Analysis and Commentary on Constitutional Law

Should Bloggers Be Deemed Journalists, With the Power to Trigger the Supreme Court’s Favorable Rules Regarding Damages, Invoke Retraction Statutes, and Protect Confidential Sources? A Federal District Judge Offers Some Answers

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a Portland, Oregon-based federal district judge’s ruling in a case where a key question was when—if ever—a blogger can count as a journalist. The judge, addressing a defamation suit that was brought against the blogger, declined to allow her to invoke two Oregon laws that were meant to protect journalists by (1) requiring potential defamation plaintiffs to give journalists who are potential defamation defendants a chance to correct or retract the allegedly defamatory statements, if the plaintiffs want to recover their full damages; and (2) allowing journalists to protect their confidential sources by keeping them anonymous. In addition, the judge—moving on from Oregon-law issues to federal-law issues—refused to grant bloggers the right to invoke favorable U.S. Supreme Court case law regarding damages unless the bloggers qualified as journalists under the judge’s multi-factor test. Hilden takes issue with both of the judge’s Oregon law rulings, and, to some extent, also with his proposed multi-factor test as to who counts as a journalist.

The Case of the Alleged Twitter Stalker: A Federal Judge Dismisses An Indictment on First Amendment Grounds

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on an interesting decision, issued this month by a federal judge from the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, regarding an indictment alleging the violation of a federal anti-harassment statute. Hilden first provides the factual background of the case—in which federal prosecutors alleged that a well-known Buddhist religious leader was being harassed, in violation of a federal stalking statute that is an amended version of part of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). She then discusses some of the key issues the case raises, such as whether blog posts or tweets can count as harassment in violation of the statute, even if it is the alleged victim who opts to view the posts or tweets, rather than merely receiving them. With the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) as an amicus, and the federal government seeking to defend a statute that is meant to protect women from harm, Hilden predicts that we have not heard the last of this dispute. She also notes that, in the age of the search engine, the line between seeking out material and coming across it has been blurred substantially, and in turn, the definition of harassment may also be blurring.

The NDAA Explained: Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns on the National Defense Authorization Act

Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner explains and comments on the highly controversial National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which has passed the House and Senate and is now awaiting President Obama’s signature. As Mariner notes, the NDAA’s provisions on indefinite detention earlier caused President Obama to threaten to veto the bill, but now President Obama appears poised to sign the bill’s current version—based on his claim that it affords the president substantial discretion on how the law will be implemented. But, Mariner points out, numerous human rights groups, civil libertarians, and Members of Congress still find the bill extremely objectionable in this current version. In this two-part series of columns, Mariner provides background on the recent history that is relevant to the bill; describes what the often-mischaracterized provisions of the bill actually say, and whom they affect; and focuses, especially, on the sections that have caused human rights groups the greatest concern.

A Health Care Law That Everyone in Congress Can Agree Upon

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf, and Justia guest columnist and Duke law and political science professor Neil S. Siegel comment on an interesting but less often discussed aspect of the controversial 2010 federal health care law. As Dorf and Siegel explain, before the Supreme Court reaches the merits of the case involving the health care law, it must first consider the federal Anti-Injunction Act, which became law in 1867. Dorf and Siegel note that the Anti-Injunction Act requires taxpayers who object to the federal government’s assessment or collection of a tax to first pay up, and only then sue for a refund. With respect to the federal health care law, Dorf and Siegel explain, that would delay even the very beginning of federal litigation until 2015. Yet both the law's fans and its detractors want a decision from the Supreme Court much earlier than that. Some would opt to simply ignore the Anti-Injunction Act, but as Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit commented, “There is no ‘early-bird special’ exception to the Anti-Injunction Act.” Fortunately, Dorf and Siegel offer an ingenious solution to this dilemma that combines a reasonable interpretation of the Anti-Injunction Act with the passage of a new federal stature.

