many people—putting gambling addicts aside—gambling is simply another form of entertainment. And for someone with a modest income, Colb points out, many forms of entertainment—for instance, going to the movies—could also be seen as effectively imposing a regressive tax on those who are of modest means, but still opt to participate. She also contends that since many bans on enjoyable activities have, over history, been based on religious motivations, it is worth looking skeptically at such bans when they still exist today. A key question needs to be asked, Colb says: Is a gambling ban like New York’s meant to protect would-be gamblers’ pocketbooks (a permissible objective), or to save their souls (an impermissible objective)? Colb also notes that those who are addicted to an activity are likely to avail themselves of illegal alternatives, rather than abiding by a ban—rendering a ban potentially futile, and regulation a wiser choice.

Why Can’t Jurors Distinguish “Knowing” From “Reckless” Misconduct?

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a recent study—reported in The National Law Journal and described in greater detail in the NYU Law Review—that showed that jurors in criminal cases have trouble distinguishing between “knowing” and “reckless” states of mind. Colb contends that the fault here likely lies not with the jurors, but with the criminal law itself—which, she contends, is ambiguous in important ways when it comes to defining “knowing” and “reckless” states of mind. Colb notes that jurors do not seem to have much trouble understanding two other criminal law states of mind: “purpose” and “negligence,” the definitions of which do not display the same kind of ambiguity. She then details the ambiguities that plague the definitions of “knowing” and “reckless” states of mind. Colb calls upon legislatures to resolve those ambiguities by better defining these states of mind in their criminal statutes—and by doing so in such a way that jurors will readily understand the definitions. Colb points out that as long as these states of mind’s definitions remain ambiguous for jurors, the criminal law will be unfair: Based on the way the jury resolves the ambiguity in applying the law, two defendants who committed identical acts may still face radically different sentences.

A New York Woman Is Arrested for Self-Induced Abortion: What Does This Tell Us About Abortion Law?

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a little-known but significant feature of New York abortion law: It defines self-induced (and other) abortion as a crime, when the woman at issue has been pregnant for more than 24 weeks (the estimated time of fetal viability), unless an abortion is necessary to save the woman’s life. This pre-Roe law was applied recently when New York authorities arrested a woman who allegedly had completed a self-induced abortion, using an abortion tea, when she was 25 weeks pregnant. (She was arrested after a building superintendent reportedly found the dead fetus in a trashcan.) In analyzing the New York law at issue, Colb also discusses relevant background regarding the constitutional, legal, and moral status of the right to terminate a pregnancy. Among other points, Colb notes that New York’s law may prove counterproductive, in that it deters women from seeking emergency care related to a post-viability self-induced abortion, for fear that revealing the abortion to healthcare providers will lead to prosecution. She also points out that it is odd that the woman in question is being charged under the anti-self-inducement law in particular, when at the time the abortion occurred, any kind of abortion would have been illegal, unless it was necessary to save the woman’s life. Colb looks to New York’s unique take on abortion—an approach that differs from those of both the pro-life and pro-choice movements—to provide an explanation for its unusual law.

Why Girls Under Seventeen Need a Prescription to Buy the Morning After Pill

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on regulations regarding the “morning after pill,” a form of emergency contraception that is only available by prescription to girls under seventeen—despite a recent recommendation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that it be made available over the counter (OTC) to girls of that age. The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Kathleen Sebelius, overruled the recommendation, but was she right to do so? Colb explains how the morning after pill works; explains how the brains of young girls differ from those of older girls and women; offers a hypothetical to illustrate what may happen if young girls cannot access the OTC morning after pill; considers whether parents’ interests should come into play here; discusses the argument that this kind of OTC contraception is a form of abortion and its relevance or lack thereof; and expresses deep disappointment if this decision by the Obama Administration was at base a political choice.

The U.S. Supreme Court Takes Up The Eighth Amendment and Juvenile Killers: Is Life Without Parole Too Severe?

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on two criminal law cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court has granted review. As Colb explains, the two cases together raise the following question: Does the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishments ban prohibit mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for homicide offenses committed by fourteen-year-olds? In one case, the fourteen-year-old had suffered years of abuse and neglect, as well as severe poverty. In the other case, the fourteen-year-old apparently learned only on the way to a planned robbery that one of his accomplices was carrying a gun, and it was the accomplice who committed murder during the robbery, not the fourteen-year-old. (The fourteen-year-old was thus only charged with murder under the “felony murder” doctrine, based on his participation in a robbery that led to murder.) Colb explains that, in these two cases, the Court will need to consider the relationships among three relevant factors: (1) the capacity of an offender to behave morally; (2) the wrongfulness of the offender’s behavior; and (3) the harmful consequences of the offender’s actions. She describes the relevant prior Supreme Court precedents regarding juvenile offenders and other criminal law topics, and raises intriguing questions such as whether youth itself should be a mitigating factor to be taken into account in sentencing, in light of young teens’ demonstrably poor impulse control and susceptibility to pressure from others. Colb also covers the sentencing concepts of proportionality and discretion, and explains how they relate to these two cases. In addition, she describes—and, to some extent, challenges—the Supreme Court's “Death is different” jurisprudence, which singles out the death penalty for special notice despite the tremendous severity of an LWOP sentence, and the failure of an LWOP sentence to leave the offender hope for the future.

