Analysis and Commentary on Constitutional Law

Assessing Texas Governor Rick Perry as a 2012 Presidential Candidate: Part One in an Ongoing Series on the Likely Candidates and Their Views on Religion

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Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton begins her series on likely 2012 presidential candidates and their views on religion. Here, Hamilton assesses the views of Texas Governor Rick Perry. She expresses concern, in particular, with Perry’s lack of belief in the separation of church and state, as exemplified by his speeches; finds in Perry’s record a belief that religion should drive politics; and questions Perry’s claimed beliefs in small government and in federalism.

Armed and Crazy: Should Mentally Ill People Be Permitted to Own Firearms?

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Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb contends that laws broadly preventing certain mentally ill persons from possessing firearms may not be as obviously a good idea as they might seem at first glance. Currently, Colb explains, there is a federal law—passed in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings—to simplify the identification and tracking of persons who have previously been committed to a mental hospital, and who have therefore been divested of their right to possess firearms; those rights, though, can later be restored. Interestingly, though, Colb notes that in other contexts, members of certain groups (such as men) may be statistically far more likely than their counterparts (such as women) to commit gun violence, and yet, are allowed to carry guns nonetheless. Colb also points out that certain types of mental illness, which might lead to commitment to a mental hospital, are not connected to gun violence at all, yet still are swept in by the law.

“Respect” or “Defend” Marriage? The Senate Considers a Bill to Repeal the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA): Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

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Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman continues her two-part series of columns critiquing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—which was recently the subject of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. As Grossman notes, a bill is now pending that would reverse DOMA to the extent that DOMA defines marriage, for federal law purposes, as a union between one man and one woman. She describes the varied, pending litigation related to DOMA, and considers some of the reasons DOMA has garnered complaint and opposition: Critics say it imposes unfair disadvantages on married gay couples, and many have observed that DOMA has spawned a bureaucratic nightmare.

Preventing the Next Crisis: What We Must Do to Maintain the Public’s Confidence in the Financial System

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan suggests how, in the future, we can ensure that the debt limit is not, once again, used as a political weapon. He discusses three key solutions: (1) simply eliminating the debt limit via a presidential directive incorporating a Fourteenth Amendment analysis, as The New York Times suggested; (2) and following one of Yale Law professor Jack Balkin’s two suggestions, which are nicknamed “Big Coin” and “Exploding Option.” Buchanan provides background to ensure that readers fully understand each suggestion, and points out a downside to Balkin’s ideas: the public’s confidence in money and the monetary system may turn out to be fragile, if the system is experimented with.

The Debt Ceiling Crisis Reveals a Constitutional Gap: How to Choose Among Unconstitutional Options

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Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on what may happen if the debt-ceiling deal that President Obama announced on Sunday, August 31, is somehow derailed—or if (as is almost certain to be the case) future Presidents face constitutional-law issues that are philosophically similar to the one President Obama may have narrowly avoided here. In discussing the debt-ceiling issue and its constitutional dimensions, Dorf describes the trilemma the President may face; raises the question whether the constitutionality of a measure must be an either/or proposition or if there are intermediate options of a measure's being, say, “very unconstitutional” or “a little unconstitutional”; and describes America’s historic hostility to balancing different constitutional values against one another.

All Roads Lead to Accountability

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Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci A. Hamilton urges that the Catholic Church urgently needs to take responsibility—and foster an ethic of accountability—regarding clergy child-sex-abuse cases. In describing the path that she argues the Church must take, Hamilton compliments a recent speech by Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, and a book by Jason Berry on money and the Church. As she explains, these writings, too, call for responsibility and accountability from the Church, and for the enforcement of civil law by the courts, in clergy child-sex-abuse cases.

Why Suppress Illegally Obtained Evidence? The U.S. Supreme Court Decides Davis v. United States

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Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb clarifies for readers one of the most complicated issues within the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence: the suppression of evidence that the police have obtained illegally. Colb focuses, in particular, on a case decided during the past Supreme Court term that presented a thorny question: If police follow appellate court precedent while performing a search, but the Supreme Court later reverses that very precedent, was the search legal (because appellate case law authorized it at the time) or illegal (because the Court decided later that the appeals court had erred)? In addition to discussing this issue, Colb also focuses on a number of major Court decisions in the area, to shed light on the evolution of Court doctrine.

