Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He has written hundreds of popular essays, dozens of scholarly articles, and six books on constitutional law and related subjects. Professor Dorf blogs at Dorf on Law.

Columns by Michael C. Dorf

Could the Conservative Attack on the Administrative State be Good for Net Neutrality—and for Progressive Regulation More Generally?

Updated:

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf anticipates the possible next steps in the federal government’s lawsuit against California over the state’s new law mandating net neutrality. Dorf explains why, if conservative scholars and Supreme Court justices succeed in what seems to be their goal of weakening federal regulatory agencies, that could ironically be a boon to net neutrality and to government regulation more broadly.

Can a Vegan Win the Presidency?

Updated:

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf considers whether a vegan generally, and New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker specifically, would have a shot of winning the presidency in 2020. Dorf explains how food plays an important role in politics and considers whether the election of a vegan to the highest office in the land is likely to hurt or help the vegan movement.

Trump Can Destroy NAFTA Alone But Cannot Replace It Without Congressional Help

Updated:

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf explains why President Trump can unilaterally undermine NAFTA but cannot act to replace it without help from Congress. Dorf distinguishes treaties from “congressional-executive agreements” (NAFTA is an example of the latter), and he points out that any new agreement Trump seeks to enter with Canada and Mexico that differs in any substantial way from NAFTA can only become effective upon the passage of new legislation by Congress.

The Ongoing Salience of Brett Kavanaugh’s Lurid Memo to Ken Starr

Updated:

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the recently publicized memorandum Brett Kavanaugh wrote in 1998 in the course of his work for Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, who was conducting the investigation of President Bill Clinton. Dorf points out that the sexually explicit questions Kavanaugh proposed in his memo should have been ruled inadmissible under applicable procedural rules. Inspired by Kavanaugh’s own line of questioning, Dorf concludes by proposing a question that he calls upon a senator to ask Judge Kavanaugh during his nomination hearing.

Why I Didn’t Sign the Kennedy Clerks’ Letter Supporting Confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh

Updated:

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf describes why he chose not to join the 72 other former law clerks of Justice Anthony Kennedy who signed a letter urging the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Dorf explains that the letter is at best misleading, and he argues that while a norm of deference may be preferable, that norm no longer exists, and deference to the president’s choice in this age of extreme polarization would amount to unilateral Democratic disarmament.

FDA Plan to Censor “Milk” in Plant-Based Food Names May Violate the First Amendment

Updated:

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf explains why the FDA’s recent announcement that it intends to restrict the word “milk” on food labels may present First Amendment issues. Dorf points to the US Supreme Court’s decision last year in Matal v. Tam—which rejected the Patent and Trademark Office’s denial of a trademark to a band on the ground that the name was offensive—as evidence of the Court’s skepticism about the government making ideological judgments in the grant or denial of rights to exclusive use of a word.

Can State Supreme Courts Protect Liberal Constitutionalism in the Coming Era of Reactionary SCOTUS Jurisprudence?

Updated:

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the suggestion that liberals who are distressed about the impending era of reactionary US Supreme Court jurisprudence should focus efforts on change at the level of state supreme courts. Without discouraging such efforts, Dorf explains why this approach faces significant obstacles, and he argues that anyone concerned about the direction of the Court should not restrict their political activities to judicial elections but engage in organized opposition on multiple fronts.

Silver Linings in an Otherwise Disappointing Travel Ban Ruling

Updated:

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf condemns the Supreme Court’s 5–4 decision upholding President Trump’s travel ban but describes a few silver linings that the ruling contains. Specifically, Dorf points out that the majority left open the possibility of future litigation challenging allegedly unlawful border policies, explicitly overruled its decision in Korematsu v. United States (which upheld the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II), denounced President Trump’s anti-Muslim statements, and served as a clear reminder that We The People can and should hold our elected official accountable for enacting or supporting abominable policies.

Originalism, the Contracts Clause, and the Sveen Case

Updated:

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf argues that the form of originalism typically espoused by scholars—in which constitutional interpretation aims to recover the original public meaning of the text—often ends up being abused in practice. Judges and justices borrow the respectability of public meaning originalism to justify a generally discredited form of originalism that seeks answers in the framers’ and ratifiers’ intentions and expectations. To illustrate this point, Dorf points to Justice Gorsuch’s recent dissent in Sveen v. Melin, which looks not to the text of the Contracts Clause but to what Justice Gorsuch inferred the framers and ratifiers intended and expected.

