Analysis and Commentary on Constitutional Law
Senator Franken Wants Us to Know When Our Apps Are Tracking Us: Why This Is a Sensible Thing for Congress to Require

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on Senator Al Franken’s proposed legislation that would regulate cyberstalking and geolocation apps—some of which are installed in a given device without notice of their presence being provided to the user. As Ramasastry explains, some of the chief concerns in this area of law include the possible stalking of domestic violence victims, and the safety of children. As Ramasastry explains, this topic not only sparked Franken’s interest, but also is of interest to the FTC, and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Sandy Hook Murders, and Their Lessons: A Three-Part Legislative Agenda to Protect Us from Future Deranged Mass Murderers

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on the tragic murders at Sandy Hook, which have shaken the nation. Hamilton discusses the limits to the constitutional right to bear arms, and emphasizes that the murders demand a debate about both gun control and mental health. Without constitutional barriers, despite what the NRA says, Hamilton says that instituting gun control would be easy if there were the political will to do so. The hard part, Hamilton argues, is dealing with those who are mentally ill, and have the capacity to harm others, without returning to the woeful state in which the mentally ill were left in the past. And the really easy part, Hamilton argues, is forbidding parents—like Adam Lanza’s mother—from introducing their mentally ill children to guns and teaching them how to use them.

The Year in Review: 2012 Marks the Highest Watermark Yet for Victims of Child Sex Abuse

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton looks back on this year’s important developments regarding justice for victims of child sex abuse. Among the events Hamilton chronicles are the conviction of prominent Satmar Hasidic school counselor Nechemya Weberman, and the Catholic Church and Penn State cases, which led to the convictions, respectively, of Msgr. Willam Lynn and Jerry Sandusky. Other developments, as Hamilton explains, have involved the Boy Scouts’ release of previously secret files, as well as the release of previously secret files pursuant to the settlement by the Catholic Church’s Los Angeles Archdiocese. Key priorities for the future, Hamilton notes, are increased legal reform in this area, and a greater focus on the problem of incest.

Going to the Show: The Supreme Court Will Consider Validity of Same-Sex Marriage Bans

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on the two upcoming U.S. Supreme Court cases relating to same-sex marriage. The first case presents the question whether the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—one provision of which precludes the federal government from giving effect, for any federal law purpose, to a validly celebrated same-sex marriage—is unconstitutional. The second case raises the issue of the constitutionality—or lack thereof—of a voter referendum in California that eliminated a right of same-sex marriage that the state’s highest court had previously ruled to be constitutionally necessary. Grossman provides detailed background on same-sex marriage developments in the U.S., and then goes on to analyze the issues raised by DOMA and the California referendum, respectively, and to consider the various possible outcomes that the Court might reach in each Supreme Court case. While Grossman notes that the Supreme Court has often tended to rule in ways that bring along straggler states on social justice issues, rather than being ahead of the states as a group, she also notes that this case could be an exception to that pattern.

Why North Carolina’s New Law Making It a Crime for Students to Bully Teachers Online Is Deeply Troubling From a First Amendment Standpoint

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden covers a new North Carolina law, described by the North Carolina ACLU as possibly the first of its kind in the United States, which seeks to protect teachers from students’ (1) building a fake online profile or website of the teacher; (2) posting the teacher’s private, personal, or sexual information; (3) tampering with the teacher’s online networks, data or accounts; (4) signing the teacher up to a pornographic website; or (5) making any statement, whether true or false, that is likely to provoke someone else to stalk or harass the teacher. Violations of any of these five provisions carry criminal penalties. Hilden argues that the law’s genuine concern for protecting teachers is already sufficiently addressed by existing civil and/or criminal law, and that to the extent that the provisions go further than existing law, they may raise serious First Amendment issues—issues that have already left the North Carolina ACLU primed to challenge the statute. Hilden also underlines the point that teachers typically have far greater resources and maturity to deal with bullying than students do, and thus, she argues, teachers need less protection from bullying than students do.

Equal Access to the Tools of Political Change; The Sixth Circuit’s Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action Case Is Destined For the Supreme Court

Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on a closely watched affirmative action case that the Supreme Court will very likely resolve. As Amar notes, the case concerns how a state that tries to abolish affirmative-action programs may, in doing so, violate the Constitution. As Amar explains, such programs are never constitutionally required to be initiated, but their abolition may be constitutionally problematic—for instance, if programs that benefit minorities are abolished in a way that leaves all programs that benefit other groups untouched, and that makes reenactment of the programs that minorities prefer especially difficult; or when minorities are subjected to greater political obstacles in the adoption (or re-adoption) of the programs they might support than are other groups.

