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
A Unanimous Supreme Court Ruling Underscores the Limits of Habeas Corpus as a Remedy for State Prisoners

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on Monday’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling in Metrish v. Lancaster, as well as on the more general significance of unanimous rulings. Lancaster, as Dorf explains, involved the writ of habeas corpus, which the Justices declined to invoke, despite evidence indicating that the convict at issue did not receive due process at the state court level. Dorf also notes that this is only one instance in a larger pattern of the weakening and narrowing of habeas corpus at the High Court.

Legal Limits on the Forced Feeding of Hunger-Striking Guantanamo Bay Detainees

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the law applicable to the forced feeding, via tubes, of those Guantanamo detainees who refuse to eat, as they are on a hunger strike, and are becoming dangerously weak. Human rights groups condemn the forced feeding as cruel, but the government says that it is better than the detainee’s dying. With U.S. law unclear on the force-feeding issue as it related to detainees, Dorf analyzes the situation, citing two relevant Supreme Court precedents and other legal sources that might shed light on the issue. He also suggests that the detainees’ best hope, in this situation, might be to invoke international law, though their chances of prevailing will still be slim.

Some Good News for Human Rights Lawyers in the Supreme Court’s Interpretation of the Alien Tort Statute

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Alien Tort Statue (ATS), which had been interpreted by many human rights attorneys as opening the way for serious foreign wrongs to be litigated in U.S. courts, including the Supreme Court. The conservative Justices rejected that interpretation, however, and their votes won the day, angering and disappointing human rights lawyers. Still, Dorf finds a few positives for the human rights law community in the Court's decision, as well, citing a handful of ATS approaches that may remain to be used.

Two Recent Supreme Court Cases Sow Confusion About the Standard for Certifying Class Actions

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on two recent Supreme Court cases that raise complicated and interesting issues regarding class action certification. Dorf explains the holding in each case, and addresses the interesting way in which the substantive merits of the cases and their procedural posture as class actions intertwine.

The Supreme Court Will Review a Michigan Affirmative Action Case Next Term, but May Address the Key Issues in It This Term

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on a set of key affirmative action issues that the Supreme Court may address this term and/or the next. The programs at issue include affirmative action in state public higher education, employment, and contracting. As Dorf notes, the Michigan affirmative action case that the Court will address is more complicated than it may at first seem, in part because Court precedents establish limits on how a state or local government may go about eliminating or preventing laws that benefit racial minorities. Dorf also notes that an issue that is important here also crops up in the Prop 8 case currently before the Court: the issue of the import of giving and then taking away rights.

Justice Scalia’s Long Campaign Against “Racial Entitlements” Takes an Unexpected Turn

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on Justice Scalia’s arguments regarding what Scalia calls “racial entitlements,” and the Voting Rights Act. As Dorf notes, these issues came up during the oral argument in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. Moreover, Dorf notes, Scalia had earlier raised these arguments both when he was a law professor, and repeatedly in his opinions on the Court. But, Dorf points out, Scalia’s references in the past appeared in affirmative action cases, whereas this reference appeared in his discussion of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which is not an affirmative action provision; rather it deals with election rules in jurisdiction with a history of discriminatory voting rules. Dorf questions whether Scalia’s extension of his own “racial entitlements” logic is valid in this context.

Is Obama’s Policy of Targeted Killings Really Worse than Bush’s Torture Policy?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf contrasts Obama’s policy of targeted killings of persons believed to be leaders of al Q’aeda, with George W. Bush’s prior policy of authorization of the use of torture. The issue is timely in the wake of the release of an Obama Administration white paper on the targeted-killing issue. Dorf notes that the Administration is drawing criticism from both the right and the left on that issue. Dorf argues that the Administration is right to seek to craft a policy that complies with both the U.S. Constitution and the international law of war. He also examines the views of controversial conservative law professor John Yoo on which is worse: the Obama Administration’s targeted killing policy, or the Bush Administration’s torture policy. Dorf also looks at such questions from the point of view of not just law, but also morality.

Congressional Republicans Offer Three Bad Arguments for Upholding the Defense of Marriage Act

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf takes strong issue with the three arguments that Congressional Republicans have put forward in support of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as opposite-sex marriage alone for purposes of federal law. Next month, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case. Dorf characterizes the three arguments put forward in favor of Section 3 by Congressional Republicans as very weak, and indeed, shockingly unpersuasive, analyzing each in turn.

