Analysis and Commentary on Constitutional Law

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.

A Legal Challenge to Targeted Killings

Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner asks the following question, which she notes is far from hypothetical, as three Americans have already been killed: Does the Executive Branch—including, specifically, the Pentagon and the CIA—possess unreviewable power under the US Constitution to carry out targeted killings of Americans overseas? With an ACLU/Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit being filed today to challenge the legality of targeted killings carried out by the United States, the contention that these scenarios fall under the “political question” doctrine and thus cannot be adjudicated in court, will be tested soon.

Bringing Title IX to Bear on the Problem of Sexual Violence in Schools: Part Two of a Two-Part Series

In Part Two of a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman continues her discussion of the application of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which effected a ban on sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funding. Grossman focuses especially on the recent case of Student v. Henderson Independent School District (HISD), in which a school district was sanctioned by a federal agency for failing to respond to a complaint of student-to-student sexual assault; and the legal standards that produced that result. Here, Grossman stresses, among other points, that a police investigation of alleged sexual harassment or assault is no substitute for the required school investigation that is mandated.

Bringing Title IX to Bear on the Problem of Sexual Violence in Schools

In Part One of a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman discusses the application of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which effected a ban on sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funding. Grossman focuses especially on the recent case of Student v. Henderson Independent School District (HISD), in which a school district was sanctioned by a federal agency for failing to respond to a complaint of student-to-student sexual assault; and the legal standards that produced that result.

The Top 10 Things to Take Away From Last Week’s Supreme Court Obamacare Ruling

Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on the ten key takeaways from last week’s Obamacare opinion. Some of the lessons Amar suggests that the opinion teaches are not just about the Supreme Court, but, interestingly, also about the media, and about Intrade users. Moreover, when it comes to the Court and its Justices, Amar points out lessons that we might learn about Justice Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts, respectively, from the opinion. Amar also points out lessons that we might learn from the opinion about Commerce Clause doctrine and doctrines regarding constitutional federalism.

It Does Not Matter Whether Congress Calls a Tax a Tax: Explaining the Dissenting Justices’ Misconceptions About the Taxing Power in the Affordable Care Act Case

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes aim at the arguments that the dissenting justices made regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and, more specifically, regarding the taxing power. Those taxing power arguments, Buchanan contends, proved to be a dangerous red herring. Buchanan makes his case to that effect by using some ingenious hypotheticals; he argues that it is perfectly logical to deem a certain measure a tax for some purposes, but not for others. It is substance, he says, rather than form, that ultimately matters. Moreover, Buchanan notes, a tax by its nature need not be motivated by the government’s aim to raise money, although the ACA will, indeed, raise some money. Often, Buchanan points out, taxes are meant not to raise money but to incentivize or penalize certain behaviors. Ultimately, Buchanan notes that it is of no import, legally, that the ACA is not characterized as a tax; the key is that it, in part, operates as a tax.

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.

Why The D.C. Court of Appeals Rejected the Claim that Performing a Rap Constituted Making a Criminal Threat

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals—D.C.’s highest court—regarding the First Amendment and the “true threats” doctrine, which holds that true threats are not First Amendment-protected. Hilden notes that the case was unusual as it involved not just a statement, but a rap. After covering three key U.S. Supreme Court cases regarding the “true threats” doctrine, Hilden goes on to consider why the court ruled in favor of the speaker, and to agree with the court’s result. She also emphasizes the importance of context in the decision whether a given comment counts as a true threat or First-Amendment-protected speech, and notes a number of factors that might cut for or against a “true threat” finding in particular cases.

The Big 4-0: Title IX Puts a Fourth Decade Under Its Belt

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman, and Justia guest columnist and U. Pittsburgh law professor Deborah Brake comment on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the federal civil rights statute that bans sex discrimination in federally-funded education programs. Grossman and Brake focus on the area in which Title IX has had its biggest impact, athletics, and explain its impact on college women’s and high school girls’ opportunities in sports. They reveal the secrets of Title IX’s success, including its refusal to take current, status quo levels of girls’ and women’s interest in sports as fixed or natural and thus to cap opportunities at current levels. Grossman and Brake also comment on Title IX’s recent history, criticizing the George W. Bush Administration for undermining the law, and praising the Obama Administration for properly enforcing it. Finally, they describe the stumbling blocks that still remain when it comes to full Title IX enforcement.

Under What Circumstances Can a State Compel a Pharmacy to Provide “Morning After” Drugs Against the Religious Objections of Pharmacists? A Case From Washington State Illustrates Modern Free Exercise Doctrines and Dilemmas

Justia columnist Vikram David Amar and Justia guest columnist Alan Brownstein, both U.C., Davis law professors, comment on a recent Washington State controversy that raises the issue whether a pharmacy must provide the emergency contraceptive known as “Plan B” if the pharmacy’s owner objects to doing so, based on his or her own religious beliefs. (Such pharmacy owners believe that life begins at conception, meaning fertilization; Plan B prevents the implantation of a fertilized egg.) Amar and Brownstein note that the case is important and interesting not just in itself, but also because it illustrates many of the unanswered questions that concern the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. The federal judge who heard the case ruled in favor of the pharmacy owners, but was he right to do so? Amar and Brownstein consider the arguments on both sides, focusing especially on the Supreme Court case of Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah, in which a church sought to sacrifice animals in its rituals even though doing so was against the law. They also consider variations of the fact pattern in the Washington State case itself, and consider whether they might yield different results.

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.