“Respect” or “Defend” Marriage? The Senate Considers a Bill to Repeal the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA): Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

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In the first in a two-part series of columns about the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on the origins of DOMA; the reason DOMA did not have any practical implications until 2004; and why, even now, Section Two of DOMA has had no real effect. In Part Two of the series, Grossman will go on to consider Section Three of DOMA, which has had serious real-life implications, for it says that same-sex marriages cannot be recognized for any federal purpose.

When Do Message-Board Rants Count as Illegal Threats Against a Presidential Candidate? The Issue That Caused a Ninth Circuit Panel to Split, 2-1

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Justia columnist, attorney, and author Julie Hilden comments on a recent, split decision from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. As Hilden explains, the case involved the “true threats” doctrine, which determines when a statement is an illegal threat, and when it is protected by the First Amendment. The defendant’s message-board postings about then-candidate Obama were ominous, but were they full-fledged threats under the legal test? Hilden explains why two Ninth Circuit judges said no, but one said yes.

The Sixth Circuit’s Big Rulings on Obamacare and Affirmative Action: The Second in a Two-Part Series of Columns

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Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram David Amar completes his two-part series of columns on two key decisions from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. His last column focused on the Circuit’s Obamacare ruling; this one focuses on the Circuit’s ruling on an issue relating to affirmative action. Amar describes two different lines of Supreme Court precedent that offer different ways of analyzing affirmative action cases, and considers the possibility that the Court will take the opportunity—by reviewing this or another lower-court decision—to clean up apparent tensions between these two lines of High Court cases.

Sister Wives: An Illustration of Why Polygamy Is, and Should Be, Illegal

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Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on the reality television show Sister Wives and the litigation that is connected to it. The family depicted on Sister Wives—consisting of one man, four “wives,” and 16 children—fled Utah to avoid potential bigamy charges. (Nevada’s bigamy law defines the offense in a less restrictive way than Utah’s does.) Now, the family’s lawyer, Jonathan Turley, is challenging Utah’s law as unconstitutional. Hamilton contends, to the contrary, that the law is perfectly constitutional, and explains the history of the law and the related precedent in support of her argument.

The Constitutionality of Senator McConnell’s “Last-Choice Option” for Averting Default

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Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf weighs in on the debate over whether Senator Mitch McConnell’s plan to prevent the federal government from defaulting on its obligations is constitutional. Dorf explains McConnell’s plan and analyzes three possible constitutional objections to it, concluding that none of these objections is, in the end, persuasive. Indeed, Dorf suggests that the more closely one looks at the plan, the more clear it is that it should be a first choice among possible solutions.

The Reality Show Sister Wives: Will Its Stars Prevail in Their Civil Rights Lawsuit?

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Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman covers the bigamy case that may soon arise from the reality TV show Sister Wives. As Grossman explains, the family at issue consists of a man, his four wives (one via legal marriage, and three via “spiritual marriage”) and his sixteen children and stepchildren. The family fled from Utah to Nevada to evade possible bigamy charges from Utah authorities. Grossman contrasts the bigamy laws of the two states, and considers whether the Supreme Court precedent of Lawrence v. Texas—the 2003 case where the Supreme Court held that the constitutional right of privacy includes a right of adults to enter into consensual, intimate relationships without interference from the state—protects bigamists.

Bryant v. Michigan and the Supreme Court’s Failed Approach to the Confrontation Clause

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Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb discusses a Supreme Court case from earlier this year concerning the Constitution's Confrontation Clause, which guarantees the right to confront one's accuser. She also, and more broadly, comments on the ongoing difficulties within the Court's Confrontation Clause jurisprudence as it has evolved over the years—difficulties that she argues call for important doctrinal revisions. Colb notes that the Court has read the confrontation right to confer an entitlement to cross-examine testifying witnesses, and that the right can apply to some out-of-court statements, as well—due to a rule with a rationale rooted in the early, troubling precedent of Sir Walter Raleigh's Case. Colb also makes clear the relationship between confronting one's accuser and the admission of hearsay in court.

The Debt Ceiling Law Is Unconstitutional: A Reply to Professor Tribe

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan responds to a recent New York Times editorial by Laurence Tribe regarding the constitutionality of the federal government's debt ceiling. Tribe contended that the limit is constitutional; Buchanan contends that it is not. In his column, Buchanan summarizes and responds to Tribe's arguments regarding the key constitutional provision at issue, the Public Debt Clause.