The U.S. Supreme Court Takes Up The Eighth Amendment and Juvenile Killers: Is Life Without Parole Too Severe?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on two criminal law cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court has granted review. As Colb explains, the two cases together raise the following question: Does the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishments ban prohibit mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for homicide offenses committed by fourteen-year-olds? In one case, the fourteen-year-old had suffered years of abuse and neglect, as well as severe poverty. In the other case, the fourteen-year-old apparently learned only on the way to a planned robbery that one of his accomplices was carrying a gun, and it was the accomplice who committed murder during the robbery, not the fourteen-year-old. (The fourteen-year-old was thus only charged with murder under the “felony murder” doctrine, based on his participation in a robbery that led to murder.) Colb explains that, in these two cases, the Court will need to consider the relationships among three relevant factors: (1) the capacity of an offender to behave morally; (2) the wrongfulness of the offender’s behavior; and (3) the harmful consequences of the offender’s actions. She describes the relevant prior Supreme Court precedents regarding juvenile offenders and other criminal law topics, and raises intriguing questions such as whether youth itself should be a mitigating factor to be taken into account in sentencing, in light of young teens’ demonstrably poor impulse control and susceptibility to pressure from others. Colb also covers the sentencing concepts of proportionality and discretion, and explains how they relate to these two cases. In addition, she describes—and, to some extent, challenges—the Supreme Court's “Death is different” jurisprudence, which singles out the death penalty for special notice despite the tremendous severity of an LWOP sentence, and the failure of an LWOP sentence to leave the offender hope for the future.

An Illinois Court Weighs in on the Protection of Anonymous Internet Message Board Speech

When you post an anonymous message on an Internet message board, how anonymous is it, really? Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent Illinois state court appellate decision regarding the First Amendment right to speak anonymously. The dispute at issue arose from a number of anonymous comments posted on a newspaper website's message board, and relating in part to a local election. The target of the comments sued for defamation (via his parent, as he was a minor). However, the Illinois court—after clarifying Illinois law pertaining to defamation cases involving an anonymous defendant—found that the statements at issue were not necessarily defamatory, but rather could, and should, be subject to an innocent interpretation. Hilden argues that while the court’s invocation of the innocent-construction rule here was dubious, the court was right to protect the anonymity of the message-board-poster defendant.

The California Supreme Court Rules that Prop. 8’s Proponents Have Standing to Defend the Initiative: What Does That Mean in the Ninth Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court?

Justia columnist Vikram David Amar, and Justia guest columnist Alan Brownstein, both U.C., Davis law professors, comment on the latest ruling in the litigation regarding Proposition 8, the California anti-gay-marriage initiative. Amar and Brownstein begin by noting that this ruling holds that the initiative’s proponents have the authority to defend the initiative in California state court, now that elected representatives have declined to do so. They then summarize all the Prop. 8 litigation that has occurred thus far. In addition, they explain what may happen if this case reaches the U.S Supreme Court based on the standing issue it presents (that is, the issue of whether the parties at issue are legally able to bring this case). They cover a reason why the Supreme Court might decline to find federal standing: until now, initiative proponents have not been elected or specifically deputized by the people. Finally, they briefly discuss some other troubling questions regarding the Prop. 8 litigation that the California ruling did not address.

Why the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Declined to Change Its Mind About “Nipplegate,” Despite a Recent Opportunity From the U.S. Supreme Court to Do So

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden explains why a case regarding the famous 2004 “Nipplegate” incident—involving Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, and the Superbowl—has returned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit: An FCC crackdown led to a whopping fine for CBS, which is still being litigated. The Supreme Court recently sent the case back for reconsideration, in light of the High Court’s recent, related decision in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. But upon reconsideration, two judges on the three-judge Third Circuit panel reached essentially the same decision that they had reached on the first go-round, despite the High Court’s direction to take into account the Fox ruling. In light of that fact, Hilden suggests that the “Nipplegate” case may end up at the Supreme Court—for the Justices may be unhappy with the Third Circuit panel majority’s approach of reiterating its prior decision, while emphasizing certain points it made earlier even more, in light of Fox, rather than altering its approach with Fox in mind.

