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 Decade After Gutting the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice Roberts Rescues It

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the Supreme Court’s decision in Allen v. Milligan, in which Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for a 5-4 majority of the Court, reaffirming a key precedent that allows Voting Rights Act (VRA) plaintiffs to sue to block legislative redistricting maps that have the effect of diluting minority voting strength. Professor Dorf expresses optimism that this decision might signal that the Chief Justice and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the only Republican-appointed Justice who joined the majority, are not moving ideologically to the right as radically as their other colleagues on the Court.

President Biden’s “Win” in the Debt Ceiling Battle Was a Better Result than Expected, But Dangerous Nonetheless

In this first of a series of columns conducting a postmortem on the debt ceiling crisis, UF Levin College of Law professor and economist Neil H. Buchanan and Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf point out that President Biden’s debt ceiling resolution appears to have won the politics of 2023 and 2024 and sidestepped another huge crisis. However, Professors Buchanan and Dorf consider whether these short-term victories will have longer-term costs that prove even more extreme.

The Debt Ceiling Crisis Provides No Cautious Way Out for Biden, Legally or Politically

UF Levin College of Law professor and economist Neil H. Buchanan and Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf explain the options currently available to President Biden for handling the impending debt ceiling crisis. Professors Buchanan and Dorf argue that while the best option would have been to announce from the outset that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional, the President’s current least bad option is, if the drop-dead date arrives, to continue to pay the nation’s debts notwithstanding the debt ceiling.

SCOTUS Endorses Animal Welfare

Cornell Law Professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week in National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) v. Ross, in which the Court rejected a challenge by a pork industry trade group to a California law that bans in-state sale of pork unless the pigs were raised in accordance with certain minimum standards for “humane” treatment. Professor Dorf points out that it is unusual for the Supreme Court to acknowledge, as Justice Neil Gorsuch’s lead opinion does, animal welfare as a legitimate moral interest and expresses hope that the decision might pave the way to more substantial reforms of animal cruelty laws and changes in personal consumption choices.

Can Dark Brandon Scare Republicans into Increasing the Debt Ceiling?

UF Levin College of Law Professor Neil H. Buchanan and Cornell Law Professor Michael C. Dorf point out that if Republicans insist on using the debt ceiling to hold the economy hostage, President Joe Biden will be the one to decide which debts to prioritize. Professors Buchanan and Dorf argue that although the decision of which debts to prioritize should not belong to the President, Republicans give President Biden—or his less virtuous alter-ego “Dark Brandon”—no choice but to decide which debts to pay first, at their own risk.

Fallback Bonds: A Debt Ceiling Workaround that Actually Works

UF Levin College of Law professor and economist Neil H. Buchanan and Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf respond to two types of pushback from proponents of schemes to circumvent the debt ceiling. Though dubious about any such proposal, Professors Buchanan and Dorf express hope that a court would disagree and find an option—such as fallback bonds—permissible, allowing the country to avoid financial catastrophe and a constitutional crisis.

A Debt is a Debt is a Debt: Exotic Bonds are No More Legal than Jumbo Coins or Refusing to Pay Our Obligations

UF Levin College of Law professor and economist Neil H. Buchanan and Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf continue their discussion of the assortment of illegal options President Joe Biden has available to him if Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling. Professors Buchanan and Dorf argue that because there are no loopholes or escape hatches in the debt ceiling statute, if put into that untenable position, President Biden should minimize the damage and simply issue normal Treasury securities—the “least unconstitutional” option.

Imagining a Successful Meeting Between Biden and McCarthy

In a mix of humor and seriousness, Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf imagines how Tuesdays’ meeting between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) could go. Professor Dorf explores one creative way the two sides might reach a mutually agreeable resolution.

Debt Ceiling Blackmail and Gimmicks to Avoid It Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

UF Levin College of Law professor and economist Neil H. Buchanan and Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf provide yet another reason against the proposal that the government should mint a multi-trillion-dollar platinum coin to avoid the impending debt ceiling crisis. Professors Buchanan and Dorf point out that if trillion-dollar platinum coins are legal to avoid a debt-ceiling crisis, that would lead to the absurd result that they would always be legal as a means of substituting modern monetary theory (MMT) for the entire apparatus of public finance.

