Analysis and Commentary on Constitutional Law

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.

Severability May Hold the Key to Obamacare’s Future: How Much of the Law Will Survive the Supreme Court’s Review?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on a less often discussed but highly significant issue regarding the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on Obamacare: If a majority of the Court finds that the minimum coverage provision is unconstitutional, how much of the rest of the law should—and will—also be invalidated by the Court? As Dorf notes, the Court heard from three attorneys who addressed this question, on the third day of oral argument in the case. The plaintiffs in the case contended that none of Obamacare should survive, but Dorf contends to the contrary that, if the minimum coverage provision is struck down, most of Obamacare should still be left standing. Dorf explains the root of the presumption that various parts of a law are severable from each other, and critiques the plaintiffs’ argument that Obamacare should be struck down in its entirety—setting forth three important respects in which he argues that that argument was wrong. One key point Dorf makes is that the statute as issue would work better if the minimum coverage provision were to be left standing, but it would still work if that provision were to be struck down.

Was It a First Amendment Violation for a New York School to Suspend a Fifth Grader Who Shared a Violent but Perhaps Joking Wish?

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a student-speech case that was recently decided by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. As Hilden explains, the case raised the question whether a 10-year-old student’s First Amendment rights were violated when he was suspended for six days based on arguably threatening—but possibly merely joking—words that he had written during a classroom assignment. The Second Circuit panel split 2-1, with the majority siding with the school. However, Judge Rosemary Pooler, in dissent, contended that under the central school-speech precedent of Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., the student should have won. Judge Pooler argued that the young student's words were much more innocuous than the majority seemed to think, and emphasized that the Tinker test focuses on foreseeable disruption—of which, she concluded, there was little evidence in this case.

The “Other” Case This Term Testing Congress’ Enumerated Powers to Pass a Healthcare Law: Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland and FMLA

Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on a Supreme Court case from this Term that involves health care, but does not involve the PPACA (also nicknamed “Obamacare”). The case is Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, and the Court handed down its decision in that case last week. As Amar explains, in Coleman, the Court, by a 5-4 vote, struck down the provision in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that subjects state-level government employers to damage liability if they fail to provide the legally-required unpaid leave to employees for self-care for a serious medical condition. Amar contends that Coleman is noteworthy not only because FMLA is a significant federal statute, but also because the Court’s decision gives us insight regarding the judicial doctrines that govern the scope of federal powers.

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.

Why Interrogation in Jail May Not Count as “Custodial”: The Supreme Court Makes New Law in Howes v. Fields Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part Two in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her analysis of an important recent Supreme Court decision, Howes v. Fields, regarding the right to be read one’s Miranda rights—the familiar set of rights that begins with “You have the right to remain silent.” In Part One, Colb focused on a set of Supreme Court precedents that are relevant to the Howes case. Here, in Part Two, Colb takes on the case that is arguably the most relevant of all to Howes: Maryland v. Shatzer. Shatzer, as Colb explains, concerns what implications a “break in custody” might have for Miranda purposes, and whether such a “break in custody” can occur while a person is incarcerated. Colb goes on to explain and critique the Howes Court’s approach to related Miranda issues. She takes sharp issue, in particular, with what she characterizes as a deeply unrealistic view of prisoners’ lives in prison, on the part of the Court.

Why Interrogation in Jail May Not Count as “Custodial”: The Supreme Court Makes New Law in Howes v. Fields Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part One in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on an important recent Supreme Court decision, Howes v. Fields, regarding the right to be read one’s Miranda rights—the familiar set of rights that begins with “You have the right to remain silent.” As Colb explains, Fields sets forth the law regarding Miranda in the context of the interrogation of persons who are already incarcerated. In this column, Colb explains the facts and outcomes of the prior Supreme Court Miranda precedents that proved relevant in Fields. In both parts of the series, she takes strong issue with the Court’s reasoning in the Fields decision—in part because she argues that the Court has a very unrealistic view of the realities of prison.

The Controversy Over Public Breastfeeding: Breast May Be Best, but Objectors Say Not in My Backyard (or Airplane)

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on the law regarding public breastfeeding. She covers both of the potentially applicable types of laws: indecent exposure laws, and public accommodations laws. In addition, Grossman discusses a key New York decision regarding toplessness more generally; a decision based on a Wal-Mart employee’s telling a customer that she needed to either breastfeed her son in the bathroom, or leave the store; a decision based on a mother’s refusal to put a blanket over her baby’s head when she was breastfeeding on a Delta airplane, as it was waiting at the gate; and a Vermont law that establishes the right, in that state, to publicly breastfeed. In addition, Grossman notes the changing social mores regarding breastfeeding—illustrated by protests called “nurse-ins” that are often sparked, with the help of social media, when a woman’s attempt to breastfeed in public is shut down.

