Analysis and Commentary on Constitutional Law

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC: The Supreme Court Oral Argument, and What It Revealed

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on yesterday's Supreme Court oral argument, regarding religious institutions and anti-discrimination law. As Hamilton explains, the case brought the “ministerial exception” doctrine to the Supreme Court, for the first time ever. The doctrine, which stems from the First Amendment's Religion Clauses, holds that religious organizations have the right to determine the criteria for their own clergy (for instance, the Catholic Church need not hire female priests). The question the case raises is how to reconcile the ministerial exception with laws forbidding discriminatory hiring and firing. A related question is whether the teacher whom the Church fired, Cheryl Perich, was actually a minister, or simply a teacher of religion (as well as secular subjects). If she is a minister, the ministerial exception may apply; if not, she enjoys the full protection of the anti-discrimination laws. Finally, Hamilton notes that “sincerity” cases—allowing courts to gauge the sincerity of religious belief—might well have proven relevant here, but were not mentioned at oral argument.

Military Commissions Resurgent

Justia columnist and Hunter Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner comments upon the return of military commissions, which she describes as the latest in a string of victories for congressional Republicans who seek to bring back Bush-era “war on terror” policies—while seeking not only to keep Guantanamo open, but also to increase the number of persons detained there. Mariner argues that the Obama Administration ought to fight hard against such compromises of rights, but notes that it is not clear yet whether the Administration will take that stance. As Mariner explains, the test case here, which may signal the Administration’s future approach, is that of Lebanese citizen and alleged Hezbollah commander Ali Mussa Daqduq, who has been detained for crimes against U.S. military personnel in Iraq. Mariner contends that the federal courts, not military commissions, are the proper place to try terrorism suspects—with a strong record, under which (1) not a single genuine terrorist escaped conviction, and (2) the federal courts’ sentences generally proved to be longer than the military commissions' sentences.

How Much Is Truly at Stake in the Legal Battle Over Obamacare?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the potential impact of the resolution of the legal battle over the PPACA, also known by its critics as “Obamacare.” Various PPACA cases have caused a split among federal appellate courts, such that Dorf predicts that the Supreme Court will likely grant review this Term in a PPACA case. The case would raise the question of the constitutionality of the “individual mandate,” which requires individual Americans to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty for not doing so. Dorf argues that in the end, the Court’s PPACA decision—like Bush v. Gore before it—will have little effect as a legal precedent, but a very large political effect, as many Americans will likely see the Court’s decision, depending on how it comes out, as either a vindication or a repudiation of President Obama’s policy, and perhaps even the President himself.

One Way or Another, I’m Gonna Find Ya: The U.S. Supreme Court Considers Whether GPS Tracking of Suspects’ Cars Requires a Search Warrant

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on United States v. Jones, a case that the Supreme Court will hear this year, and that The New York Times called “the most important Fourth Amendment case in a decade.” The case raises the question whether police who track a suspect’s movements over time, via a global positioning system (GPS) device, intrude on the suspect’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. Colb covers an earlier High Court precedent involving the older police practice of putting a “beeper” in a container before a suspect loads the container into his vehicle, and then following the beeper’s trail, but she explains why that scenario is very different from the use of GPS. Colb also connects the GPS case, Jones, to the interesting concept of “innocent privacy”—that is, the privacy of innocent people, and everyone’s privacy vis-à-vis the innocent but personal parts of their lives. In addition, Colb contrasts the likely Fourth Amendment statuses of GPS location information versus cellphone location information, which is now frequently procured without a warrant.

A Growing Debate Over the Rights of Posthumously Conceived Children: Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In this column, Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman winds up her two-part series on the rights of posthumously conceived children. (Such children are born after their father has passed away, and their mother has used his previously preserved sperm to become pregnant.) With both inheritances and Social Security benefits at issue, there are potentially high stakes in this area of law. In this column, Grossman covers the different answers that various state and federal courts have given to the question whether posthumously conceived children have the same rights to inherit from their fathers, and to receive Social Security “surviving child” benefits as a result of their fathers’ deaths, that other children have. Grossman also notes that not just a number of courts, but also twelve state legislatures, have addressed this issue, and explains the conclusions they have reached.

Regulating Adult Businesses Based on Their Secondary Effects on the Community: An Ohio Case Raises First Amendment Concerns

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The decision upheld two regulations that were imposed upon sexually oriented businesses in Ohio. The first regulation restricted a business’s hours if it allowed nudity; the second regulation forbade a business’s nude performers from touching each other, and from touching its customers. Hilden explains the Supreme Court nude-dancing decision, Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc., that formed the backdrop for this case, and examines two of what she argues are the strongest First Amendment concerns that the Sixth Circuit panel’s decision raises.

