Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record in Rasul v. Bush (2004), involving detentions at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, and in Geren v. Omar & Munaf v. Geren (2008), involving detentions at Camp Cropper in Iraq. Presently he is counsel for Abu Zubaydah, whose interrogation in 2002 prompted the Bush Administration to draft the “torture memos.” In June 2005, at the invitation of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, Margulies testified at the first Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on detainee issues.

Margulies writes and lectures widely on civil liberties in the wake of September 11 and his commentaries have appeared in numerous publications, including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the National Law Journal, the Miami Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Legal Times. He is also the author of the widely acclaimed book, Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power (Simon and Schuster 2006). Among other accolades, Guantánamo was named one of the best books of 2006 by The Economist magazine. It received the prestigious Silver Gavel Award of 2007, given annually by the American Bar Association to the book that best promotes “the American public’s understanding of the law and the legal system.” It also won the Scribes Book Award of 2007, given annually by the American Society of Legal Writers to honor “the best work of legal scholarship published during the previous year.” He is also the author of What Changed When Everything Changed: 9/11 and the Making of National Identity (Yale Univ. Press 2013) and has won numerous awards for his work since 9/11.

Columns by Joseph Margulies
What Precisely Did Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis Do Wrong?

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies discusses the controversy surrounding Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis writing character letters in support of their friend and fellow actor Danny Masterson, who was convicted of rape. Professor Margulies argues that while Kutcher and Kunis should be allowed to plead for “social forgiveness” for Masterson, they crossed a line by encouraging the judge to doubt the jury’s verdict; the challenge lies in how society can adopt a more forgiving attitude without diminishing the severity of wrongdoings.

Contempt of Cop

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies explores the journey of Rob Hildum, a former Assistant District Attorney in New Orleans and now a judge in Washington, D.C., who reflects on his past complicity in a system that disproportionately targets and harms Black individuals. Professor Margulies connects Hildum’s narrative with broader issues of systemic racism and police brutality, using recent cases like the killing of Ta’Kiya Young in Ohio to demonstrate that the unwillingness to challenge deeply ingrained beliefs and practices—like the appropriateness of “street justice”—perpetuates injustice.

Who’s Afraid of the Surveillance State?

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies delves into the paradoxical attitudes society holds towards surveillance: while people criticize the invasion of privacy by the surveillance state, they also endorse and benefit from its capabilities, particularly when it serves a purpose they support. This conundrum is further complicated by the blurred lines between state and private surveillance, the use of publicly available data by companies, and the desire to hold the state accountable through the very means of surveillance.

Donald Trump, Robert Bowers, and the Criminal Law

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies reflects on two recent high-profile legal events: the indictment of Donald Trump for allegedly subverting democracy and the death sentencing of Robert Bowers for the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Professor Margulies suggests that these cases, viewed by many as a triumph for the rule of law, represent societal attempts to protect integral aspects of American identity, with their punishment seen as purging threats to this identity. However, Professor Margulies argues that the law should not be weaponized to decide who belongs in society, as it usurps an authority that rightfully belongs to the people.

The Department of Justice Cannot Cure What Ails Memphis

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies comments on the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into the City of Memphis and its police department following the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, which exposed a culture of violence and indifference within the department. While Professor Margulies welcomes this investigation as a step in the right direction, he argues that the Department of Justice lacks the tools and authority to address systemic issues related to policing and public safety in Memphis; ultimately, the solution must come from local initiatives and collaboration within the community.

The Dangerous Allure of Seemingly Inescapable Facts

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies comments on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 303 Creative v. Elenis, in which the Court ostensibly held that a Colorado public accommodations law was unconstitutional as applied to website designer Lorie Smith because it compelled her to create artistic content in violation of her religious beliefs. Professor Margulies argues that the decision has potentially far-reaching implications that could return us to the days of Jim Crow—all because the stipulated facts in that case seemed (to some Justices) to lead to an inescapable result.

Good and Bad Reasons to Prosecute a Former President

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies distinguishes between the calls to prosecute officials from the George. W. Bush administration over their war crimes and the present prosecution of Donald Trump. Professor Margulies explains why he opposed prosecution of Bush but supports prosecution of Trump: Bush had the best interests of the country at heart, whereas the same cannot plausibly be said about Trump.

On to the Next Crisis

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies argues that the debt-ceiling “crisis” was manufactured by politicians and the media and that our nation is structurally induced to preserve and enflame such problems rather than solve them. Professor Margulies suggests that we view hype over alleged crises with skepticism and that we seek to understand the structural forces that drive “crisis-speak” so we can better resist its pull.

