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
New York’s High Court Rejects a Habeas Corpus Petition on Behalf of a Captive Elephant

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a recent decision by the New York Court of Appeals ruling that Happy, an Asian elephant who has been imprisoned at the Bronx Zoo for nearly her entire half-century of existence—was not entitled to the writ of habeas corpus. Professor Dorf points out the questionable logic and errors that led the court to its conclusion and suggests that, despite the sad ending for Happy, her case might mark a turning point in the legal rights of nonhuman animals, evidenced by the thoughtful and compassionate dissent by two members of that court.

Is the SCOTUS Leak Investigation Legal? Maybe, But It Is Also Hypocritical and Potentially Counterproductive

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf argues that while the Supreme Court’s investigation into who leaked Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overruling Roe v. Wade may be legal, it is also highly hypocritical in at least two respects. Professor Dorf argues that the investigation violates the spirit (and perhaps even the letter) of the Court’s Fourth Amendment cases, and it amounts to self-dealing because it focuses on the clerks, but not the Justices or their spouses.

Where, If Anywhere, Should People Protest Judicial Decisions?

In light of the leaked Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. and the resulting protests in front of the homes of some of the Justices, Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf considers where, if anywhere, protests against judicial decisions are appropriate. Professor Dorf notes that under current law, the First Amendment as currently construed by the Supreme Court seems to protect a right to peaceable protest near the home of a judge or Justice so long as: (a) the protesters merely pass by but do not linger at the home; and (b) they do so without the intent to intimidate. However, Professor Dorf also points out that such protest might not always be tactically prudent.

Overruling Roe is Just the Beginning

In response to the leaked draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org., Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the likely ramifications of the Supreme Court’s overruling Roe v. Wade, the seminal case recognizing the constitutional right to seek an abortion. Professor Dorf argues that the language and reasoning of the draft suggest that this emboldened Court with a super-majority of Republican appointees is also preparing to overrule Lawrence v. Texas (recognizing the right of consenting adults to engage in same-sex sexual conduct) and Obergefell v. Hodges (recognizing the right of same-sex couples to marry).

Textualism Masks Ideological Opposition to the Administrative State

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the recent decision by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle invalidating the federal mask mandate for travelers. Professor Dorf points out the flaws in Judge Mizelle’s reasoning and argues that her ruling reflects a right-wing ideology that is hostile to government agencies addressing even the most pressing social problems.

Religious Freedom in Prisons and the Military

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf explains how the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent seemingly inconsistent decisions in Ramirez v. Collier and Austin v. U.S. Navy Seals 1–26can be reconciled by examining the nature of the government interests in each case. Professor Dorf points out that while the Court has held judicial deference to prison officials’ expert judgment on security questions impermissible under RLUIPA, it has not (and did not in the Navy Seals case) decided whether deference to the military is compatible with RFRA and whether, if not, RFRA is unconstitutional.

Does Judge Jackson Have a Judicial Philosophy and if so is it Originalism?

In light of the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf explains why judges across the ideological spectrum embrace the judicial philosophy of originalism. Professor Dorf points out that today’s version of originalism leaves judges and justices substantial room to make judgments based on their values.

The Scope and Nature of the State Secrets Privilege

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on two cases the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided that involve the “state secrets privilege.” Professor Dorf argues that the cases demonstrate that the executive branch (regardless of whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat) will go as far as the courts allow with the public secrets privilege, so it falls to Congress to rein it in.

Should Congress Ban Legacy and Donor Preferences in College Admissions?

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the recent proposal to pass legislation ending legacy and donor preferences in college admissions. Professor Dorf explains the context and rationale for the proposal and describes some potential perverse effects it might have, but he concludes that its potential benefits likely outweigh these drawbacks.

The Evolution of Chief Justice John Roberts

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf argues that Chief Justice John Roberts is, perhaps surprisingly, on the left of the current Court partly because of the Court moving far to the right in recent years and partly because of Roberts’s evolution as a jurist. Professor Dorf explores why Roberts has shifted, noting that he seems simply to adhere to a principle that historically liberals, moderates, and conservatives all agreed upon: don’t lie about the law.