Two More Nails in DOMA’s Coffin: Courts Invalidate Federal Law’s Rejection of Same-Sex Marriage

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on two recent rulings that invalidate applications of a federal law—the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—purporting to reject same-sex marriages. One ruling resolves a set of consolidated cases, and was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. That ruling is entitled Commonwealth v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The other ruling is Windsor v. U.S., a decision from a New York-based federal district court. After providing background on DOMA, Grossman analyzes the claims that were put forth in the cases that led to the two recent decisions, and argues that both courts were right to invalidate the applications of DOMA that were before them. She also discusses three U.S. Supreme Court precedents that are relevant to these issues.

A Tale of Two Child Sex Abuse Trials Involving Two Iconic Pennsylvania Institutions: Penn State and the Philadelphia Roman Catholic Archdiocese

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on two child-sex-abuse trials related to two iconic Pennsylvania institutions: Penn State and the Philadelphia Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The upcoming Penn State-related trial arises out of widely reported allegations of child sex abuse by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who served under Joe Paterno. The defendant in the ongoing trial relating to the Philadelphia Archdiocese is Monsignor William Lynn, who is charged with conspiracy and child endangerment. Hamilton’s report today comes after hearing testimony in the Lynn case. In addition to commenting on these two cases themselves, Hamilton makes a strong suggestion that Philadephia, home of both of the institutions involved in the scandals, should review its laws and practices regarding to allegations of child sex abuse, and should work toward the state’s now becoming a model when it comes to preventing and punishing child sex abuse.

Obamacare and the Misguided Criticism of “Liberal Law Professors” Who Defend It

Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram Amar takes issue with Stanford law professor Michael McConnell’s critique of the arguments of liberal law professors who defend the constitutionality of Obamacare. In a recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, McConnell took aim at such professors. In particular, McConnell argued that liberal law professors have failed to make “actual legal arguments, based on text, history, structure and precedent” to support Obamacare. Moreover, McConnell claimed that liberal law professors’ definition of judicial activism is one-sided—a charge that they only believe to be true when it applies to the conservative Justices. Amar counters McConnell’s arguments on both of these points, providing a very specific description of the constitutional-law basis for their view that Obamacare is constitutional.

Some Reflections on the Texas Pre-Abortion Ultrasound Law, a Year After Its Passage: Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In the second in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her analysis of the constitutionality of the Texas law, enacted about a year ago, requiring abortion providers to (1) perform an ultrasound on a patient seeking an abortion; (2) expose the patient to the resulting visual ultrasound image, as well as any extant fetal heart sounds; and (3) provide an explanation of the embryo or fetus as pictured on the screen. Here, in Part Two, Colb continues to address the important question whether a law mandating ultrasounds, as the Texas law does, imposes a burden on women that is qualitatively different from the burdens that the U.S. Supreme Court has already approved in the context of abortion, which express a pro-childbirth value judgment. Colb also analyzes the abortion-related laws that the Court has struck down, and explains why. Moreover, she considers the relevance, here, of cases regarding unwanted speech and targeted picketing. Finally, Colb parallels the law with another context in which disturbing images may be shown, and if they are, the showing can be controversial: Animal Rights classes.

How to Better Fight Cyberbullying: Finding Fixes for the Internet Protection Act

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a new proposed New York statute, the Internet Protection Act, which would provide a remedy for those who are the targets of anonymous Internet attacks—including the victims of cyberbullies, and businesses harmed by competitors’ fake reviews. Dean notes that the Act has drawn much criticism, but he argues that the focus of comments on the Act should not be to attack the Act, but rather to offer constructive criticism as to how the Act can be made consistent with the First Amendment. Dean summarizes the First Amendment arguments that have been raised regarding the Act; cites two key Supreme Court anonymous speech cases; notes that it is often possible to unmask cyberbullies without breaking the law, but it takes time and money to do so; and contends that a constitutional way to address cyberbullying would be through a law allowing the unmasking of the perpetrators of Internet harassment, and the issuance of a protective order against them. Even the deterrent effect of such a law, Dean predicts, could be powerful.

Notre Dame Sues the Federal Government in Order to Avoid Providing Reproductive Services to Its Female Students and Employees

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on Notre Dame University’s and other Roman Catholic organizations’ recent suit against the federal government over federal executive regulations, promulgated through the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”), that require the University and the other organizations to include contraception, abortion, and sterilization in their healthcare plans. Hamilton focuses, in particular, on the federal court complaint filed by Notre Dame and the other plaintiffs, and the arguments they have made. Hamilton also describes a series of Supreme Court precedents in which various religious groups have failed to get exemptions from generally applicable laws, and argues that these precedents do not bode well for the plaintiffs’ success in this court challenge. Hamilton also discusses the role the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) plays in the lawsuit.

Some Reflections on the Texas Pre-Abortion Ultrasound Law, a Year After Its Passage: Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In the first in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb considers the constitutionality of the Texas law, enacted about a year ago, requiring abortion providers to (1) perform an ultrasound on a patient seeking an abortion; (2) expose the patient to the resulting visual ultrasound image, as well as any extant fetal heart sounds; and (3) provide an explanation of the embryo or fetus as pictured on the screen. Colb focuses especially on the question whether a law mandating ultrasounds, as the Texas law does, imposes a burden on women that is qualitatively different from the burdens that the U.S. Supreme Court has already approved in the context of abortion, which express a pro-childbirth value judgment.

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 Robert A. Fox Leadership Program 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

Anita Ramasastry
Anita Ramasastry

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

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

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