The Supreme Court is the True Threat

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the recent Supreme Court oral argument in Counterman v. Colorado, which raises the question of what may constitute a “true threat,” which is outside the scope of First Amendment protection. Professor Dorf argues that, notwithstanding the present case about stalking, the Court’s rulings gutting the Voting Rights Act, greenlighting extreme political gerrymandering, and expanding the scope of the Second Amendment are the true threat to democracy.

The So-Called Platinum Coin Option is Illegal, Even on Its Own Terms

UF Levin College of Law professor and economist Neil H. Buchanan and Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf explain why the so-called platinum coin option to address the looming debt ceiling crisis is not only a bad idea but also illegal. Professors Buchanan and Dorf argue that the least unconstitutional option, if Republicans insist on crashing the economy via the debt ceiling, is for the Treasury Department to do what it always does: go into the financial markets and raise funds from willing lenders.

Can a President Serve From Prison? We Might Find Out

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf explains why, if Donald Trump wins the 2024 Presidential Election, there is a genuine possibility that he would serve some or all of a presidential term while in prison. Professor Dorf points out that while the best reading of the Constitution would render Trump ineligible to serve as President while in prison, the only actors authorized to declare him ineligible would be extremely unlikely to do so.

Repeal of Iraq War Authorization While Leaving Post-9/11 Authorization Will Send Mixed Signal

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the apparently imminent repeal of two Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMFs) against Iraq. Professor Dorf argues that while their repeal can be seen as an acknowledgment of the terrible error of invading Iraq and a reassertion of the principle of separation of powers, the action is insufficient so long as the post-9/11 AUMF remains in place, giving the President extraordinary power to deploy the military overseas without congressional involvement.

Jack Daniel’s Claims to Have a Sense of Humor, but its Supreme Court Case Against a Poop-Themed Dog Toy Suggests Otherwise

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving a trademark infringement lawsuit by Jack Daniel’s against a maker of dog toys. Professor Dorf points out that while consumer confusion can undermine trademarks, confusion is also a characteristic of effective parody

The Inadequate “Adequate State Law Ground” Doctrine

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week in Cruz v. Arizona, in which a 5-4 majority of the Court delivered a rare victory to a capital defendant. Professor Dorf describes the circuitous path Cruz’s case took and how it highlights an inadequacy in the standard for viewing the “adequacy” of state law grounds for denying federal judicial intervention.

What’s the Difference Between Spying by Balloon Versus by Satellite?

In light of recent news that the U.S. shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon, Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf explains the differences between spying by ballon and spying by satellite and explores some of the murky legal areas with respect to sovereign airspace, outer space, and military uses of both. Professor Dorf points out that modern satellites can capture remarkably clear images of Earthbound sites, but a comparably equipped surveillance balloon, in virtue of being ten or more times closer to the Earth’s surface, can necessarily capture even greater detail.

Does President Biden’s Plan to End the COVID Emergency Affect Pending SCOTUS Litigation Involving Title 42 and Student Debt Forgiveness?

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf considers whether the Biden administration’s announcement that it would end the COVID states of emergency in May affect pending Supreme Court cases involving immigration policy and student debt forgiveness. Professor Dorf explains why the news is unlikely to affect the outcome of the immigration case and, conversely, why it might affect the student debt forgiveness case.

The “Not Renewed” Excuse at Hamline and Elsewhere

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the recent controversy over Hamline University’s dismissal of adjunct professor Erika Lopez Prater when a student complained after she displayed a historically important 14th-century painting of the prophet Muhammad. Professor Dorf explains why the university president’s technically-accurate statement that Lopez Prater was “not fired” highlights the exploitative nature of colleges and universities increasingly relying on untenured and underpaid adjunct faculty.

George Santos and the Right of Candidates to Lie

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the revelation that George Santos, who is scheduled to take the oath of office as a new member of Congress tomorrow, lied about nearly his entire biography. Professor Dorf explains why the First Amendment likely prevents candidates from being held criminally liable for their lies, but he points out other ways we can sanction candidates who blatantly lie to gain office.

Lessons from Sam Bankman-Fried’s Brief Stay in a Bahamian Jail

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf reflects on what we might learn about criminal justice systems from FTX co-founder and former CEO Sam Bankman-Fried and his brief stay in a Bahamian prison. Professor Dorf points out that the prison where Bankman-Fried was detained has been described as “not fit for humanity”—not unlike many prisons in the United States and elsewhere. He argues that no one—regardless of wealth or social status—deserves that kind of suffering on top of their term of imprisonment.