Analysis and Commentary on Constitutional Law
How the Coronavirus Crisis Reveals Weaknesses Not Just in America’s Public Health Systems But in Our Constitutional Doctrines

Illinois Law dean and professor Vikram David Amar explains how the current crisis caused by the novel coronavirus reveals flaws in both America’s public health system and also in the country’s constitutional doctrines. Responding in part to Professor Michael C. Dorf’s column of March 15 urging uniform federal restrictions, Amar expresses doubt as to whether Congress’s powers under Article I of the Constitution permit imposition of such a lockdown in the first place.

Local Control: Massachusetts Law Provides Stronger Protection Against Sexual Harassment than Federal Law

SMU Dedman School of Law professor Joanna L. Grossman comments on a recent decision by a federal district court applying Massachusetts law that demonstrates the power of tough state antidiscrimination laws. Grossman describes the facts of the case and the differences between Massachusetts and federal law and explains why robust state laws have the power to hold institutions liable when they delegate authority to those who abuse it.

Supreme Court Gives States the Green Light to Infringe Copyrights

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a recent decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that Congress lacked constitutional authority to enact the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act of 1990, which gives individuals the right to sue a state for damages for copyright infringement. Dorf describes the complexity of the Court’s sovereign immunity doctrine and points out the Court’s peculiar failure to simply invalidate a portion of the statute while severing and preserving the valid portions and/or applications of it—which the Court has done in some other cases.

What Happens Now?

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies points out that in the face of the present COVID-19 pandemic, there seems to be general consensus nationwide that the federal government should intervene to mitigate the economic damage, even among those who very recently believed that social problems are better solved by the private sector than by the government. Margulies asks whether this new perspective will also evoke compassion. He points out that, given the expected duration of the fight against the novel coronavirus, $2,500 is not nearly sufficient for a struggling family of four who can no longer work. What will we do for the tens of millions of Americans facing disaster?

Can the Republicans Cancel the Elections, Even Though Trump Can’t?

UF Levin College of Law professor and economist Neil H. Buchanan considers whether (and how) President Trump or his supporters in Congress could cancel the 2020 elections, citing public safety as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Buchanan points out that because states control the procedures for the election, Trump would need Republican governors of certain blue states to shut down their state’s elections—something Buchanan stops short of saying is likely or unlikely.

The Lessons the Coronavirus Crisis Can Teach Us About the Religious Liberty that Serves the Public Good (aka the Framers’ Religious Liberty)

Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the country’s leading church-state scholars, describes some of the lessons the novel coronavirus pandemic can teach us about religious liberty. Hamilton points out that COVID-19 is nondenominational and nonpartisan, yet we are already seeing some groups claim to be exempt from the public-health prohibitions on large gatherings, on the basis of their religious beliefs.

The Perils of Relying on the Wrong Clause—Grounding the Ministerial Exception at the Supreme Court

GW Law professors Ira C. Lupu and Robert W. Tuttle explain why the path the U.S. Supreme Court might be about to take in ministerial exception cases—relying on the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment—is dangerously misguided. Lupu and Tuttle argue that the ministerial exception rests primarily on the Establishment Clause and is strictly limited to employment decisions about who leads or controls a faith community, or who transmits a faith.

Obey the Law

In light of a case currently on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket for this term, UNLV Boyd School of Law professor Leslie C. Griffin explains the importance of requiring employers and others to obey generally applicable laws not targeting specific religious practices—the result of the Court’s holding in Employment Division v. Smith. Griffin argues that it is hard to imagine a peaceful United States if organizations had a constitutional or statutory right to discriminate against all types of people.

Can A City Refuse Land-Use Permits Because it Doesn’t Like the Federal Policies the Property Will be Used to Implement?

Illinois Law dean and professor Vikram David Amar explains why a local government cannot constitutionally create policy discriminating against entities that do business with the feds. Specifically, Amar discusses a situation in which the city of Farland, California, is trying to prevent a privately operated state prison facility located in that city from contracting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

An Important Second Circuit Ruling on Sanctuary Jurisdictions May Have Reached the Right Result, but En Route it Misread the Momentous Sebelius Supreme Court Ruling on Conditional Federal Funding to States

Illinois Law dean and professor Vikram David Amar comments on a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit regarding so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions. Amar argues that while the Second Circuit may have arrived at the correct conclusion of law, it also misunderstood the Supreme Court’s decision in NFIB v. Sebelius, in which the Court struck down the “Medicare expansion” provision of the Affordable Care Act as unconstitutionally coercive. Amar points out that in Sebelius, the Court found the fact that the Medicare expansion provision of the ACA vitiated the terms of a preexisting deal was sufficient to hold that provision coercive.

Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: The Supreme Court Considers Whether an Independent Agency with a Single Director Who Can Be Removed Only “For Cause” is Constitutional

Rodger Citron, Associate Dean for Research & Scholarship and Professor of Law at Touro Law, comments on a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument this week that presents the question whether an independent agency with a single director who can be removed only “for cause” violates the separation of powers principle enshrined in the Constitution. Citron notes that the decision to hear the case is unusual in that there is no conflict among the federal appeals courts, but he points out that that the government’s support of the cert. petition and then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s dissent on the issue when it came before the D.C. Circuit likely helped the present case come before the Court.

D.C. Circuit Dismissal of Congressional Subpoena Lawsuit (Further) Erodes American Democracy

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on last week’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit holding that federal courts could not enforce a congressional subpoena to former White House Counsel Don McGahn because federal courts cannot adjudicate interbranch disputes. Dorf describes some of the major flaws in the court’s reasoning and explains why the ruling is a clear victory for Donald Trump and a loss for the constitutional system.

“He Took It Like a Man”: Harvey Weinstein’s Conviction and the Limits of Discrimination Law

SMU Dedman School of Law professor Joanna L. Grossman comments on the recent conviction of Harvey Weinstein for criminal sexual assault in the first degree and rape in the third degree. Grossman points out that our country’s antidiscrimination laws do not actually protect the people they intend to protect, instead focusing on employer policies and procedures. She argues that we should take this opportunity to learn from the system of criminal law, which did work in this case, to fix the antidiscrimination laws that purport to protect against sexual harassment and misconduct.

Is a Gunshot Wound a Seizure?

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether a police officer who shot and hit a fleeing suspect “seized” that suspect, thereby triggering the Fourth Amendment, even though the wounded suspect escaped the police. Colb explains some of the arguments and predicts an outcome that would affirm precedents and offers a compromise between competing constitutional concerns.

Two Constitutional Lessons Worth Remembering: Norms Are Different From Legal Rules; And Improper Intent Matters But Is Hard To Establish

Illinois law dean and professor Vikram David Amar comments on the controversy surrounding President Trump’s tweets about the sentencing of Roger Stone, addressing the important differences between norms and legal rules. Amar points out that the motive underlying such presidential decisions is ultimately what determines whether the action is improper—and that such motives are notoriously difficult to establish.

New York Sues the Trump Administration Over “Trusted Traveler” Eligibility

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on New York’s lawsuit against the federal government over the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to exclude New York residents from eligibility for Trusted Traveler programs. Dorf describes some of the interesting legal questions the lawsuit raises in terms of administrative law, judicial standing, and constitutional law.

Letting His Hair Down: Why a School District in Texas Is Wrong to Deprive a Male Student of an Education Because of the Length of His Hair

SMU Dedman School of Law professor Joanna L. Grossman and Duke law professor Katharine T. Bartlett explain why a public school district in Texas violated both the federal Constitution and Title IX by having (and enforcing) a hair-length policy for boys but not for girls. Grossman and Bartlett describe the facts of the case and the legal landscape for sex-specific dress and appearance policies before concluding that the school district’s decision to enforce the policy was not only poor judgment but illegal.

Kansas v. Glover and Conditional Irrelevance

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb discusses the concept of “conditional irrelevance”—which she first identified in a law review article in 2001—and explains why the concept is useful for understanding the arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in Kansas v. Glover. Through the lens of conditional irrelevance, Colb explains why the knowledge of one fact (that the owner of the vehicle in that case lacked a valid license) should not itself provide police reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle.

A Win for Equal Pay: The Third Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds A Law Designed to Address Wage Gap

SMU Dedman School of Law professor Joanna L. Grossman comments on a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upholding a local law designed to address the wage gap. Grossman describes the landscape of equal pay law and the efforts some states and localities have made to address the inequity.

Meet our Columnists
Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan, an economist and legal scholar, holds the James J. Freeland Eminent Scholar... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is the C.S. Wong Professor of Law at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973.... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

MARCI A. HAMILTON is the Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice, and Fox Family... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

Lesley Wexler is a Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately... more