Scholars’ Amicus Brief Controversy Reflects the Evolving Relationship Between the Bench and the Legal Academy

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the evolution and role of the “scholar brief.” A scholar brief is an amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief submitted to a court—usually, the U.S. Supreme Court—by a law professor acting in his or her role as scholar, rather than advocate. Dorf notes that a column in The New York Times recently pointed to Harvard Law Professor Richard Fallon’s article draft questioning the value of scholar briefs, by suggesting that they are very often not particularly scholarly. In this column, Dorf considers why scholars’ amicus briefs have proliferated recently, and what light that proliferation sheds on the evolving relationship between the bench and the legal academy. In particular, Dorf connects the proliferation of scholar briefs to the increasing divide between legal scholarship in the academy, and the more practical work of the courts, including the Supreme Court. And yet, he notes that the academy’s work—contrary to the claims of some—actually does continue to have relevance to courts, in part by showing how disciplines such as economics and psychology can better illuminate the workings of the law.

The Penn State Scandal: Why Is No One Talking about Title IX? Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In the second in a two-part series of columns on the Penn State alleged child sex abuse and failure-to-report scandal, Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman, and Justia guest columnist and U. Pittsburgh law professor Deborah Brake continue their commentary on a new and interesting legal aspect of the scandal. They argue that in addition to raising issues of criminal liability and civil tort liability, the alleged Penn State child abuse and the failure to report it may also raise issues under Title IX—the 1972 federal statute that prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex in their educational programs and activities. Here, in Part Two of the series, Grossman and Brake discuss particular issues that may arise if a Title IX claim is brought: Does it make a difference if a given boy was abused only once, for liability purposes? Did the alleged Penn State abuse occur under “any education program or activity” as the statute requires? Does Title IX apply to the alleged harassment by Jerry Sandusky of these particular boys, who (obviously) were not Penn State students? In answering these questions, Grossman and Brake explain why, at the very minimum, the alleged sexual assaults that took place in the showers of the Penn State locker room or its sauna would, at least, fall within Title IX’s reach. In addition, they explain the legal issues regarding Penn State’s potential liability for the abuse, and look to the Grand Jury’s report to see if actual notice and deliberate indifference can be proven, as Title IX requires. Finally, Grossman and Brake note that, for several reasons, there are likely to be no statute-of-limitations issues here, despite the passage of time.

The Penn State Scandal: Why Is No One Talking About Title IX? Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In the first in a two-part series of columns on the Penn State alleged child sex abuse and failure-to-report scandal, Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman, and Justia guest columnist and U. Pittsburgh law professor Deborah Brake comment on a new and interesting legal aspect of the scandal. They argue that in addition to raising issues of criminal liability and civil tort liability, the alleged Penn State child abuse and the failure to report it may also raise issues under Title IX—the 1972 federal statute that prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex in their educational programs and activities. Grossman and Brake note that Title IX has been used in the past to address sexual harassment by teachers and coaches, and by third parties, and that such harassment can encompass sexual assault and rape. Title IX, they note, also reaches same-sex harassment. Based on the grand jury presentment, Grossman and Brake detail the allegations at issue. Based on Supreme Court precedent, they explain why the alleged conduct at issue could fit within the parameters of Title IX.

The Urgent Need to Fill The Current D.C. Circuit Vacancies

Justia guest columnist and U. Richmond law professor Carl Tobias comments on the lingering vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and urges that they be filled. Tobias explains why the D.C. Circuit has been called the nation’s second most important court, behind only the U.S. Supreme Court, and notes that D.C. Circuit judges, more than other federal Circuit Court judges, are especially likely to go on to become U.S. Supreme Court Justices. Tobias emphasizes the importance of President Obama’s soon choosing nominees for the open D.C. Circuit spots, and of the Senate’s expeditiously confirming those nominees, and thus transcending the typically contentious battles that have been fought in the past over this Circuit’s seats. He also explains some of the likely reasons why the President has only nominated one person thus far to fill a D.C. Circuit opening.

