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
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.

Matthew Whitaker and the Constitution’s Appointments Gaps

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf considers the legality of President Donald Trump’s firing of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions and designating Matthew Whitaker as Acting Attorney General. Dorf points out that while the Constitution does not expressly address acting officers, Trump’s actions certainly violate the spirit of the law and the Constitution.

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.

Why I Didn’t Sign the Kennedy Clerks’ Letter Supporting Confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf describes why he chose not to join the 72 other former law clerks of Justice Anthony Kennedy who signed a letter urging the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Dorf explains that the letter is at best misleading, and he argues that while a norm of deference may be preferable, that norm no longer exists, and deference to the president’s choice in this age of extreme polarization would amount to unilateral Democratic disarmament.

FDA Plan to Censor “Milk” in Plant-Based Food Names May Violate the First Amendment

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf explains why the FDA’s recent announcement that it intends to restrict the word “milk” on food labels may present First Amendment issues. Dorf points to the US Supreme Court’s decision last year in Matal v. Tam—which rejected the Patent and Trademark Office’s denial of a trademark to a band on the ground that the name was offensive—as evidence of the Court’s skepticism about the government making ideological judgments in the grant or denial of rights to exclusive use of a word.

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.