Sex Discrimination Claims Under Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause: The Eleventh Circuit Bridges the Gap

Guest columnist and Justia editor David Kemp comments on a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which held that the Fourteenth Amendment of the federal Constitution protects transgender government employees from discrimination on the basis of their transgender identity, as part of its protection from discrimination based on gender. Kemp notes that the Fourteenth Amendment was implicated because the plaintiff’s employer—which fired her when she explained to her boss that she planned to transition from male to female—was a government agency. As Kemp explains, the resulting decision was a precedent both for the illegality of a firing based on gender non-conformity, and for the proposition that a firing like the plaintiff's violates the federal Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Kemp also discusses the Supreme Court precedent of Price Waterhouse, which established that an employer cannot legally force an employee to conform to stereotypes associated with his or her gender, and the question of what level of scrutiny courts will apply to discrimination claims arising out of transgender status.

Fisher v. Texas and the Reasons Why Liberals and Conservatives on the Supreme Court Don’t Trust Each Other on Affirmative Action: Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram David Amar continues his two-part series of columns on the Supreme Court and affirmative action. In this column, Amar cites ways in which both the liberal and the conservative Justices have seemed to fall short of being truly intellectually honest on affirmative action issues. Amar focuses especially on what methodology the Court should use in affirmative action cases, and whether some affirmative action cases should not have been decided by the Court at all. More specifically, Amar looks at the use of originalist methodology in affirmative action cases, and issues of standing in such cases. Finally, he comments on the Fisher case, which is now before the Court, and involves the University of Texas’s admissions system.

The GOP, Privacy and Reproductive Rights, and the Backlash

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on the recent attack on reproductive and privacy rights by GOP presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Hamilton notes that some state legislatures, such as those of Ohio and Utah, have also taken similar stances—with Arizona and Kansas very possibly following the trend. Hamilton questions the wisdom of these stances, in light of the fact that a sizable majority of the country is not opposed to contraception, and the fact that only with the support of independent and moderate voters could the GOP candidate possibly beat President Obama’s re-election bid. Hamilton also notes that there has been a substantial backlash against such measures, by female legislators who are registering their protest by introducing laws that would, for instance, make it harder for men to obtain Viagra, and regulate ejaculation except when it occurs in the context of conception. Vasectomies, too, have been the target of the female legislators’ efforts—which, of course, are not serious attempts at getting laws passed, but are very serious attempts to draw attention to what the legislators believe is a dangerous attack on women’s rights. Hamilton adds her own “modest proposals” to those of the female legislators, and warns that moving into this delicate and personal area may cost the GOP the presidential election and/or congressional seats.

The Controversy Over the R Rating for The Weinstein Company’s Movie “Bully”: Why There Should Be a Ratings Exception for Essential Material in Documentaries and Based-on-a-True-Story Films

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on the ongoing ratings fight regarding the film “Bully,” a documentary about kids and bullying that is scheduled to premiere March 30th. The producer and director of “Bully” are fighting for the film to get a PG-13, and not an R, rating, so that teenagers can see it. Hilden argues that films like “Bully”—documentaries where the true-life use of expletives or other explicit material is necessary to truly understand the film’s subject matter—should be excepted from the usual application of the MPAA ratings system. As other examples of film that should benefit from such an exception, Hilden cites the based-on-a-true story “Boys Don’t Cry” and the documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.” Hilden also suggests that the MPAA should use a much broader pool of parents in determining what movies parents, in general, think are acceptable for their children to see.

What We Can Learn About Equality and Religion From a Recent Israeli Supreme Court Decision on Military Service

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on a recent Israeli Supreme Court decision that held that a law exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service unconstitutionally denies equality of treatment to other Israelis, who either must serve in the military, or—if they are conscientious objectors—must perform alternative service. Dorf notes that the Israeli decision is not only interesting in its own right, but also sheds light on two questions that U.S. courts must frequently face: How should courts evaluate laws that confer special benefits on certain minorities within society? And, when should people and institutions be exempted from legal requirements based on religious objections? In particular, Dorf points out that the Israeli decision has interesting comparative-law implications for American debates about affirmative action, and about the granting of religious exemptions to otherwise-applicable laws.