Justice Thomas Takes Aim at the Court’s Church-State Jurisprudence but Hits the Constitution Instead

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on Justice Thomas’s views on the proper approach to cases raising issues regarding the Constitution’s separation of church and state. Dorf contends that Justice Thomas is correct to observe that the Court’s current test for when the government is unconstitutionally endorsing religion, in violation of the Establishment Clause, is so vague that the way that lower courts and even the Supreme Court will rule, when applying the test, is highly unpredictable. Justice Thomas has accurately pointed out, for example, that a crèche displayed on government property violates the Establishment Clause, except when it doesn’t; a menorah displayed on government property violates the Establishment Clause, except when it doesn’t; and a cross displayed on government property violates the Establishment Clause, except when it doesn’t. Nevertheless, Dorf contends that Thomas, while mounting a biting critique of the Court’s current endorsement test, does not offer a superior alternative—and points out that, given the numerous Justices who’ve tried to solve this thorny problem over the years, there may actually be no superior alternative.

The Reasons Why Herman Cain Has Not Been Able to Talk His Way Out of His Exploding Sexual Harassment Scandal

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on the Herman Cain sexual harassment scandal from a legal, rather than political, point of view—based on what is known so far, and on Cain’s own comments regarding sexual harassment. Grossman recalls Cain’s negative remarks about the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which strengthened discrimination law, and she explains in detail how discrimination law, and sexual harassment law in particular, have improved the situation of women in the ensuing years. She also takes issue with Cain’s suggestion that speaking to someone cannot be sexual harassment—pointing out that if the words that are spoken connect job benefits with sexual favor, speaking them is the very epitome of sexual harassment. In addition, Grossman notes that harassment by someone who is the head of a company, as Cain has been, triggers different and harsher rules and heightens the risk to the company. Finally, Grossman questions Cain’s claims that he was adept at line-drawing in this difficult legal area, and may only have had a problem with “over-complimenting” women. She notes, too, that the law sees things not from the point of view of the alleged harasser, but of the victim and of a reasonable person in the victim’s place. Worst of all, Grossman, argues, is Cain’s contention that the claims against him were fabricated; fabrications, she points out, are extremely rare in this area of law, making the multiple claims against Cain especially damning.

Last Week’s Congressional Hearing on Religious Liberty: A Disturbing Presentation by a Catholic Bishop Raises Questions About the Separation of Church and State

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on a presentation given last week to a Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Judiciary Committee of the United States House of Representatives, by the Rev. William C. Lori, the Catholic Bishop of Bridgeport, CT, and the Chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ newly-instituted “Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty.” Hamilton argues that Lori’s remarks displayed insufficient respect for the Constitution’s separation of church and state. In particular, Hamilton discusses Lori’s remarks and the role of church/state separation as it relates to the availability of contraception and sterilization, and particularly the requirement that they be covered by private health insurance companies except insofar as certain employers’ religion forbids it. In addition, she discusses Lori’s position on government services relating to human-trafficking victims, which holds that religious service providers would not have to offer contraception and abortion—even to a trafficking victim who suffered a rape. In addition, Hamilton takes strong issue with Lori’s opposition to the federal government's decision to require that AIDS programs offer contraception (both condoms and other birth control) due to their proven efficacy in stopping the spread of disease. Hamilton acknowledges that, of course, religious institutions and institutions may act in these areas, but emphasizes that if they receive government funds, they must also follow government policy. Overall, Hamilton argues, the Church should focus on genuine religious liberty violations, and not issues like these.

What Purpose Does the Double Jeopardy Clause Serve?: The U.S. Supreme Court Grants Review in Blueford v. Arkansas

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a double jeopardy case that the Supreme Court will hear during this coming term. As readers may know, the Constitution’s Double Jeopardy Clause provides, “nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” The Clause’s application is simple in some scenarios—for instance, if a defendant is tried for murder and acquitted, and yet the very same prosecutor then brings the same murder charges against the same defendant again. However, Colb points out that the double jeopardy case that the Court will address is far from simple. There, the question is whether the Double Jeopardy Clause applies to the following scenario: A defendant’s jury has announced to the judge that it cannot reach a verdict on a lesser included offense, but it has also voted unanimously to find the defendant “Not guilty” of two greater offenses. (A lesser included offense is a less serious version of another, greater offense.) The judge refused to allow the two “Not guilty” verdicts to be recorded, and declared a mistrial. Can the defendant then be re-tried on the greater offenses? Colb considers this interesting and complicated constitutional question.

