Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean describes and comments on the process by which former President Richard Nixon’s previously sealed grand jury testimony (along with related materials) was revealed in July 2011—a process in which Dean himself played a key role. Dean gives great credit for the unsealing both to Public Citizen's Litigation Group, headed by Allison Zieve, which took the case; and Judge Royce Lamberth, who made the ruling that led the grand jury testimony and related materials to become public—as had occurred earlier in famous cases such as those of the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss, based on the rulings of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Dean also notes that this, and other material that is still being transcribed, encompass the last real secrets of Watergate.
Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on the Supreme Court’s decision this week in a case that pitted First Amendment religious freedom rights against the rights set forth in federal anti-discrimination law. In the case, a woman who worked for a church as a teacher was fired after taking a medical leave, and sought to invoke her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But because she was a “called” teacher, with some religious responsibilities, the church argued that her firing was within its discretion, under the First Amendment’s religion clauses. The Supreme Court ultimately agreed, but as Hamilton explains, the Court issued a narrow decision that still leaves a host of related questions unanswered. Hamilton covers the “parade of horribles” that was raised, but that the Court declined to address in its decision. She also identifies the decision’s bottom line: Courts cannot constitutionally establish selection criteria for clergy.
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.
Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on a New Jersey decision regarding surrogacy. Grossman explains why the surrogacy agreement at issue was ruled to be unenforceable by the New Jersey court; how a custody dispute arose after the two babies that the surrogate had carried were born; the factors that were legally relevant to that dispute; and the reasons why the court, in the end, awarded sole custody to the babies’ biological father. As Grossman notes, the case is of interest not only as a significant precedent regarding the increasingly common practice of surrogacy, but also due to its unusual facts, which pitted a gay couple against a woman who believes homosexuality is sinful.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, rejecting a First Amendment claim by the owner of two pen-pal services, which seek to circulate lists of inmates to persons interested in becoming their pen pals, and vice-versa; and of a website on which inmates may solicit pen-pals via advertisements. The case arose when the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) banned inmates from soliciting pen-pals, except through a process of one-to-one matching. Hilden argues that, even under the lax First Amendment test that applies to prison restrictions—under which only a rational relationship to penological purposes is required, for a regulation to be upheld—the prison’s rules still do not hold water. She contends that, without any specific evidence of problems within FDOC relating to inmate pen-pal-solicitation fraud, the Eleventh Circuit should—like the Ninth Circuit before it—have rejected the rule for lacking a proper evidentiary basis.
Justia columnist Vikram David Amar and Justia guest columnist Alan Brownstein, both U.C., Davis law professors, begin their series of columns on the Second Amendment and how courts have interpreted it, with a special focus on the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. One of their key points is that Second Amendment doctrine needs to be developed and particularized in a number of ways, but that the Supreme Court has not given lower courts much guidance in this area of constitutional law. Though the Court has twice addressed the Second Amendment in recent years, it has left many questions open. With Election 2012 coming up, moreover, Amar and Brownstein point out that Second Amendment doctrine may become a political, as well as a constitutional-law, issue. In Heller, they explain, the Supreme Court made clear that there is an individual constitutional right to keep and bear arms, at least under some circumstances, but it is quite unclear where the Supreme Court and lower courts will go from there. Describing Second Amendment doctrine as a work in progress, Amar and Brownstein provide guidance on some of the questions that are likely to arise in the future.
Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan comments on the state of college football, and how it can be improved. Buchanan argues that what is needed is not a movement toward more professionalism in sports, as some have suggested, but rather measures that would both ensure that college athletes do not face serious physical injury (and are taken care of, physically and financially, if they do), and also guarantee that players truly receive the college education that is supposed to come along with their admission. In addition to putting forward his own proposals, Buchanan also considers Taylor Branch’s analysis of the issue in The Atlantic, and Joe Nocera’s commentary on it in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.
Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean continues his series about cyberbullying and harassment on Twitter. In this installment, Part Two in the ongoing series, Dean comments on possible ways to end and/or punish Twitter bullying. Dean notes that the large majority of Twitter users are friendly and amicable, but points out that there are also a few malcontents on Twitter. These users, he explains, engage in calculated efforts to hurt, embarrass, falsely discredit, or defame others, based on their beliefs or Tweets. How should peaceable Twitter users deal with the troublemakers in their midst? Dean offers interesting advice—based in part on Twitter's own rules and its recommendations for dealing with bullies, and in part on the possibility of invoking outside avenues to address the problem.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the potential uses of social networking information in the insurance industry. She notes that if, for instance, a person’s Facebook photos contradict information that the person has told his or her insurer, trouble may result. Ramasastry gives examples such as a claimed non-drinker whose Facebook photos reveal heavy drinking, or a claimed non-smoker who is pictured on Facebook smoking. She notes that when fraud is already suspected by an insurance company, some companies consider it fair game to then check the insured’s social media. Moreover, Ramasastry reports that the next wave of the use of social media in the insurance sector may well involve underwriters, who may begin using such media to create risk profiles of potential insureds. She describes Deloitte’s approach, and explains why using social media is a logical next step for underwriters, who already access massive stores of data regarding potential insureds. Ramasastry also notes some of the risks of these developments—such as an insurer’s taking inferences from a social media profile that are not accurate (say, due to a mistagged photo), or that cannot be fairly generalized (such as a photo of a teetotaler taking a single sip of a drink to be polite).
In the second of a two-part series of columns on the highly controversial NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner continues to explain and comment upon on the bill, which is now the law. Mariner explains President Obama’s reasons for signing the bill, despite what he called “serious reservations” about its provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists; and what his signing statement, accompanying the bill, said. Mariner notes that at this point, Obama is responsible for three key steps in America’s entrenchment of indefinite detention without trial: (1) justifying indefinite detention in litigation opposing the release of detainees held at Guantanamo; (2) issuing an executive order on indefinite detention; and (3) signing the NDAA. Mariner chronicles the road that took America to the passage of the NDAA, detailing the contributions of the Bush and Obama Administrations. In addition, she considers the most controversial aspect of the NDAA: its supposed allowance of the indefinite detention even of American citizens. Finally, Mariner notes that any fair reading of the NDAA ought to include a set of basic points, which she explains; and calls for a repeal of the NDAA’s detention provisions, as well as for the closure of Guantanamo.
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.
Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci A. Hamilton comments on the disturbing developments, over the course of 2011, with respect to child sex abuse. From Penn State, to Syracuse, to The Citadel, Hamilton notes, scandals broke out after child sex abuse was credibly alleged. Hamilton suggests ten key lessons we can all take from these events. Among those lessons are that organizations typically cover up the abuse; that cover-ups tend to follow the same pattern; that just one person can make a huge difference by reporting abuse but too often, no one does; that child sex abuse sadly proves to be more prevalent than we would like to think; and that legal reforms can help in important ways. Hamilton also covers the stances of Governors Corbett and Cuomo on this issue.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf takes strong issue with presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s comments regarding judicial supremacy. In particular, Dorf explains, Gingrich has suggested that federal judges could be summoned—even by force—to explain their decisions before Congress, and that Supreme Court Justices and lower federal court judges with whose opinions Gingrich disagrees ought to be impeached. Dorf explains that, as Gingrich states, there have indeed been times in American history when judicial supremacy—which holds that all other government actors must act as if bound by the rulings of the Supreme Court—has been controversial. However, Dorf contends, Gingrich—in suggesting that we revert to those times—fails to appreciate how and why the courts’ role has evolved over the course of American history up to the present, and, worse, puts forth a dangerous proposition.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a Portland, Oregon-based federal district judge’s ruling in a case where a key question was when—if ever—a blogger can count as a journalist. The judge, addressing a defamation suit that was brought against the blogger, declined to allow her to invoke two Oregon laws that were meant to protect journalists by (1) requiring potential defamation plaintiffs to give journalists who are potential defamation defendants a chance to correct or retract the allegedly defamatory statements, if the plaintiffs want to recover their full damages; and (2) allowing journalists to protect their confidential sources by keeping them anonymous. In addition, the judge—moving on from Oregon-law issues to federal-law issues—refused to grant bloggers the right to invoke favorable U.S. Supreme Court case law regarding damages unless the bloggers qualified as journalists under the judge’s multi-factor test. Hilden takes issue with both of the judge’s Oregon law rulings, and, to some extent, also with his proposed multi-factor test as to who counts as a journalist.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on an interesting decision, issued this month by a federal judge from the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, regarding an indictment alleging the violation of a federal anti-harassment statute. Hilden first provides the factual background of the case—in which federal prosecutors alleged that a well-known Buddhist religious leader was being harassed, in violation of a federal stalking statute that is an amended version of part of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). She then discusses some of the key issues the case raises, such as whether blog posts or tweets can count as harassment in violation of the statute, even if it is the alleged victim who opts to view the posts or tweets, rather than merely receiving them. With the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) as an amicus, and the federal government seeking to defend a statute that is meant to protect women from harm, Hilden predicts that we have not heard the last of this dispute. She also notes that, in the age of the search engine, the line between seeking out material and coming across it has been blurred substantially, and in turn, the definition of harassment may also be blurring.
Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram David Amar describes and comments on the “Americans Elect” movement. As Amar explains, the movement is striving to put a “nonpartisan” presidential/vice-presidential candidate slate—determined by citizens around the country who will participate in an “online convention” next year—on the ballot in all 50 states before next November’s presidential election. The slate will be “nonpartisan” in that the top online vote-getter, who will be the presidential candidate, must choose a vice-presidential candidate from another party. As Amar notes, nominees can be members of any political party, and indeed could (judging from the organization’s website) presumably be candidates in the Democratic or Republican primary processes. He raises several issues regarding “Americans Elect,” including its potential for its candidate to act as a spoiler by not having enough votes to win, but having enough votes to tip the balance between two major-party candidates—recalling Ralph Nader’s controversial role in Florida in Election 2000. In addition, Amar contends that while Americans Elect’s idea of requiring the top vote-getter to pick an opposite-party running mate is well-intentioned, it seems to rest on some misconceptions about whether mandating lack of party uniformity will turn out to be a good idea.
Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes strong issue with the claim that “contractionary” policies—such as budget cuts, and tax increases imposed on the non-wealthy—can help the American economy. To the contrary, Buchanan contends that such policies will only shrink the economy, and that the right approach to improving America’s economy is to use government spending and tax cuts aimed at the non-wealthy, who are very likely to spend the extra money that tax cuts free up and thus give a strong boost to the economy. And yet, Buchanan points out, all we have seen from Congress, over the past year, has been a series of contractionary approaches. Buchanan examines the case for invoking “expansionary austerity” in America now, and finds it sorely lacking when tested against the relevant evidence—as found in the recent and past experiences of America and of other nations. He concludes, based on this evidence, that “expansionary austerity” is simply a pipe dream.
Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner explains and comments on the highly controversial National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which has passed the House and Senate and is now awaiting President Obama’s signature. As Mariner notes, the NDAA’s provisions on indefinite detention earlier caused President Obama to threaten to veto the bill, but now President Obama appears poised to sign the bill’s current version—based on his claim that it affords the president substantial discretion on how the law will be implemented. But, Mariner points out, numerous human rights groups, civil libertarians, and Members of Congress still find the bill extremely objectionable in this current version. In this two-part series of columns, Mariner provides background on the recent history that is relevant to the bill; describes what the often-mischaracterized provisions of the bill actually say, and whom they affect; and focuses, especially, on the sections that have caused human rights groups the greatest concern.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the possible legal implications of an airline’s “Meet and Seat” program, which allows passengers to find out information about other travelers, and select the person whom they will sit next to on a flight, based on Facebook profiles and LinkedIn accounts. The upside of the program is that fliers can network with each other, or even have a first date while in the air. But the downside, Ramasastry argues, may be considerable, depending on how the details of the program are fleshed out. Ramasastry anticipates possible problems with fictitious profiles, sexual and other types of harassment, discrimination, and even de facto segregation if groups decide to sit together based on race, religion, or the like. Ramasastry also points to group-then-go charters, made easier by smart phone technology, as a less problematic way to employ social networking to ensure that travelers can opt to fly with people who share their interests and destinations.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the Supreme Court’s decision to take up a case involving the controversial Arizona immigration law—another blockbuster in a momentous Term for the Court, which will also resolve cases on the health care legislation and redistricting in Texas. Regarding the Arizona immigration case, Dorf explains the relevance, in the case, of the theory of the “unitary executive,” and notes that there seems to be a common misconception: The question in the Arizona case, he explains, is not whether Congress can preempt state immigration law—it plainly can—but whether Congress did, in fact, preempt Arizona’s immigration law. Dorf also explains the unusual way in which the Justices’ ideological leanings play out in typical federal-preemption cases, and why immigration cases involving federal preemption are atypical in this respect. In addition, he explains why a Court precedent on gun control and federalism may play a large role here.