Marking the Fortieth Anniversary of Roe v. Wade Part Two: Why the Court Did Not Go Too Far Too Fast

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf continues his two-part series of columns on Roe v. Wade on its 40th anniversary. Here, in Part Two of Dorf’s two-part series, he addresses a common criticism that has been voiced by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, prior to her joining the Court, and by others as well: the criticism that Roe went too far, too fast and that having more of a dialogue beforehand might have led to less controversy surrounding the decision. Dorf disagrees with this criticism of Roe and its timing, contending (1) that the criticism may well have been mistaken from the very beginning, and (2) that the passage of forty years since Roe was handed down has surely and clearly refuted the too far, too fast critique of Roe. (Part One of Dorf's series on Roe appeared on January 17 here on Justia’s Verdict.)

Marking the Fortieth Anniversary of Roe v. Wade Part One: Where Three Common Criticisms Go Wrong

In the first in a two-part series on Roe v. Wade on its 40th anniversary, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf explains where three common criticisms of the controversial Supreme Court precedent each go wrong. The criticisms run as follows: (1) that the constitutional text nowhere mentions abortion; (2) that the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment did not encompass a right to abortion; and (3) that the courts ought to stay out of socially divisive issues. If these objections are carefully considered, Dorf concludes, none of them holds water. Still, Dorf notes, Roe was nonetheless a hard case. (Dorf will continue his commentary on Roe’s 40th in his Wednesday, January 23 column.)

What Can The President Do When Congress Gives Him a “Trilemma” of Unconstitutional Choices? Understanding Why the President Must Exceed the Debt Ceiling

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf and Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan argue that, faced with a trilemma of unconstitutional choices, President Obama effectively has no choice but to exceed the debt ceiling, and they explain exactly why that is. Buchanan and Dorf describe why, to honor the Constitution, a President must choose to issue debt in excess of the statutory limit, if the budget otherwise requires him to do so. They also argue that even Republicans in Congress should want the President to issue more debt, if Congress itself is unable to find a way to do its duty and increase the debt ceiling as needed. In their analysis, Buchanan and Dorf also invoke the idea that some choices are more unconstitutional than others; constitutionality, in other words, isn’t just either/or.

What Gun Regulations Will the Supreme Court Allow? Part Two: Originalism and the Second Amendment

In the second in this two-part series of columns on constitutional gun regulation, Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the ways in which the Supreme Court may interpret the Second Amendment, after the Newtown, Connecticut massacre. In particular, Dorf notes subtleties of interpretation that may matter greatly in this area of constitutional law. In particular, Dorf comments on the difference between living constitutionalism and originalism, and the difference between old originalism and new originalism. Dorf also takes Justice Scalia to task for not fully practicing what he preaches, harkening back to Scalia’s recent comment that the Constitution is “dead, dead, dead.”

What Gun Regulations Will the Supreme Court Allow? Part One: Restricting Firearms Outside of the Home

In Part One of a two-part series of columns on the Second Amendment and gun regulation, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf considers the question of which firearm regulations the Supreme Court will allow, and which the Court will consider to be Second Amendment violations—a timely question in light of the Newtown Massacre and the many gun-control ideas and suggestions to which that tragedy has led. While some of these suggestions are clearly constitutional, as Dorf explains, others may or may not be. Dorf focuses especially on the possibility of a ban on possession of firearms in public places, and its possible constitutionality or lack thereof, noting that two prior Second Amendment cases that the Court handed down, in 2008 and 2010, do not resolve that issue.

Is the Supreme Court Ducking the Same-Sex Marriage Question, and If So, Is That Wrong?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on two questions involving same-sex marriage that the Supreme Court may or may not duck: First, there is the question whether Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—which defines marriage under federal law as opposite-sex marriage, even when state law recognizes same-sex marriage—is constitutionally valid. And, second, there is the question whether California violated the Constitution when it enacted Proposition 8, which prospectively eliminated the possibility of same-sex marriage, and thereby nullified an earlier California Supreme Court ruling that had found a state-constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Dorf considers why the Justices might—or might not—see the cases that raise these questions to be appropriate vehicles for Supreme Court review, and notes what might happen next if the Court does not take up a DOMA case.