Justice Breyer’s Legacy

In light of the news of Justice Stephen Breyer’s imminent retirement, Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf reflects on Justice Breyer’s career. Professor Dorf observes that Justice Breyer lacks a distinctive legacy largely for two reasons: (1) he was junior to O’Connor, Kennedy, and Ginsburg for their time on the Court together and thus did not get key liberal assignments, and (2) as a pragmatist and compromiser, his reasoning relied more on nuance than on bold strokes.

Can the Public Trust that an Unmasked Justice Gorsuch was Unbiased About Mandates?

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf asks whether we can trust that Justice Neil Gorsuch—who was the sole Justice not to wear a mask during oral arguments last week—was unbiased in considering two challenges to the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates. Professor Dorf argues that Justice Gorsuch’s refusal to wear a mask indicates that he either does not believe the public health guidance or thinks he should be free to decide for himself whether to follow it—both of which possibilities undercut public confidence in the basis for his votes in the vaccine cases.

A Year After the Capitol Insurrection, the Threat is Coming from Inside the Building

In light of the approaching one-year anniversary of the January 6 Capitol Insurrection, Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf argues that the next assault on American democracy could come from within the Capitol and other institutions of American democracy. Professor Dorf points out that the phrase “political violence” is an oxymoron in the context of a democracy; to practice democratic politics is to accept a common set of ground rules for resolving policy disputes peacefully, and when the loser of an election uses violence to try to change the result, democratic politics ceases functioning.

Who’s a Bounty Hunter? How the Supreme Court’s Own Standing Precedents Answer the Effort to Normalize Enforcement Outsourcing in the Texas Abortion Case

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf explains why the concern expressed by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissent in the Texas abortion case (Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson) that other states will follow Texas’s example and employ “private bounty hunters” is well founded and legitimate.

Justice Kavanaugh’s Misdirection Plays in the Mississippi Abortion Case

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on last week’s oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in which the Court will consider whether to overturn the right to abortion recognized in Roe v. Wade and subsequent cases. Specifically, Professor Dorf analyzes statements and questions by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, particularly in light of statements he made during his confirmation hearing.

Democrats Should Accept Mitch McConnell’s Debt Ceiling Offer as a Holiday Gift

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf explains why Democrats should accept without further delay Senator Mitch McConnell’s offer of a streamlined process to pass a debt ceiling increase via the reconciliation process. Professor Dorf points out that due to opposition to filibuster reform by Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, this is the only way to avoid an economic catastrophe as a result of the debt ceiling crisis.

A Question by Justice Thomas During the Second Amendment Argument Inadvertently Exposes a Weakness of his Originalist Philosophy

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf explores the meaning of a question Justice Clarence Thomas asked during the oral argument in New. York State Rifle. & Pistol Association v. Bruen about the interpretation of the Second Amendment: “should we look at the founding, or should we look at the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, which then, of course, applies it to the states?” Professor Dorf argues that the question exposes a weakness of Justice Thomas’s originalist philosophy and affirms what we already know about arguments rooted in original meaning: they typically serve a rhetorical function, and Justices invoke them to justify decisions taken on other, ideological, grounds.

The Supreme Court’s Authority is at Stake in the Texas Abortion Case

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf argues that even the procedural issues presented in the federal government’s challenge to Texas’s restrictive abortion law are high stakes. Professor Dorf argues that the procedural question fundamentally asks whether the U.S. Supreme Court will permit state-sanctioned lawlessness.

Money, Law, and Other Noble Lies

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf critiques the suggestion that the Treasury might instruct the Mint to create high-value platinum coins to pay federal obligations and avert a debt ceiling crisis. Professor Dorf argues that such action risks eroding public confidence in the very idea that money has value. He recognizes that in a democracy, government should generally trust the People with the truth but says there is sometimes a need to promote a “noble lie” for the good of society.

Is Democratic Gerrymandering of New York’s Congressional Delegation Hypocritical? Perhaps, But Unilateral Disarmament is Worse

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf argues that Democrats may be justified in gerrymandering New York’s congressional districts even as they complain about gerrymandering by Republican-controlled state legislatures in Texas, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. Professor Dorf points out that it is sometimes but not always hypocritical to seek to change the law but continue to engage in behavior inconsistent with the change one seeks, and in the case of political gerrymandering, failure to do so amounts to unilateral disarmament.