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
The Hidden Ideological Stakes of SCOTUS Patent Case

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf describes the ostensibly complex legal issues presented in United States v. Arthrex, Inc., in which the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument earlier this week, and explains how those issues reflect an ideological divide as to other, more accessible matters. Professor Dorf argues that although many conservatives would like to dismantle the modern administrative state, our complex modern society all but requires these government agencies, so conservatives instead seek to make them politically accountable through a Senate-confirmed officer answerable to the president, furthering the so-called unitary-executive theory of Article II.

The Upside-Down Treatment of Religious Exceptions Cases in the Supreme Court

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week to reject an emergency application from the State of Alabama to lift a stay on the execution of Willie B. Smith III. Professor Dorf observes the Court’s unusual alignment of votes in the decision and argues that, particularly as reflected by the recent COVID-19 decisions, the liberal and conservative Justices have essentially swapped places from the seminal 1990 case Employment Division v. Smith, which established that the First Amendment does not guarantee a right to exceptions from neutral laws of general applicability.

The Excessive Complexity of Federal Court Gatekeeping Law

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf explains why Trump v. Sierra Club, a challenge to President Trump’s border wall currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, exemplifies the needless complexity of federal court gatekeeping law. Professor Dorf lists the various legal doctrines that restrict access to the federal courts and argues that their number and complexity tend to undercut, rather than serve, justice.

Obstacles to the Biden Agenda Include Americans’ Belief in Nonsense

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the willingness of Americans to believe lies and misinformation, pointing to confirmation bias and social media bubbles as playing key roles in this problem. Professor Dorf argues that we must render Trumpism beyond the pale, in part by shunning those who spread lies and minimizing opportunities for them to spread dangerous misinformation and incite riots.

Odysseus, Avocados, and Election Litigation Timing

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf explains the legal concepts of ripeness and laches, which pertain to the timing of filing a lawsuit, and argues that in the context of election lawsuits, it is far better for courts to relax ripeness rules and risk unnecessary adjudications than to discard the doctrine of laches and risk widespread disenfranchisement and the undermining of confidence in fair elections.

Burrowing and Boobytraps: How Trump’s Eleventh-Hour Maneuvers Differ From Those of Previous Lame-Duck Presidents—and How They Don’t

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf argues Trump’s actions during his final months are different from those of past presidents, and particularly dangerous. As Dorf explains, Trump is aiming to do damage for its own sake, whereas other lame-duck presidents have at least sought to advance policy aims in pursuit of some conception of the common good.

Mandatory Vaccination and the Future of Abortion Rights

In light of recent news that Pfizer and Moderna have apparently created safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19, Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf considers whether the government can mandate vaccination for people who lack a valid medical reason not to get vaccinated. Dorf briefly addresses issues of federalism and religious objections to vaccination and then addresses the question whether mandatory vaccination might be inconsistent with a right to abortion.

The Affordable Care Act Challenge and the Senate Runoff Elections in Georgia

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the third challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that has made it before the U.S. Supreme Court, and considers how the case will play in the upcoming Georgia runoff elections. Dorf argues that absent a dramatic and highly unusual development—like a Supreme Court decision rejecting the ACA challenge in the next few weeks—that should help the Democratic candidates in Georgia’s runoff elections.

Options for Biden’s Supreme Court Reform Commission

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf explores several options that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden should consider if he wins the election and fulfills his proposal of convening a bipartisan commission of constitutional scholars to study and recommend court reforms. Dorf discusses the benefits and limitations of each option and describes how Congress and a President Biden could implement meaningful court reform that could withstand review by the Supreme Court itself.

In Gratuitously Attacking Marriage Equality, Clarence Thomas Accidentally Raised an Important Question About the Scope of Religious Liberty

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a statement by Justice Clarence Thomas (joined by Justice Samuel Alito) gratuitously expressing his hostility to the Court’s same-sex marriage decision in Obergefell v. Hodges and his sympathy for Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples even after the Supreme Court’s decision. Although Justice Thomas characterizes Davis and those like her as people who “refus[e] to alter their religious beliefs in the wake of prevailing orthodoxy,” Dorf points out that no one asked Davis to alter her religious beliefs. Rather, the lawsuit against her contends that she must provide services to the public in accordance with their constitutional rights, whatever her religious beliefs.