Kara Kowalski Seeks U.S. Supreme Court Review in Her First Amendment Student Speech Case, But Should the High Court Take the Case?

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a bid for U.S. Supreme Court review in a case regarding the First Amendment rights of public school students. The case raises a question that, Hilden contends, the Court will need to answer sooner or later: Under what circumstances, if any, can public schools punish students for off-campus, online speech that occurs outside of school hours? Hilden suggests that the Court should not choose the bullying case on which review has recently been sought as its vehicle for answering this question. Instead, she argues that the Court should focus on some future, simpler case in which a school punishes off-campus, online speech that is not targeted at other students. Hilden suggests that, just as the Court’s seminal school speech precedent Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Comm. Sch. Dist., had simple facts—involving students peaceably wearing war-protest armbands—so too should the Court’s next school speech case. In particular, she notes that the Court’s taking a case that mixes bullying and off-campus speech would likely lead to a result that slights First Amendment rights even in future cases where no bullying is present.

An Update on the Fisher v. University of Texas Affirmative Action Case, and the Procedural Issue That Might, But That Need Not, Complicate Things For the Supreme Court

Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on an interesting case about affirmative action, in which U.S. Supreme Court review is being sought. As he explains, the case asks the question whether a rejected applicant who challenges an affirmative-action program as unconstitutional must prove that, without the affirmative-action program, he or she would have been admitted. Focusing on two key prior Supreme Court cases, Amar notes that there is another possible standard to be applied here—one under which the applicant would not need to show that he or she would have been admitted under the program, but would simply need to assert that he or she had applied, and thus that he or she had been harmed by being considered under an unconstitutional set of rules. Carefully parsing the Court’s precedents, Amar considers whether ambiguous prior decisions are best seen as involving substantive or jurisdictional issues.

All That Glisters Is Not Good Policy: In Defense of the Federal Reserve, Especially if the Alternative is the Gold Standard

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan argues that calls for the abolition of the Fed, and a return to the gold standard, are misguided. While Buchanan’s views on the Occupy Wall Street protests are mostly positive, he suggests that the movement would be better off dropping its anti-Fed rhetoric. While the Fed has its flaws, Buchanan argues, its role in our economy is vital and its track record is far, far stronger than that of the gold standard—which has proven historically to be a disaster. Buchanan notes that the Fed is unpopular in part because it is undemocratic, but he explains two key reasons why it needs to be that way. He also explains why attacks on the Fed often come from the left (for instance, from Occupy Wall Street), rather than the right (with the exception of Ron Paul). Yet, over its history, Buchanan argues, the Fed has actually done most things right, and thus, while the left’s critique of the Fed makes some valid points, it is very overstated. In addition, Buchanan contends that it is not the Fed, but rather Congress and the White House, that should be blamed for the failure to remedy the economy’s current course—and that the adoption of the gold standard would only make our current situation much worse, and ironically, would lead to the creation of a “Gold Fed.”

Can a City Broadly Ban People From Soliciting Work, Business, or Contributions on Its Streets and Highways? A Ninth Circuit En Banc Majority Says No

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent First Amendment decision from an en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Hilden explains why nine of the eleven judges voted to strike down an ordinance passed by the city of Redondo Beach, California, that had barred people from standing on the city’s streets or highways and soliciting employment, business, or contributions from drivers or their passengers. She also covers the adamant dissenting opinion of the well-respected Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski in the case (also joined by Judge Bea), which some observers have found quite puzzling. Hilden contends that the majority’s opinion was very persuasive, but takes issues with the dissent by the typically brilliant and incisive Judge Kozinski.

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