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

Could a Faithless Elector Ruling Doom an Attempt to Circumvent the Electoral College?

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf considers whether a possible Supreme Court ruling in a “faithless elector” case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit could end the National Popular Vote (NPV) movement, which attempts to circumvent the Electoral College by interstate compact. Dorf provides a short background of NPV and the Tenth Circuit’s decision, and he explains why a decision by the Court decides to affirm the Tenth Circuit’s reasoning would threaten NPV.

Do Contracts Impose Moral Obligations? Reflections on Anthony Davis, a Nineteenth Century Opera Singer, and Donald Trump

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf offers some thoughts on a comment by Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr that moves by NBA stars like Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis are “bad for the league.” Dorf explains that while the concept—and legal acceptability—of efficient breach in contract law demonstrate that the law does not impose an obligation to carry out one’s end of a bargain, one could understand Kerr’s statement more accurately to mean that because the legal remedies for enforcing sports contracts are inadequate, the NBA and its fans must rely on the consciences of individual players to honor the obligation of good faith.

Trump’s “Apply in Guatemala or Mexico” Refugee Policy is Illegal and Cruel

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf argues that the Trump administration’s new rule that would bar asylum applications from asylum-seekers who did not apply for asylum in at least one country en route to the United States is illegal, cruel, and counterproductive. Dorf explains why federal statutory law precludes such a rule and points out that while the Trump administration is not entirely responsible for the current immigration crisis, it has taken various steps to exacerbate the problem.

Did the Trump Justice Department Seek to Change its Legal Team in the Census Case Because the Original Lawyers Refused to Lie?

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the recent back-and-forth involving the Department of Justice seeking to place a new legal team on the Trump administration’s effort to justify the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Dorf points out that whoever ends up representing the administration, this attempted withdrawal may shed light on the merits of the case and the lengths to which the President and those who serve him are willing to go for the citizenship question.

After Supreme Court Ruling, Are Profane Trademarks Truly “FUCT”?

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a decision the U.S. Supreme Court issued this week invalidating a provision of the Lanham Act that prohibited registration of “immoral” and “scandalous” trademarks. Dorf provides a brief history of the legal protection for profane speech and considers the implications of a more precisely worded statute regulating profanity for trademark registration purposes.

The Trouble With Trump’s Tariff Threats—And With a Critique of Them

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf explains why President Trump’s threat to escalate tariffs on all Mexican goods if Mexico had not stopped the flow of Central American Migrants erroneously presumes a win-lose situation where none exists. Dorf also explains the fallacy of the criticism that immigration and trade ought to be always kept separate in negotiations.

New York Lawmakers Take Aim at Trump

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf considers whether two New York bills—one that requires state and local officials to provide congressional committees with the President’s state and local tax records upon request, and the other that would permit the state to prosecute an individual for conduct that was presidentially pardoned—set a dangerous precedent for state interference with federal action. Dorf argues that these bills provide a permissible form of diagonal checks and balances between the branches of the state and federal government and do not raise constitutional concerns.

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.