Sherry F. Colb

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

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

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?

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?

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

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?

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

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

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?

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

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

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?

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.

The Supreme Court Agrees to Review the Constitutionality of Strip Searching All Arrestees Who Enter a Jail

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb discusses the constitutional issues raised by government strip searches, and the relevant Supreme Court precedents. She focuses, as well, on a Supreme Court case that will be decided during this coming Term, Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders. There, the Court will—for the first time since 1979—consider whether officials in a jail may strip search inmates in the absence of any individualized suspicion. Colb notes that the case will raise a key question for the Court to consider: Does the Constitution extend any protection for privacy to the people who reside in a detention facility?

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.