Michael C. Dorf

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

Supreme Court’s Conservative Majority Issues Another Atextual Ruling in a Sovereign Immunity Case

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the US Supreme Court’s recent decision in Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt, in which the conservative majority departed sharply from the brand of originalism that Justice Clarence Thomas (who authored the opinion) and his fellow conservatives purport to favor. Dorf points out the inconsistency of the Court’s conservative bloc criticizing liberal-leaning doctrine based on broad text in rights cases while simultaneously (as here) fashioning right-leaning doctrine from the murky materials of structure and history rather than text.

SCOTUS LGBT Discrimination Case Will Test Conservative Commitment to Textualism

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on three cases in which the US Supreme Court recently granted review that together present the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Dorf points out that the cases pose a test for the Court’s conservative majority—whether they will keep faith with their textualist commitment and rule for the plaintiffs or instead follow their conservative social views and rule for the defendant employers.

“You Can’t Investigate Me, I Quit” or “I’ve Been Promoted”: Should Federal Courts Continue Misconduct Investigations of Former Judges?

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the practice by federal courts of dismissing investigations into complaints of judicial misconduct if the judge retires from the bench or is elevated to justice status. Dorf argues that a full investigation of someone who is no longer a judge (or no longer a judge on a covered court) may still have implications for judges who continue to serve and thus that judicial councils should not construe their statutory mandate as narrowly as they did in the recent investigations of then-Judges Maryanne Trump Barry, Alex Kozinski, and Brett Kavanaugh.

Clarence Thomas Speaks—And Arguably Contradicts His Longstanding Views

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf argues that the question Justice Clarence Thomas asked during oral argument in Flowers v. Mississippi potentially reflects a view inconsistent with one he and other conservative justices have strongly endorsed in the past. Dorf points out that Justice Thomas’s question, regarding the race of jurors struck by the defense counsel, suggests that discrimination against one group can cancel out discrimination against another, which is directly at odds with his expressed view that the Constitution forbids all government consideration of race.

Should Originalists Enforce Rights More Strictly Against the States Than Against the Federal Government?

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf points out that, taken to its logical conclusion, the originalism philosophy espoused by US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas should mean that the Constitution places stricter limits on states than it does on the federal government. As Dorf explains, the “original meaning” of the Bill of Rights as it applies to the states should refer to its meaning in 1868 (when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted) rather than 1791 (when the Bill of Rights itself was adopted) because the Fourteenth Amendment makes the Bill of Rights applicable to the states. Dorf describes several key differences between the understanding of the Bill of Rights in 1868 and 1791 and considers whether one of the originalist justices will follow where the logic of their philosophy leads.

Did a Federal District Judge Defy the Supreme Court in Invalidating Male-Only Draft?

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a recent decision by a federal district court judge in Texas declaring unconstitutional the US’s male-only military draft. Dorf points out that the judge’s decision defies the Supreme Court’s admonition that federal court judges should follow even outdated Supreme Court precedents, “leaving to th[at] Court the prerogative of overruling its own decisions” and considers whether there is any other reason that admonition should not apply.

Complicity in Trump’s Bogus Emergency

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency after Congress denied him most of the funding he requested for a border wall. Dorf describes the legal framework that allows the president to do so even in the absence of an emergency and points out that combined actions of Congress, the courts, and the People have created this situation.

Justifying External Support for Regime Change in Venezuela

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the recognition by the United States and some other constitutional democracies of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader pending new elections. Dorf points out that many countries suffer under incompetent, corrupt, and authoritarian leaders just as Venezuela did under Nicolás Maduro, yet constitutional democracies typically do not rally behind the ouster of those leaders. What makes Maduro’s case different?

How Should the Law Address Illicit Motives in the Age of Trump?

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a case arising from the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census questionnaire—a case the US Supreme Court had on its calendar for oral arguments until late last week, when the federal district judge issued an opinion and enjoined the government from including the question. Despite the original issue presented in the case (a technical one about the scope of discovery) being made moot by the district court opinion, Dorf discusses the remaining and greater issue of how to discern and address illicit government motives.

Why Facebook’s Hate-Speech Policy Makes So Little Sense

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on Facebook’s global efforts to block hate speech and other offensive content and explains why formula-based policy necessarily makes very little sense. As Dorf explains, accurate determinations of hate speech require cultural understanding and evaluations of cases on an individual basis, but this approach also necessarily injects individual bias into those decisions. Thus, Facebook’s policy, while not ideal, may be but one of a handful of inadequate options.

Obamacare Nonseverability Ruling Exposes Uncertainty in our Conception of Law

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the recent ruling by a federal district judge in Texas striking down the entirety of the Affordable Care Act and argues that the judge relies on a highly unorthodox (and erroneous) interpretation of the doctrine of “severability.” As Dorf explains, there is a notable lack of judicial consensus as to what courts actually do when they declare laws unconstitutional, despite that the Supreme Court established its power of judicial review over two centuries ago in Marbury v. Madison (1803).

Double Jeopardy Case in Supreme Court is About More than Trump

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf discusses the double jeopardy question raised in Gamble v. United States, in which the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week, and explains how the extraordinary nature of the Trump presidency should inform judicial decision making. Building upon a point made in a 1985 Columbia Law Review article by Professor Vincent Blasi, Dorf argues that judges construing the Constitution and other legal texts in perilous times such as these should keep in mind that the rules they adopt will also operate in normal times.

The Department of Education’s Title IX Power Grab

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf discusses the Department of Education’s recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking rules requiring due process protections for those accused of sexual assault or harassment in Title IX cases. Dorf provides a history of Title IX, explaining how the Obama administration issued guidance and instituted reforms to how institutions should approach addressing allegations of such conduct. He acknowledges the Department of Education's shift in policy under the Trump administration that led to its proposed rulemaking issuance, and argues that the Department only has the authority to permit these additional due process protections in most instances, rather than outright require institutions to adhere to them.

Justice O’Connor Withdraws From Public Life, and the Reagan Court is Finally Born

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the announcement that retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor would be withdrawing from public life and explains how, ironically, the exit of President Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominees is giving rise to what could be called the Reagan Court. Dorf describes Reagan’s successes and failures with respect to shaping the Court and explains why only now, with its present composition, the Court may actually be poised to further Reagan’s agenda.

Trump’s—and the GOP’s—Hat Trick of Falsehoods About Pre-Existing Conditions

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf debunks President Trump’s claim that he has kept his campaign promise to “protect coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions.” Dorf provides three primary reasons that the claim is dishonest: the administration’s position in a pending lawsuit; the GOP’s proposed alternative, which does not require insurance companies to offer policies that actually cover pre-existing conditions, and the claim that Democratic support of Medicare for All is “radical socialism.”

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

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?

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

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

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.