Analysis and Commentary on Government

Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief for Houses of Worship: Why the Establishment Clause Forbids this Most Recent Attempt by Religious Lobbyists to Obtain Government Support and Funding

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton argues that Hurricane Sandy disaster relief cannot constitutionally be extended to religious institutions, and notes that such relief was not extended to houses of worship in prior, similar situations. She also contends that religious institutions should go back to their days of eschewing government funding entirely. Accordingly, Hamilton opposes the Federal Disaster Assistance Non-Profit Fairness Act, and notes that the church/state entanglement issues that will arise if the government is involved in funding the rebuilding of a damaged house of worship.

The No Budget, No Pay Bill, the Twenty-Seventh Amendment and the Debt Ceiling

Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on a bill that purports to withhold salary from all members of a House during the time the House has failed to produce a budget. Amar contends that such a bill violates the Constitution’s Twenty-Seventh Amendment, which states that “No law, varying the compensation for the services of Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election for Representatives shall have occurred.” The bill itself purports to comply with the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, but Amar is deeply skeptical about that claim.

Dealing With Aaron Swartz in the Nixonian Tradition: Overzealous Overcharging Leads to a Tragic Result

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the Aaron Swartz case—in which the brilliant young computer programmer was, according to many commentators, including Dean himself, overzealously prosecuted—and eventually chose suicide over the likely lengthy prison sentence that he faced, based on his downloading for free numerous journal articles that otherwise would have cost money to access, and using MIT facilities to do so. Dean recalls instances where others have proved more reasonable, such as the case of a Vietnam War demonstrator with which Dean was familiar, and deems the Swartz case an instance of blatant prosecutorial overcharging. Dean also warns that there is nothing unusual about Swartz's case, in that prosecutorial overcharging is rife.

What Can The President Do When Congress Gives Him a “Trilemma” of Unconstitutional Choices? Understanding Why the President Must Exceed the Debt Ceiling

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf and Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan argue that, faced with a trilemma of unconstitutional choices, President Obama effectively has no choice but to exceed the debt ceiling, and they explain exactly why that is. Buchanan and Dorf describe why, to honor the Constitution, a President must choose to issue debt in excess of the statutory limit, if the budget otherwise requires him to do so. They also argue that even Republicans in Congress should want the President to issue more debt, if Congress itself is unable to find a way to do its duty and increase the debt ceiling as needed. In their analysis, Buchanan and Dorf also invoke the idea that some choices are more unconstitutional than others; constitutionality, in other words, isn’t just either/or.

A Mismatch Between Tax Politics and Deficit Rhetoric: A Very Bad Tax Deal Is Passed by Politicians Who Do Not Understand the Economics of Deficits

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan sharply critiques the tax deal that was just passed. Buchanan contends that the big picture here is very different from that painted by Beltway insiders in the run-up to the deal, in important ways. To support his points, Buchanan covers the basics of the deal; points out that merely because both sides were disappointed does not mean that a good deal was struck; and questions the need for the deal in light of the fact that the long-term budget situation looks significantly better than most people think, in part because certain pessimistic assumptions about health-care costs have so far not proven true.

A Necessary Beginning To Ending Capitol Gridlock: Filibuster Reform

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean urges that filibuster reform is vitally necessary if the nation is to get Congress working again. Dean places the problem squarely on Republicans’ shoulders, and describes the Party’s filibuster abuses. He also notes the baleful effect of the Republicans’ use of the filibuster upon the judicial confirmation process, triggering an emergency situation in the judicial branch. Dean comments on what effective filibuster reform would look like; contends that there are no strong arguments against it; and explains the so-called “nuclear option” that Democrats still could invoke if they so chose.

How a Case About Decriminalization of Marijuana Has Substantial Implications for the Rights of Gay and Lesbian Persons

Justia columnist Vikram David Amar and Justia guest columnist Alan Brownstein, both U.C., Davis law professors, comment on the connection between a case about decriminalizing marijuana, and another case about gay and lesbian rights—and in particular, about sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), which are now prohibited in California where those under 18 are involved. Amar and Brownstein describe SOCE methods, and the two cases, with very different judicial results, which confronted the question whether barring SOCE violates the First Amendment, and particularly the right of doctors to communicate with their patients. They then explain the central importance of the marijuana-decriminalization precedent when it comes to the SOCE cases, which may well end up before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Why Grover Norquist’s Anti-Tax Pledge Is Unenforceable and Unconstitutional

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean takes strong issue with the Norquist Pledge, which Washington lobbyist Grover Norquist has asked Members of Congress to sign. The Pledge says, “I [insert name] pledge to the taxpayers of the state of [insert name], and to the American people that I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.” The Pledge has become significant in the context of raising taxes as a solution to the potential “fiscal cliff” crisis. Dean contends that the Pledge is not only a bad idea, but also one that violates the Constitution. Moreover, Dean points out that, as the pledge is not a valid contract, for it is missing key elements that contract law requires, it is also not enforceable as such.