In Search of an Agenda for Obama’s Second Term

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the interesting question of what President Obama’s agenda should be, now that he has been re-elected. Past presidents have often faced scandals in their second terms, Dorf notes, but assuming that Obama avoids that fate, what should his top priority be? Dorf argues that it should not be a grand bargain addressing the federal deficit by lowering spending and increasing taxes, as the options currently on offer in that vein could actually be harmful in the short run, and inadequate in the long run. Instead, Dorf says, Obama’s key agenda item should be cost internalization when it comes to health care. That would mean that we would move toward a health-care system in which the people who profit from health-care measures (doctors and patients) also bear the cost of those measures. Although we may already be headed in this direction, Dorf notes, there is much more to be done along these lines.

Brinksmanship or Statesmanship: The Looming Fight at the Edge of the “Fiscal Cliff”

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the fiscal cliff—the combination of higher taxes and across-the-board spending cuts that America faces if Congress and President Obama fail to reach agreement in the next few months. Dorf explains exactly what the cliff is, how we came to its edge, and why there is no guarantee that our elected leaders will avoid taking us over the cliff. In so doing, Dorf addresses both aspects of the cliff—higher taxes and spending cuts—and the deadlines that pertain to each. Dorf also addresses the question whether compromise is possible on these issues, and explains why the outcome, if there is no compromise, may have stark consequences, as everyone involved knows—and yet still might occur.

A Federal Appeals Court Invalidates a Military Commission Conviction: Paying the Price for Circumventing the Civilian Justice System

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on a recent decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, throwing out the conviction of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni who was captured in Afghanistan in 2001. Dorf chronicles Hamdan’s long legal journey, and the repercussions that it has had for U.S. law. Dorf also explains that while the most recent decision regarding Hamdan is narrow, it nevertheless carries symbolic significance, casting doubt on the Bush Administration’s and the Obama Administration’s respective, and similar, detainee policies.

The Recent Supreme Court Affirmative Action Oral Argument Zeroes in on the Concept of “Critical Mass”

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf explains the origin and meaning of the concept of having a “critical mass” of minority students in the affirmative action context, and the role that this concept played in a recent Supreme Court oral argument relating to affirmative action at the University of Texas. Without a critical mass of minority students, it has been argued, such students will feel isolated in class and on campus, and there may be little diversity within the group of minority students itself. For these reasons, the University of Texas gives such students a special “plus factor” in admissions. Dorf explains how both conservatives and liberals on the Court have come to place what he argues is excessive weight on the “critical mass” concept, when it comes to affirmative action in education. He also summarizes the conservative Justices’ critique of the concept, but contends that that critique is itself flawed.

A Supreme Court Admiralty Case Sheds Light on a Longstanding Debate

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on an admiralty case in which the Supreme Court will hear oral argument next week, on the first day of its new Term. As Dorf explains, the case raises a narrow question at first glance: whether a houseboat counts as a “vessel” under federal maritime law. But Dorf also notes that, upon closer inspection, the case has a much wider meaning, illuminating the relevance of longstanding jurisprudential debates to real-world litigation. In particular, Dorf relates the case to a famous debate between two major thinkers on jurisprudence, H.L.A. Hart and Lon Fuller. Hart was a positivist; Fuller hewed to a “natural law” view; and Dorf explains how each of these stances relates to the case before the Court. Dorf also parallels the Hart/Fuller disagreement with one between Justice Scalia and Richard Posner.

A Federal Appeals Court Upholds Louboutin’s Trademark for Red-Soled Shoes: Has the Law Granted Too Much Protection for Intellectual Property?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on a very interesting court case regarding intellectual property rights. As Dorf explains, the case concerned Christian Louboutin’s famous red-soled high-heeled shoes, and pitted Louboutin against Yves Saint Laurent. Dorf discusses the reasons a New York-based federal district court ruled against Louboutin, and the reasons a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed and remanded the case. Dorf questions the Second Circuit decision; questions more generally whether the law overprotects intellectual property; and urges that our legal regime must keep in mind the very real risk that the law in this area, rather than protecting creativity, will become a barrier to it. Dorf also briefly discusses the somewhat similar Apple/Samsung dispute.