Finally, Some Good News

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies comments on the recent news, reported by the Sentencing Project, that between 2000 (the peak year) and 2020, the number of children detained by the criminal legal system experienced a 77% decline; indeed, the number fell every year between 2000 and 2020. Professor Margulies points out that even while we inevitably construct social meaning from crimes in general, we should celebrate the bare fact of this reduction in juvenile incarceration.

Chat Got a B

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies expresses concern over the ability of ChatGPT—the AI-powered chatbot—to draft increasingly sophisticated and accurate writings that some college students might use instead of putting in the painstaking work of writing on their own. Professor Margulies asked ChatGPT to generate a response to an assignment akin to one he would assign in his own class, and it generated a B-quality essay. He then explores what this means for student learning—particularly in the context of writing.

“Somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me.”

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies comments on the text message from Fox News host Tucker Carlson that apparently crossed the line and led to his being fired. Professor Margulies explores the two most common reactions to that text message and explains why one reaction is silly and the other is dangerously naïve.

Money Well Spent

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies compares the costs of United States military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, with what that same amount of money could accomplish at home. Professor Margulies points out that necessary investments like cleaning up toxic waste, replacing lead pipes and service lines, and fixing “structurally deficient” bridges cost a fraction of what the country has spent (and will spend) on unnecessary military operations worldwide.

“I Would Take Just Being Left Alone”

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies explains that social forgiveness—that is, restoring membership to someone who has committed a wrong against society—is, in the words of one reader “being left alone, free of probation, registration, or record.” Professor Margulies points out that respect for the rules of the group and tolerance for others are essential components of membership in (and reentry into) society.

Jack’s Choice, Our Challenge

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies describes a choice that Jack Teixeira—the 21-year-old former member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard accused of leaking classified documents on Discord servers—now faces: paint himself as a heroic truth-teller martyred by a war-mongering liberal political establishment, or as a chastened young man who made a terrible mistake but who loves his country and would never intentionally do her any harm. Professor Margulies points out this choice leads to the further question whether can society forgive Teixeira, or any wrongdoer, if they insist they have done no moral wrong.

A Breach of Decorum

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies comments on the recent expulsion of two Democratic representatives from the Tennessee legislature after the representatives (along with one other) participated in a peaceful but disruptive protest on the House floor. Professor Margulies points out that Tennessee has a history of silencing Democratic voices through state-law preemption of local laws on matters including minimum wage, antidiscrimination law, restrictions on plastic containers, access to broadband internet, gun control, and more.

How Much Is Enough?

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies argues that the only condition that justifies a prison sentence longer than 20 years is an ongoing threat to public safety, to be determined after that sentence has been served. Professor Margulies points out that, contrary to what many people think, individuals convicted of some of the most serious offenses, and who have already served exceptionally long terms, are often the people who are most apt to be valuable and contributing members of society, and who are best prepared for freedom.

The Hardest Question

Cornell professor of government Joseph Margulies describes the conundrum of reconciling the fact that prison sentences over 20 years are generally pointlessly cruel and unjust with the fury we feel against those who commit senseless mass murders. In particular Professor Margulies points to a new report by The Sentencing Project in support of their longstanding campaign to reduce the maximum prison sentence in the United States to 20 years, released on the same day that Erie County, New York, Judge Susan Eagan sentenced Buffalo shooter Payton Gendron to ten concurrent life sentences plus an additional 25 years to be served consecutively.

For Any Good to Come of It, We Must Judge the Murder of Tyre Nichols in a Forgiving Spirit

In this fifth column in a series about the murder of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers, Cornell professor of government Joseph Margulies argues that, for any good to come of Nichols’s death, we must judge his killers in a forgiving spirit. Professor Margulies explains what it means to judge in a forgiving spirit: to assess the actions of another anchored in the unshakeable belief that those who have done wrong are nonetheless one of us.

How to Think About Race in the Murder of Tyre Nichols

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies points out that the murder of Tyre Nichols challenges the oversimplified conception of authority and race that prevails in this country. Drawing upon the language of historian Robin Kelley, Professor Margulies argues that police violence is the end result of a racialized processnot merely an expression of anti-Black racism by white police officers.

The Wrong Epiphany

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies points out that the Memphis police officers who beat Tyre Nichols to death were doing exactly what the SCORPION unit of the department was supposed to do. Professor Margulies argues that until we collectively quash the belief that “we” are threatened until “they” are brought to heel, society will futilely pursue public safety while disregarding public suffering.