Is the Supreme Court Ducking the Same-Sex Marriage Question, and If So, Is That Wrong?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on two questions involving same-sex marriage that the Supreme Court may or may not duck: First, there is the question whether Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—which defines marriage under federal law as opposite-sex marriage, even when state law recognizes same-sex marriage—is constitutionally valid. And, second, there is the question whether California violated the Constitution when it enacted Proposition 8, which prospectively eliminated the possibility of same-sex marriage, and thereby nullified an earlier California Supreme Court ruling that had found a state-constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Dorf considers why the Justices might—or might not—see the cases that raise these questions to be appropriate vehicles for Supreme Court review, and notes what might happen next if the Court does not take up a DOMA case.

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 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Considers in Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education Whether Public Schools Can Be Houses of Worship

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on a recent decision from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The decision addressed the question whether the New York City Board of Education can exclude houses of worship from occupying public schools. Hamilton argues that this controversy is part of a much larger issue, regarding religious groups’ seeking government entitlements. She covers the key U.S. Supreme Court cases that are relevant to this issue, and connects the issue to the “church-planting” movement. The ultimate goal of those who seek to allow religious groups to occupy public school, is much more ambitious than just that, Hamilton suggests: It is to convince governments to pay as much money to support religious private schools as it pays to support public schools.

The European Court of Human Rights Upholds German Ban on PETA’s “Holocaust On Your Plate” Campaign: Lessons For Animal Activists and for Animal Product Consumers

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a controversy in Germany in which Germany’s branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA-D, compared animal exploitation and slaughter to the Nazi Holocaust, in a series of seven graphic posters. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) subsequently held that Germany’s censorship of the images was lawful. Colb, who is both an ethical vegan and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, critically analyzes (1) PETA-D’s decision to launch a campaign comparing animal slaughter to the Holocaust; (2) the ECHR’s decision that such a comparison diminishes Holocaust victims and survivors; and (3) the specific nature of the offense that is felt by those who condemn the analogy between animal exploitation and the Holocaust. In her analysis, Colb refers to sources ranging from Adorno, Singer, and Coetzee on animal suffering, to Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi,” a comparison to which most people don’t object, but perhaps logically should.

A Mississippi Public School Student’s Rap Song Gets Him a Suspension, and a First Amendment Case

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a federal district court case that was brought after Mississippi teen Taylor Bell was suspended based on the lyrics of a rap song he wrote and posted on Facebook and YouTube, where it was heard by his high school classmates. Hilden explains why the case implicated the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, even if the rap song fell short of constituting a “true threat” under other free speech precedents. Taylor lost before the federal district court, but, as Hilden explains, his attorney has noted a number of key points that will likely help strengthen Taylor’s case in the planned appeal.

Facebook’s Mandatory Couples Pages: The Site’s Creating Them May Be Legal, But Is It Wise?

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the new couples pages feature on Facebook, which aggregates a Facebook user’s information with that of his or her self-designated significant other. Ramasastry notes that the feature has been controversial, and explains why some users have been upset by it. She notes, too, that Facebook is entering a privacy gray area with the couples pages feature, under which Facebook relies on its privacy policies, but users feel they have lost control. Moreover, Ramasastry suggests that the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which previously criticized Facebook’s Timeline feature, may want to scrutinize Facebook’s couples pages feature as well. Finally, Ramasastry questions whether Facebook’s couples pages are permissible under Facebook’s recent settlement with the FTC.

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.

An Historic First: Voters Support Same-Sex Marriage at the Polls

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman evaluates the meaning of the votes cast across the nation on the various pro-same-sex marriage referendums. Such referendums passed in Maryland, Maine, and Washington State. Grossman describes the details of the various referendums and other ballot measures relating to same-sex marriage, and notes the split, in each state she discusses, regarding votes for Obama and for Romney, respectively. Grossman explains why such referendums are noteworthy: (1) the common but not necessarily correct idea that this is an issue for the people (not courts) to decide; (2) the fact that the referendums may augur the future of same-sex marriage in America; and (3) the referendums show that young voters tend to be pro-same-sex marriage, and as more and young people reach voting age, there very likely will be even more pro-same-sex marriage voters. Grossman concludes, citing relevant statistics and developments, that among young people, and Americans generally, we are seeing a sea change toward support of gay marriage.