The Sixth Circuit’s Big Rulings on Obamacare and Affirmative Action: The First in a Two-Part Series of Columns

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Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram Amar begins a two-part series on two important recent rulings by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, both of which may end up before the Supreme Court. In this first column, Amar comments on the Sixth Circuit ruling that upheld Obamacare—citing a number of factors that make the decision noteworthy. These factors include a conservative judge's vote to uphold Obamacare; that same judge's use of broad reasoning in doing so; the fact that the dissenter was a district court judge; the decision's timing; and the arguments the two judges in the majority could have made, but declined to make, in support of the statute.

The Debt-Limit Crisis: A Problem That Will Keep Coming Back Unless President Obama Takes a Constitutional Stand Now

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Justia columnist, George Washington University law professor, and economist Neil H. Buchanan comments on the current situation regarding the federal debt limit, considers how it could be resolved, and notes that President Obama could take a constitutional stand in order to resolve the impasse. Buchanan begins by explaining for readers what the debt limit is and why it is important now; explains why the debt-limit law that set the ceiling was never necessary in the first place; describes the potentially very grave consequences of passing the debt-limit ceiling with that law in place, as it is now; and contends that our current game of political “chicken” regarding the debt limit is dangerous indeed. He then describes a possible constitutional solution that President Obama could opt for, based on arguments that the debt limit is illegitimate and void as a matter of constitutional law. Finally, Buchanan explains why, even if the debt limit were to be removed from the picture, an underlying, related problem with the political process would still remain.

Who Could Oppose a Level Playing Field? The Supreme Court, That’s Who

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Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the Supreme Court's recent, 5-4 decision in Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett. Dorf explains the Arizona campaign finance system at issue, which the Court struck down, and comments generally on the Court's approach to campaign finance, which he argues leaves loopholes that millionaire candidates can easily exploit. Dorf also explains the difference between "leveling up," where less wealthy candidates receive public money, and "leveling down," where wealthier candidates are limited in what they can spend – and notes how the Court has ruled on both approaches to campaign finance.

A Disingenuous Dissent: The U.S. Supreme Court Says a Suspect’s Youth Is Relevant to Miranda Rights

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Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on the Supreme Court's recent, 5-4 decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina. There, the Court held that when police interrogate a suspect under the age of eighteen, the suspect’s youth bears on the question whether he was in “custody” at the time-- and was therefore entitled to hear the Miranda warnings before questioning began. Colb discusses the role of custody and interrogation in Miranda's protections, and explains the arguments that the majority and dissenting Justices marshaled to justify their respective positions. In addition, she contends that the dissenters in the case -- four conservative Justices -- essentially opined as they did due to a fundamental dislike for Miranda itself, rather than due to the wish that they cited for greater certainty and clarity in Miranda's application.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling on “Violent” Video Games: The Majority Opinion, and the Dissents

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Justia columnist, attorney, and author Julie Hilden comments on the Supreme Court's decision yesterday, June 27, in the "violent" video games case. The Court decided, 7-2, to strike down California's law restricting minors' access to such games. Hilden explains the logic behind the opinion of the Court, written by Justice Scalia; contends that California made a mistake in framing its video-game law the way it did; and explains why Justice Breyer saw the case as more about the protection of children than about First Amendment rights, and accordingly dissented.

Meet our Columnists

Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately prior to taking the position at Illinois, Amar served as the Senior Assoc... more

Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George Washington University. He teaches tax law and tax policy, and he has taught contract law, law and economics, and... more

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 a... more

John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973. Before becoming White House counsel at age thirty-one, he was the chief minority counsel to the Judiciar... more

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 four books on constitutional la... more

Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School of Law.  She is an expert in sex discrimination law. Her most recent book,  more

Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is one of the country’s leading church-state scholars and the Fox Professor of Practice and Fox Family Pavilion Resident Senior Fellow in the Program for Research on Religion in the... more

David S. Kemp

David S. Kemp is an attorney and managing editor at Justia. He received his B.A. in Psychology from Rice University and his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Boalt Hall)... more

Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record in Rasul v. Bush (2004), involving detentions at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, and in more

Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, where she also directs the graduate program on Sustainable International Developmen... more

Ronald D. Rotunda

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley Chair and Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence, at Chapman University, Fowler School of Law. He joined the faculty in 2008. Before that, he was Univ... more