Is Rick Perry Right That the Seventeenth Amendment Was a Mistake?

Justia columnist Vikram David Amar and Justia guest columnist Alan Brownstein, both U.C. Davis law professors, assess the claim of Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry that the U.S. Constitution’s Seventeenth Amendment—which provides for the direct election of U.S. Senators—was a mistake. Amar and Brownstein explain the original Constitution’s provision for state legislative election of Senators, and the thinking behind it, and the genesis of the Seventeenth Amendment. They also assess the Amendment’s costs, but note that if it were repealed, there would be costs to that decision, as well.

Should Congress Save the Post Office?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the ongoing controversy over the fate of the U.S. Post Office. Dorf describes the causes of the Post Office’s troubled state; considers the pros and cons of a possible plan by which Congress would subsidize the Post Office; describes what such a plan could look like in practice; and notes the virtues of opting for a stopgap solution now in light of the reality that long-term forecasts show that the end of the Post Office is ultimately inevitable.

Can Teachers and Their Students Be Banned from Becoming Facebook Friends? The Missouri Legislature Says Yes, But a Missouri Court Suggests the Answer Is No

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on a recent controversy in Missouri, concerning a law that would have banned teachers from becoming the “friends” of their under-18 students on Facebook and other social networking sites that allow private messaging. As Ramasastry explains, the law’s apparent concern was to ensure that teachers would not become sexual predators preying on students, but the effect of the law, if enforced, would have been to cut off positive—and even vital—student/teacher communication as well, ranging from students’ seeking homework help, to students’ seeking counsel and support while contemplating suicide. Ramasastry describes the law and the court battle over it, and considers the Missouri legislature’s and the ACLU’s new proposals for regulation in the state in this area.

A Decade of 9/11

Justia columnist and Hunter Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner suggests an answer to the following question: Ten years after the terrorist attacks that were said to have “changed everything,” what has actually changed in the protection of human rights, and how did these changes take place? Mariner isolates five distinct periods of government policy, as it has evolved over the post-9/11 years: (1) the directly post-9/11 era of unchecked abuses (especially by the CIA), which was sparked by the post-9/11 Bush Administration claim that the U.S. was waging a war on terror; (2) the era of retrenchment and reassertion, when the Bush Administration was put on the defensive; (3) the attempt, during the last years of the Bush Administration, to establish a legal foundation for its “war on terror” actions; (4) the initial, but short-lived, Obama Administration push to reverse the Bush Administration's approaches; and (5) the current Obama Administration policy era—when, Mariner contends, because President Obama has a more liberal image and generally more liberal politics, he can not only adopt certain abusive policies, but he can also normalize them in a way that President Bush never could have done.

Reflections on the 9/11 Attacks’ Lasting Impact on America, and American Law

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John W. Dean comments on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, with a special emphasis on the legacy of the attacks for American law. Dean begins by assessing how foreign media sources—whose perspectives, he explains, may be somewhat more detached than Americans’, yet who often interviewed Americans as sources—see the anniversary of 9/11. In addition, Dean contends that, where American law is concerned, the legacy of 9/11 is a baleful one. In support of his claim, Dean points to a post-9/11 proliferation of laws (some with sunset provisions, some without) that, he contends, go beyond all previous limits of constitutional propriety. Dean focuses in particular on the Patriot Act, and the infamous torture memo. All told, Dean concludes, the fallout of the 9/11 attacks has had a highly negative impact on American law.

The Tenth Anniversaries of 9/11 and of the Revelations of Catholic Bishops’ Cover-up of Child Sex Abuse: Two Developments That Profoundly Changed America

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton looks back to a more innocent time, ten years ago, before the 9/11 attacks shocked and horrified America, and before clergy child-sex-abuse scandals rocked first the Catholic Church and its believers, and then other religious institutions and believers as well. Hamilton contends that the key lessons of these devastating events are that we can never assume that a person’s belief in God, in itself, renders him or her godly; and that faith can too easily provide a pretext for terrible crimes.

The U.S. Supreme Court Considers the Constitutionality of Unreliable Eyewitness Identifications: Does a Lack of Police Misconduct Rule Out a Due Process Claim?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a fascinating criminal procedure case that the U.S. Supreme Court will resolve during this coming term. The case, Perry v. New Hampshire, will answer the following question: If an eyewitness first identifies a perpetrator under highly suggestive circumstances that seriously compromise the reliability of the identification, but the police did not orchestrate those circumstances, should a court then exclude the identification evidence? Or, stated differently, is police misconduct necessary to the successful due process exclusion of unduly suggestive eyewitness identification evidence? Colb explains the reasons why we might—and might not—require police misconduct before this type of constitutional claim may be made, and notes that the issue here is of great importance, as empirical research has now exposed the central role of mistaken eyewitness identifications in wrongful convictions. Colb also makes a case that, in the end, the best resolution here may be to inform jurors of the problems with suggestive identifications, and then simply have them evaluate such identifications accordingly, as they do with other unreliable evidence.