No, Republicans Cannot Throw the Presidential Election into the House so that Trump Wins

UF Levin College of Law professor and economist Neil H. Buchanan, Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf, and Harvard Law professor emeritus Laurence H. Tribe explain why President Trump’s plan to win the election through a forced decision by the U.S. House of Representatives relies on an incorrect reading of the plain text of the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution. The authors argue, even in a best-case scenario for Trump, in which the electoral votes of Pennsylvania are thrown out, Biden would still win with a majority of the resulting electoral votes and the House would simply not have the legal authority to vote on an election that had already been decided.

Is Anyone Surprised That Our Norm-Busting President Ignored the Debate Rules?

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on last night’s presidential debate between President Trump and former Vice President Biden. Dorf observes that Trump’s repeated violations of the agreed-upon rules of the debate; his outrageous substantive comments refusing to condemn white supremacy (and instead naming a specific white supremacist group) and declining to say he would accept the outcome of the election; and his callous response to Biden’s mention of Biden’s deceased son Beau should alert any yet unaware Americans to the fact that Trump has no sense of decency.

GOP-Packed Appeals Court Splits Hairs to Give Florida GOP a Victory Over Florida Voters

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a recent decision by the Eleventh Circuit sitting en banc, in which the court upheld Florida’s Section 0751, by which the Republican-controlled state legislature gutted a voter referendum that would have restored the right to vote to ex-felons in the state who had served their time. Dorf points out that the court’s vote was split based on the party of the President who appointed them and argues that the majority exhibited an attitude of “petty sticklerism,” invoking formalistic and reality-denying reasons to rule as it did.

Shinzo Abe’s Biggest Failure Is His Greatest Legacy: Preservation of Japan’s Anti-Military Constitutional Provision

In response to the news that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned due to health reasons, Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on Abe’s efforts to amend Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, which was imposed on the country by Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur after World War II. Dorf describes one bad reason and two good reasons that have been offered for a change in Article 9, but he argues that the case for retaining Article 9 is stronger.

Don’t Blame the SCOTUS DACA Ruling for Difficulties Undoing Trump’s Damage

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf responds to claims that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last term invalidating the Trump administration’s effort to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program license President Trump to take actions that will be difficult for a future Democratic administration to undo. Dorf argues that characterizing the ruling as a win for Trump and his executive power is far-fetched, and we should instead be concerned with the long-lasting damage to the environment and our nation’s foreign policy caused by the Trump administration.

The Least Interesting Branch: Why Supreme Court Leaks Reveal Little

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a recent series of articles published on CNN.com purporting to reveal deep secrets about the U.S. Supreme Court’s deliberations. Dorf points out that the so-called revelations about the Court reveal little or nothing that Court watchers don’t already know or infer, which, paints a reassuring picture of the Court as operating behind closed doors exactly as we expect it to.

What Good Is a Treaty That Congress Can Simply Discard? Quite a Bit, as the Creek Nation’s Victory in the Supreme Court Shows

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in McGirt v. Oklahoma, holding that a substantial portion of the state of Oklahoma is an Indian reservation of the Creek Nation. Dorf observes that the majority’s approach in McGirt makes it more likely that courts will find the existence of reservations for other tribes, but there could be collateral consequences in many other contexts.

Mr. Dooley Meets Mr. Justice Gorsuch: Will the Election Returns Follow the Supreme Court?

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf discusses a claim by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley that the purpose of originalism and textualism is to provide a mechanism for obtaining results that religious conservatives favor on ideological grounds. In light of two recent Supreme Court decisions that disappointed conservatives, Dorf considers how conservatives might respond to these decisions and expresses hope that they might rethink their support for Trump. Dorf observes that while Supreme Court rulings do sometimes follow election returns, the reverse is also sometimes true, and we can’t yet know which direction this year will flow.