A First Amendment Fight At Oregon State University Leads to an Interesting Decision From a Panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit panel decision arising out of a controversy regarding the treatment by Oregon State University (OSU) of a conservative student newspaper, The Liberty. While OSU's traditional newspaper, The Barometer, was allowed to use on-campus newsbins, The Liberty first had its copies dumped out of its newsbins, with no prior notice, and then was allowed to put The Liberty in only two designated areas on campus, whereas The Barometer suffered under no such restrictions. Hilden argues that the Ninth Circuit panel was right to rule that the student newspapers should have been treated equally, with The Liberty accorded the same access as The Barometer.

Condoms and Content-Based Discrimination: The First Amendment Implications of “The Safer Sex in the Adult Film Industry Act”

Justia guest columnist and Cornell Visiting Scholar Antonio Haynes comments on an issue that was raised recently in a Los Angeles Proposition best known as Measure B: Should pornography industry performers be required to use condoms while on set? L.A. voters said yes, but Haynes contends that there is a strong First Amendment argument against the measure, based on the tenet that speech cannot (with very limited exceptions) be regulated based on its content. Although decreasing the incidence of unprotected sex is a compelling government interest, Haynes notes, Measure B does not seem to solve an “actual problem,” to use the Supreme Court’s phrase, as the adult film industry has self-regulated with great effectiveness. Thus, the objection to pornography without condoms seems to arise not from the fear of disease, so much as from the objective of controlling the content of pornography. Ultimately, too, Haynes says, performers’ dignitary interests are at stake—just as all Angelenos’ would be if everyone, not just porn performers, were subject to Measure B.

The Establishment Clause and the Free Speech Clause in the Context of the Texas High School Cheerleader Religious Banner Dispute

Justia columnist Vikram David Amar and Justia guest columnist Alan Brownstein, both U.C., Davis law professors, comment on an interesting lawsuit that involves both the Free Speech Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The suit was brought by a group of public high school cheerleaders against the school district that told them to stop displaying religious-themed banners bearing bible verses and proclaiming things like “If G-d is for us, Who Can Be Against Us?” at football games. Does the Establishment Clause forbid what they are doing? And does the Free Speech Clause come into play? Amar and Brownstein address the complex constitutional issues that the case presents.

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.

The U.S. Supreme Court Considers Dog Sniffs and the Fourth Amendment

In the second in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her commentary on the constitutional issues raised by dog sniffs, in light of two cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court will address the issue. As Colb explains, one case asks whether a dog sniff is itself a search, for Fourth Amendment purposes; and the other asks what is the evidentiary significance of a dog’s positively alerting after a drug sniff for narcotics. Here, Colb builds on her prior commentary on the cases, and also addresses related precedents. In addition, she discusses the complexities that may arise because dogs have minds of their own—and are able to sniff not only drugs but, for example, cancer and pregnancy. Moreover, dogs can also sense humans’ feelings, and will want to please humans with whom they have bonded. Colb considers these and other factors as they play into the Fourth Amendment analysis. She also predicts the likely outcomes of the cases before the Court, and describes the issues the Justices seemed to find salient at oral argument. She also predicts which Justices will be the “swing votes” in the case.

False Tweets During a Crisis: Why They May Go Unpunished

Justia columnist and attorney David Kemp comments on the now-notorious false tweets regarding Hurricane Sandy sent by Shashank Tripathi (Tripathi is a hedge fund analyst and was previously the campaign manager for Republican Christopher Wight's Congressional campaign; he has since been fired.) While many have excoriated Tripathi's tweets as unethical, Kemp addresses the separate question whether they can be penalized consistent with the First Amendment. Thus, Kemp covers past and current Supreme Court precedents that relate to other instances of false and/or damaging speech.

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

Samuel Estreicher
Samuel Estreicher

Samuel Estreicher is the Dwight D. Opperman Professor, Director, Center for Labor and Employment... more

Leslie C. Griffin
Leslie C. Griffin

Dr. Leslie C. Griffin is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

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

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

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

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

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

Austin Sarat
Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

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