The Global Child Sex Abuse Scandals in Institutions Continue, With Australia Now Joining the Countries That Are Investigating: What Congress and the President Should Do Here in the U.S.

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton discusses the child-sex-abuse investigation in Australia and developments regarding child sex abuse here in the U.S. Hamilton argues that America’s response to evidence of child sex abuse in our institutions has been woefully deficient. While some local or state prosecutors have moved forward, Hamilton argues that what is needed, as well, is a response at the federal level. Hamilton suggests that Members of Congress are afraid to take on the relevant institutions, despite the terrible toll that child sex abuse takes on children and the monetary costs that are associated with that toll. Hamilton argues, however, that addressing child sex abuse is not only the right thing to do, but also ultimately in Members of Congress’ political interests. In particular, she urges Republicans to change their focus from “unborn children” to actual children who are suffering due to child sex abuse. Hamilton also urges Democrats in Congress and President Obama to investigate and act on this important issue, including by reforming the insurance industry's role.

What Do We Really Owe to Future Generations? The Devastation of Hurricane Sandy Exposes the Fallacy of Focusing on the Federal Government’s Deficit and Debt

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan connects the election, Hurricane Sandy, and the well-being of our children and the children of future generations of Americans. Analyzing a Romney/Ryan ad that had expressed worry about “saddling our children with debt,” Buchanan warns that what might be truly worrisome would be, conversely, to fail to spend money in ways that will improve the lives of future generations, with infrastructure high on the list. Buchanan cites Hurricane Sandy as an example, arguing that if floodgates are indeed necessary to protect New York City, then even if taking on debt would be necessary, the floodgates should be built. Buchanan also generalizes his point to apply to other infrastructure and other inter-generational government programs.

Progressive Car Insurance’s “Snapshot” Experiment: Should Consumers Be Wary of Being Individually Tracked While Driving?

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on instances of usage-based insurance (UBI), and warns of the risk of using this kind of technology until and unless it is carefully regulated. UBI programs use up-to-the-minute data on drivers, and safe drivers get discounts as a result, but UBI systems may also raise privacy concerns. Ramasastry focuses especially on Progressive Insurance’s “Snapshot” program, which showed that actual driving behavior is the best predictor of all of driver risk. Ramasastry suggests that UBI programs need to be closely regulated in order to ensure that the information they glean about drivers is not put to other uses, to which drivers did not specifically and carefully consent. While Progressive itself does not use GPS, but instead depends on other driving-related information, Ramasastry notes that other companies may well require GPS tracking in the future, or may offer it in exchange for lower rates.

Coercion, Volition, and Consent: Did the Supreme Court’s Decision Limiting Congress’s Ability to Cut Off Medicaid Funds Signal a New Sensitivity to the Realities of What Counts as a “Free” Choice?

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan comments on an interesting and little-remarked aspect of the Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known colloquially as “Obamacare”: the decision’s concept of what constitutes free choice. Buchanan examines the significance of that concept in the ACA case, and notes that—in addition to the decision’s significance for Commerce Clause cases, and taxing power cases—the ACA decision may possibly affect other cases, in other areas of law, that also turn on what counts as the exercise of free will, versus what counts as coercion.

Why Chief Justice Roberts Dared Not Overturn President Obama’s Healthcare Plan

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on Chief Judge John Roberts’s role in the Supreme Court ruling upholding Obamacare. Dean anticipated that Roberts would vote, as he did, to uphold the healthcare statute, and Dean notes some other learned commentators who had also anticipated Roberts’s stance. A major factor in Dean’s prediction as to where Roberts would come down was Robert’s own testimony in the confirmation hearings that led him to join the Court. Describing himself in those hearings as an “umpire,” Roberts made clear that he would apply pre-existing, well-grounded legal rules, and not create new ones out of whole cloth. To show how Roberts did just that, Dean sums up the various Commerce Clause precedents that were relevant in the Obamacare case, and explains how Roberts dutifully followed them.

Social Security and the Economy: The President and Congress Should Be Happy That Social Security Is Not Part of the Problem, and They Should Leave It Alone

George Washington law professor and economist Neil Buchanan argues that the current debate about Social Security is dangerously misleading in several ways. Buchanan faults both parties for using inaccurate rhetoric: President Obama, he says, must stop acting as if Social Security is in peril, and both the President and Congress must stop using Social Security as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Republicans. In turn, and most importantly, Buchanan argues, Republicans must stop misrepresenting Social Security’s current financial situation as being dire, when that really is not the case. The best approach now, he argues, is to leave Social Security alone and focus on improving the economy. Buchanan also calls for an end to misleading estimates regarding in what year Social Security will be “bankrupt,” as they only scare and mislead the public. Finally, too, he warns that calls to “Act now to save Social Security” are often plans to weaken Social Security, in disguise.

How Rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt Hold Lessons for Emerging Democracies, and for Our Own

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on what emerging democracies, and even America’s own long-established democracy, can learn from two recent rulings from the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt. As Dorf explains, the rulings, and the political context in which they arose, can teach us much about courts’ role in promoting democracy. He notes that the world has decisively opted for constitutional review, and the protection of individual rights, which are now a standard feature of established democracies around the globe. Dorf notes, however, that constitutional courts in emerging democracies not only must worry about the tyranny of the majority and the protection of individual rights, but must also be concerned that the government will fall prey to a military coup. In addition to commenting on Egypt’s situation, Dorf also cites Pakistan as another instructive example of the role of courts.

A Supreme Court Ruling on Jurisdiction Has Potential Implications for the Law Regarding Drone Strikes

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf discusses the Supreme Court’s decision in Elgin v. Dep’t of Commerce, which was just recently handed down. Dorf argues that the opinion, though not one of Term’s blockbusters, is still quite significant. That is, in part, because the decision may have implications for the U.S.’s controversial practice of using drone strikes to kill persons deemed to be U.S. enemies—including even U.S. citizens who are abroad. Moreover, Dorf notes that Elgin may have implications for the question whether the Obama Administration has been on firm legal ground when it has declined to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In addition to these more practical implications of Elgin, Dorf contends that the decision may also be significant as a matter of constitutional theory regarding the respective roles of each of the branches of government.

What Does the Pew Research Center’s Recent Survey Showing an Historically Low Favorability Rating of the Supreme Court Tell Us?

Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram Amar comments on the results of a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, regarding the percentage of adult Americans who hold a favorable view of the Supreme Court. Amar notes that the current percentage is 52%, a 25-year low. After describing the details of the Pew Survey, Amar considers the possible reasons for this low rating, suggesting that factors that may play a role include (1) The perception that the Court is no better than Congress (which gets low favorability ratings and is, obviously, partisan); (2) The impressions of the Justices that have been conveyed by some recent confirmation processes, particularly when nominees have made embarrassing gaffes that were ceaselessly repeated in the media, or have constantly avoided questions about the law; and (3) Republicans’ displeasure with the Court on social-issues cases, despite the Court’s conservative track record in its cases generally—and in certain blockbuster cases—over the last dozen years, in combination with what seems to be the advent of a more radicalized Republican Party.

The High Court Needn’t Worry About Sliding Downhill: An Evaluation of the “Slippery Slope” Concerns Expressed at the Oral Argument in the Challenge to the Mandate Provision of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)

Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram David Amar focuses in on a particular—and very significant—aspect of the Supreme Court’s recent oral argument regarding the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare”: Certain Justices seemed concerned that if Obamacare’s “individual mandate”—that is, its placing responsibility on individuals to purchase health insurance themselves—were to be upheld, then a slippery slope would follow. In particular, numerous conservative Justices asked, If the feds can require each person to buy health insurance, what can’t they force people to purchase? Amar contends that this “slippery slope” doesn’t really slip—pointing out that a very similar danger has existed in Commerce Clause jurisprudence for 50 years, and that the Court has proven more than able to address it. Thus, the individual mandate, he suggests, makes the slope no more slippery than it has been for quite a while now. Amar also cites the tools the Court has for limiting government powers in settings where mandates are already accepted, and contends that similar tools could be used in the context of Obamacare’s individual mandate.

Three Key Exchanges in the Obamacare Oral Argument

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on three important exchanges among the Supreme Court’s Justices that occurred during the Obamacare oral argument. As Dorf explains, the first exchange tested whether the government could constitutionally require Americans to buy things other than healthcare, such as burial insurance, mobile phones, or American cars. The second exchange involved a hypothetical regarding the government’s power to institute mandatory inoculation. And finally, the third exchange involved the Constitution's limits on “direct taxes.” Having discussed these important exchanges among the Justices, Dorf also describes what he believes to be the basis for the government’s best hope of winning the case.

Understanding the Misunderstandings on Both Sides of the U.S.-Chinese Financial Relationship: Who Is Taking Advantage of Whom?

George Washington law professor and economist Neil Buchanan comments on the financial relationship between U.S. and China—which he argues is far from as problematic as some claim. Buchanan covers the issues that have been raised regarding China’s holding U.S. debt; argues that the mutual China/U.S. dependence is ultimately healthy; discusses a possible worry on China’s part that the U.S. would accomplish a stealth repudiation of its debt through deliberate inflation, but deems that worry unrealistic; and considers whether the U.S. holds political power over China due to its holding our debt. Ultimately, Buchanan suggests, Americans should not be particularly concerned about the U.S.-China relationship, but should be quite concerned by the situation of the have-nots in both countries. Both governments, Buchanan concludes, need to ensure that the prosperity their country enjoys benefits not just the elites, but also the whole of society. While China is besting us in infrastructure improvements, he notes, it is not, at the same time, improving its citizen’s lives as it ought to. Yet the economic relationship between our two nations, he says, is sound.

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 Co... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George Washington U... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University. Colb tea... more

John Dean
John Dean

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

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

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

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is one of the country’s leading church-state scholars and the Fox Professor of Pra... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

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

Anita Ramasastry
Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of... more

Ronald D. Rotunda
Ronald D. Rotunda

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley Chair and Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

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