A Growing Debate Over the Rights of Posthumously Conceived Children: Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman discusses a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which raises a fascinating question stemming from modern reproductive technology: Is a child deemed to be legally related to her biological father if she was conceived after he died? The question proves to be crucial when it comes to Social Security and inheritance benefits. Grossman sets forth the facts of the Eighth Circuit case, which involved Social Security benefits; covers some new complications in the law of parentage; and explains why the Eighth Circuit, in the case before it, ultimately ruled against the child and her mother.

An Affirmative Action Case That May Illustrate Justice Kennedy’s Power on the Supreme Court and Reshape the Law of Race-Based Admissions Programs

Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on an affirmative action decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in which the Supreme Court may well grant review. Amar explains why, if the High Court does indeed take the case, its decision may substantially alter constitutional law relating to affirmative action in the context of educational admissions. In addition, Amar notes that this case, if taken up by the Court, may illustrate the very considerable power that Justice Anthony Kennedy now wields. Amar also provides thorough background to allow the reader to put this case, and the issues it raises, in the context of prior precedents relating to affirmative action in admissions, such as Bakke, Hopwood, Grutter, and Gratz.

A Closer Look At The Defamation Lawsuits Against Eliot Spitzer: Why They Seem Quite Weak

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John W. Dean discusses a set of interesting defamation lawsuits that were filed, earlier this month, in New York federal and state courts, against former New York Attorney General (and, later, New York Governor) Eliot Spitzer. The suits are based on an opinion piece that Spitzer wrote for Slate.com, about a year ago, which concerned past criminal charges that had been brought against employees of insurance/finance powerhouse Marsh & McLennan. Dean covers the background law on public-figure defamation suits; explains why the plaintiffs in the suits against Spitzer may have trouble meeting the basic defamation-law requirement that the statements at issue must be “of and concerning” them; and notes that if New York had a stronger anti-SLAPP statute, Spitzer might have been able to file a countersuit against the two plaintiffs who are suing him.

Assessing Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum as a 2012 Presidential Candidate: Part Two in an Ongoing Series on the Likely Candidates and Their Views on Religion

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton continues her series of columns on the 2012 presidential candidates’ views on religion, with an analysis of the views of Rick Santorum, a former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. Hamilton critiques Santorum for failing to respect the Constitution’s separation of church and state, and for expressing support for states’ rights while also endorsing federal legislation that would displace state power, when it comes to certain policies he favors.

The Supreme Court Agrees to Review the Constitutionality of Strip Searching All Arrestees Who Enter a Jail

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb discusses the constitutional issues raised by government strip searches, and the relevant Supreme Court precedents. She focuses, as well, on a Supreme Court case that will be decided during this coming Term, Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders. There, the Court will—for the first time since 1979—consider whether officials in a jail may strip search inmates in the absence of any individualized suspicion. Colb notes that the case will raise a key question for the Court to consider: Does the Constitution extend any protection for privacy to the people who reside in a detention facility?

Why the Seventh Circuit Allowed U.S. Citizens to Sue Former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld for Torture

Guest columnist and Justia editor David S. Kemp comments on a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which permitted two American citizens to sue several U.S. military officials and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for violating their constitutional rights. In that case, the plaintiffs alleged that Rumsfeld authorized the officials to detain and torture them for several months in Iraq, and that they were subsequently released without being charged with any crime. Kemp covers the three essential questions that had to be answered before the suit could proceed; explains the nature of Bivens claims, through which a plaintiff can bring suit against federal officials (such as, here, Rumsfeld) by proceeding directly under a particular constitutional provision; and describes the two-part test federal courts use to decide whether a Bivens claim will be recognized.

An Indiana Federal District Judge Holds That Teens Have a First Amendment Right Not to Be Punished by Their School for Posting Saucy Photos Online

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision by the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Indiana, concerning students’ First Amendment rights. The case arose after two public-high-school students were suspended based on lascivious (but not nude) photos that they had taken of each other during a series of slumber parties, and posted for their Facebook and MySpace “friends” and for password-holders on a photo website. Their school argued that the girls had violated school policy, but the judge held that they had a right to take and post the photos at home. Important in the judge’s analysis was that the girls themselves did not bring the photos to school; a parent made a copy and brought the copy in. Hilden argues that the case—while rightly decided—underlines the need for Supreme Court clarification in this muddy area of law.

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 is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George... 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