Far-Reaching Implications of a Narrow Supreme Court Ruling on Tribal Sovereign Immunity

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Upper Skagit Indian Tribe v. Lundgren, but more specifically the implications of Chief Justice Roberts’s concurrence in that case. Dorf argues that the Chief Justice’s concurrence, taken to its logical conclusion, broadly undermines the basis for much of the Court’s case law involving the sovereign immunity of US states.

AT&T’s Hiring of Michael Cohen Was a “Big Mistake,” But Was It More?

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf discusses a statement by AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson calling his company’s decision to hire Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen “a big mistake.” Dorf describes under what circumstances AT&T’s hiring of Cohen would amount to a crime, and under what circumstances his hiring would not only be legal but a corporate obligation. As Dorf explains, the proper classification of the decision requires more information than the public currently has.

Appeals Court Rejects PETA’s “Monkey Selfie” Case

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a recent Ninth Circuit decision rejecting an effort by PETA to bring a copyright lawsuit on behalf of Naruto, a crested macaque. Dorf points out that while the result in that case is unsurprising, the court’s reasoning raises important questions about the role of lawsuits and law more generally in furthering the interests of nonhuman animals.

Judicial Nominee Refuses to Say Whether Brown v. Board Was Rightly Decided

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on an exchange during the confirmation hearing of Wendy Vitter, whom President Trump has nominated for a federal district court judgeship, in which Vitter declined to answer whether she thought Brown v. Board of Education was rightly decided. Dorf points out that Vitter’s refusal to answer that question may have been an attempt to avoid further scrutiny about her views about abortion but also served to inadvertently acknowledge what conservatives routinely deny—that a judge’s “personal, religious, and political” views necessarily interact with the legal materials.

Requiem for Reinhardt, Chief Justice of the Warren Court in Exile

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf writes a tribute to renowned Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who passed away last week. Dorf, who served as law clerk to Judge Reinhardt, extols the late judge’s principled commitment to serving justice without breaking rules and his unusual ability to bring both empathy and reason to everything he did.

Does the Constitution Permit a State to Abolish Marriage?

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf considers whether, in protest of the Supreme Court’s recognition of the constitutional right to same-sex marriage, states can “get out of the marriage business” altogether. Dorf explains that abolishing marriage for everyone likely poses no equal protection issues, and points out some interesting and unique characteristics about marriage as a fundamental right.

Supreme Court Divides Over What a Law Is

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a recent sharply divided decision by the US Supreme Court in Patchak v. Zinke, in which Court considered whether a particular piece of legislation actually constitutes a law. Dorf explains why the issue was so difficult and points out some of the flaws in reasoning by both the plurality and the dissent.

Mass Shootings and the Supreme Court

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf describes the underappreciated role of the US Supreme Court in shaping public opinion and discussion of gun regulations. Specifically, Dorf explains that the Court's seminal decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago have symbolic importance beyond their literal holdings, giving gun rights proponents strong rhetoric, though not strong legal basis, for an absolutist position.

The Meaning of Trump’s Plan to Keep Gitmo Open

Updated:

Cornell University Michael C. Dorf explains the symbolism of President Donald Trump's announcement during his State of the Union address that he would be keeping the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay open. Dorf points out that despite the extraordinarily high cost of keeping the facility open, Republicans support its continued operation simply as repudiation of President Obama, who wanted to close it. Dorf points out that Republicans' opposition to closing Gitmo during the Obama presidency also jibed with the not-so-veiled racism of many Republicans who questioned Obama's citizenship and commitment to the US (disregarding the fact that President Bush actually released more Gitmo detainees than President Obama did).

Travel Ban 3.0 Heads to the Supreme Court: Win or Lose the Battle, the Resistance is Winning the War

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf argues that regardless of the outcome of President Trump's "Travel Ban 3.0" before the US Supreme Court, the litigation challenging the Travel Ban should be regarded as a victory over Trump's effort to rule by diktat. In support of this argument, Dorf points out that the litigation makes it abundantly clear to the American people that Trump remains every ounce the same vile and petty would-be tyrant that he appeared on the campaign trail.

Two (But Only Two) Jeers for Enforcing the Federal Marijuana Law in Legalized States

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the recent announcement by Attorney General Sessions that the Trump Department of Justice was rescinding an Obama administration policy toward state-legal marijuana. Dorf argues that the policy shift breaks promises by then-candidate Trump and then-Senator Sessions, but that objections to the new policy on federalism grounds are largely misguided.