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

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

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

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

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

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?

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

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

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

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The New Tax Law Punishes Blue States: Is That Constitutional?

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf considers whether the new tax law, which disproportionally affects “blue” states as compared to “red” states due to changes to the deductions for state and local taxes (SALT), is unconstitutional. Dorf explains some of the possible arguments against the law but ultimately concludes that due to difficulties of proof, courts probably won’t end up ruling that the SALT deductibility cap violates the First Amendment or a core principle of federalism.

Liberty and Equality Sometimes Require Tragic Choices, Just Not in Masterpiece Cakeshop

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf explains why the Masterpiece Cakeshop case before the US Supreme Court—in which the Court will decide whether a baker may refuse to serve a gay couple based on his religious beliefs—does not present a difficult choice between liberty and equality. Rather, Dorf points out, the baker’s free speech claim in this case should be relatively easy to reject because a cake without an articulate message on it does not constitute the “speech” of the person who made it.

Why Washington Reacts More Slowly to Sexual Misconduct Allegations Than Hollywood

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf considers the recent spate of sexual misconduct allegations in the political sphere and entertainment industry, and notes how much less inclined to action and condemnation the former is compared to the latter. Dorf illustrates this point by considering the allegations against Donald Trump and Roy Moore, as well as various well-known Hollywood players, then evaluates several factors that may explain the contrast in reactions. Dorf concludes that the polarized, partisan state of our government, coupled with weak political parties, ultimately leaves Washington far more powerless to purge offending individuals than Hollywood.

Do Trump’s Attacks on CNN Render Unconstitutional the Justice Department’s Effort to Block AT&T’s Acquisition of Time Warner?

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf considers how President Trump’s attacks on CNN affect the Justice Department’s efforts to block AT&T’s proposed purchase of Time Warner (by requiring AT&T to sell off Turner Broadcasting, the parent company of CNN, or DirecTV). As Dorf points out, illicit intent can taint policies that without such intent would pass constitutional muster. Dorf explains why AT&T likely can meet the threshold of making a “credible showing of different treatment of similarly situated persons” to advance allegations of selective prosecution based on free speech.

The Troublingly Widening Gyre of Complicity Claims

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf describes a principle most famously articulated by Thomas Jefferson, under which there should be a right to avoid providing financial support for causes one strongly opposes. Dorf argues that the Jeffersonian principle has lately run amok. He points out that the government’s argument against allowing a seventeen-year-old undocumented immigrant in federal custody to obtain a privately funded abortion is but one example of the government’s too-broad definition of “facilitation” of acts with which it disagrees. Dorf argues that adoption of such a position would convert every objectionable private exercise of rights into government participation.

Can Congress Ban Bump Stocks?

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf explains why, if Congress wants to ban or further regulated the sale of “bump stocks,” it should act quickly or risk missing the window in which regulation is possible. Dorf points out that the test the Supreme Court uses for whether weapons count as “arms” protected by the Second Amendment is whether they are in “common use,” not whether they are “dangerous and unusual weapons.” Dorf argues that so long as bump stocks remain legal, people can accumulate them, and if enough people do that before they are banned, there could be so many in circulation as to qualify as in common use, thereby falling within the scope of Second Amendment protection.