Is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) Indefensible? A Federal Court Says Yes, in Golinski v. OPM

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on a recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, holding that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. (As readers may know, DOMA defines a marriage as a union between a man and a woman, for purposes of federal law and federal benefits.) The court also held that statutory classifications based on sexual orientation should trigger heightened scrutiny from reviewing courts, and that an anti-same-sex marriage law cannot survive such scrutiny. Grossman provides background on DOMA, and describes the current impact of, and court challenges to, DOMA’s anti-same-sex marriage section. She also describes federal legislative and executive challenges to DOMA, and recaps California’s complicated history regarding same-sex marriage. In addition, she focuses on the interesting question of what level of heightened scrutiny (intermediate, strict, or other) courts will apply when reviewing cases alleging sexual-orientation discrimination. Grossman predicts that whether by repeal, administrative undercut, or judicial invalidation, DOMA is on its way out.

A Louisiana Federal District Court Judge Strikes Down a Law Banning Registered Sex Offenders From Accessing Facebook and Other Social-Networking Sites Was It The Right Call?

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent Louisiana federal district court decision striking down an extremely broad and vague law prohibiting registered sex offenders from accessing a large variety of websites. Hilden argues that the judge’s decision, which followed a bench trial, was plainly correct under First Amendment case law. Accordingly, she contends that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is likely using the law, which he signed, and the decision, which he has vowed to appeal, for political purposes. Hilden also raises the questions whether any law restricting Internet access for ex-offenders could pass muster; if so, what it might look like; and whether individual websites’ policing themselves—or creating separate sections for adults and children—might be part of the solution.

Fisher v. Texas and the Reasons Why Liberals and Conservatives on the Supreme Court Don’t Trust Each Other on Affirmative Action: Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part One in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram Amar comments on the Supreme Court and affirmative action—a timely subject due to the Court's recent grant of review in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, which involves affirmative action in college admissions. Amar contends that, when it comes to this explosive issue, the two wings of the Court have both engaged in intellectual dishonesty, and he details how the Justices adopted their current distrust: Amar charges the Court's liberals with an unwillingness to apply meaningful strict, or even intermediate, scrutiny to race-based programs; charges its conservatives with the unfair treatment of remedial rationales; and takes issue with some Justices' treatment of history and precedent. Amar's analysis includes some shockingly out-of-context quotes that Justices, over time, have used to try to make their points in this highly controversial area.

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.

Chipping Away at the NDAA

Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner discusses two recent steps toward limiting the scope of the detention provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the controversial, recently-passed federal statute regarding the military detention and trial of terrorist suspects. The first step was an Obama Administration policy directive that effectively negates an NDAA section that purports to require that non-citizens suspected of strong links to terrorism be held in military, not civilian, custody. The second step was the commencement of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Due Process Guarantee Act, which was introduced after the NDAA was enacted into law. As Mariner explains, the Due Process Guarantee Act would protect both citizens and lawful permanent residents arrested in the U.S. against being detained indefinitely under a military rationale. Moreover, the Act would set a baseline prohibition on indefinite military detention in such cases, allowing such detention to be used only when Congress explicitly provides for it. Mariner sees these steps as constituting progress, but contends that amending the NDAA itself would have been a better remedy—especially as a presidential directive can always be reversed by a future president.

The Supreme Court Agrees to Hear an Affirmative Action Case Will the Justices Honestly Confront the Issues?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the Supreme Court’s recent decision to review a case involving race-based affirmative action in higher education.  As Dorf explains, the Court has not resolved an affirmative-action case since 2003, and thus this new case will be especially closely watched.  Dorf discusses the affirmative action precedents that the Court has already handed down, including the famous Bakke case, and the University of Michigan cases, Gratz and Grutter—the impact of which, Dorf explains, has been modest.  The new case that the Court will review, Dorf explains, involves the University of Texas's admissions system—which offers admission to all Texas students who rank in the top ten percent of their high school class, and also adds consideration of race as one of a number of factors in admissions decisions.  Dorf describes the issues the Texas case raises, and predicts that the Court's opinions—on both sides—will necessarily lack candor, as both liberals and conservatives pay lip service to an ideal of colorblindness, but do not actually hew to that ideal.

The Lessons We Should Take From the Recent Hearings on President Obama’s Contraception-Coverage Compromise, and Other Battles Involving Religious Lobbyists

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on the recent hearings regarding contraception coverage for employees of religiously-affiliated institutions. Hamilton starts by going back to the time of the Framers, and noting their concerns about the potential abuse of power by legislators. In the context of the contraception-coverage debate, Hamilton argues, Congress is being overly influenced by religious and religiously-affiliated institutions’ lobbyists. Those lobbyists’ religious arguments, she contends, lack any constitutional or statutory basis, especially now that the Obama Administration has offered a compromise, under which the institutions would not have pay for their employees’ contraception coverage; insurance companies would pay instead. Hamilton parallels this fight with an earlier Congressional controversy, regarding RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. She argues that there, too, religious institutions’ lobbyists sought—and gained—more for such institutions than could possibly be justified, because legislators capitulated when they should have held firm.

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