Cavazos v. Smith: The Supreme Court Preserves the Chain of Command by Returning a Grandmother to Prison

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb offers an interesting perspective on the controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Cavazos v. Smith. There, the High Court summarily reversed a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit had granted a writ of habeas corpus to a grandmother who had been convicted—based on questionable evidence—of killing her grandson by shaking him violently. In her column, Colb focuses on two key issues that the case raised: (1) the extreme deference to state courts demanded by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA); and (2) the Supreme Court’s limited role in reviewing decisions of the lower courts. Colb also explains why there may be genuine doubts here as to the guilt of the grandmother. For instance, she points out that medical knowledge in the years between the trial and today has cast doubt on the prosecution experts’ conclusions ruling out innocent explanations of the autopsy evidence. The Supreme Court, however, seems to have believed that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in ruling for Smith, was substituting its own judgment for that of the jury—leading the High Court to summarily reverse the habeas corpus grant.

What Purpose Does the Double Jeopardy Clause Serve?: The U.S. Supreme Court Grants Review in Blueford v. Arkansas

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a double jeopardy case that the Supreme Court will hear during this coming term. As readers may know, the Constitution’s Double Jeopardy Clause provides, “nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” The Clause’s application is simple in some scenarios—for instance, if a defendant is tried for murder and acquitted, and yet the very same prosecutor then brings the same murder charges against the same defendant again. However, Colb points out that the double jeopardy case that the Court will address is far from simple. There, the question is whether the Double Jeopardy Clause applies to the following scenario: A defendant’s jury has announced to the judge that it cannot reach a verdict on a lesser included offense, but it has also voted unanimously to find the defendant “Not guilty” of two greater offenses. (A lesser included offense is a less serious version of another, greater offense.) The judge refused to allow the two “Not guilty” verdicts to be recorded, and declared a mistrial. Can the defendant then be re-tried on the greater offenses? Colb considers this interesting and complicated constitutional question.

Barbara Sheehan and The “Battered Woman’s Defense”: Must Domestic Violence Be Imminent to Justify Self-Defense?

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a recent case in which a Queens, New York, woman named Barbara Sheehan was acquitted of second-degree murder on the ground that she had acted in self-defense. It was undisputed that Sheehan shot her husband, but the shooting had followed a history of domestic violence he had inflicted upon her. With her two children’s support, Sheehan successful raised the “battered woman’s defense.” In this column, Colb—who, in addition to teaching criminal law and procedure, has had experience with assisting battered women—contends that the Sheehan jury reached the right verdict—arguing that it would be unrealistic to only apply the battered woman’s defense when the woman in question reacts to her battering directly after it occurs. In explaining her position, Colb analyzes the reasons for both the law’s duty of retreat, and its imminence requirement.

Mississippi Initiative 26: The Significance of Saying That a “Person” Exists From Conception to Death

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a Mississippi initiative that aims to amend the state’s constitution. If passed, the initiative would define a “person” to “include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” The law, Colb notes, plainly clashes with Supreme Court precedent, by banning abortion even very early on in a pregnancy. However, Colb focuses, instead, on how the initiative raises the question of who is a person—arguing that this question only muddies the debate over abortion. She contends that there are two key debates about abortion: a factual debate about embryonic and fetal development, and a moral debate about the consequences of those facts (many of which are well established) for the law. Using the word “person,” Colb contends, might make the speaker seem as if he or she is stating a fact, but really should be characterized as reflecting the speaker’s normative point of view, whether it is pro-life or pro-choice—and thus, confuses the debate. To illustrate the point, Colb gives examples of several ways in which using the word “person” mixes moral and factual points and clouds clear thinking. She also points out that rhetorical problems here are not limited to the pro-life side, pointing out that it also clouds debate to refer to abortion as merely “health-care” as some pro-choice advocates do.

One Way or Another, I’m Gonna Find Ya: The U.S. Supreme Court Considers Whether GPS Tracking of Suspects’ Cars Requires a Search Warrant

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on United States v. Jones, a case that the Supreme Court will hear this year, and that The New York Times called “the most important Fourth Amendment case in a decade.” The case raises the question whether police who track a suspect’s movements over time, via a global positioning system (GPS) device, intrude on the suspect’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. Colb covers an earlier High Court precedent involving the older police practice of putting a “beeper” in a container before a suspect loads the container into his vehicle, and then following the beeper’s trail, but she explains why that scenario is very different from the use of GPS. Colb also connects the GPS case, Jones, to the interesting concept of “innocent privacy”—that is, the privacy of innocent people, and everyone’s privacy vis-à-vis the innocent but personal parts of their lives. In addition, Colb contrasts the likely Fourth Amendment statuses of GPS location information versus cellphone location information, which is now frequently procured without a warrant.

The U.S. Supreme Court Considers the Constitutionality of Unreliable Eyewitness Identifications: Does a Lack of Police Misconduct Rule Out a Due Process Claim?

Updated:

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a fascinating criminal procedure case that the U.S. Supreme Court will resolve during this coming term. The case, Perry v. New Hampshire, will answer the following question: If an eyewitness first identifies a perpetrator under highly suggestive circumstances that seriously compromise the reliability of the identification, but the police did not orchestrate those circumstances, should a court then exclude the identification evidence? Or, stated differently, is police misconduct necessary to the successful due process exclusion of unduly suggestive eyewitness identification evidence? Colb explains the reasons why we might—and might not—require police misconduct before this type of constitutional claim may be made, and notes that the issue here is of great importance, as empirical research has now exposed the central role of mistaken eyewitness identifications in wrongful convictions. Colb also makes a case that, in the end, the best resolution here may be to inform jurors of the problems with suggestive identifications, and then simply have them evaluate such identifications accordingly, as they do with other unreliable evidence.