Analysis and Commentary on Constitutional Law
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.

Assessing the Reasoning of the Eleventh Circuit Opinion Striking Down Obamacare

Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on the recent decision by a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, striking down Obamacare’s “individual mandate” provision, which requires each person to obtain health insurance coverage or pay a sum of money to the U.S. Treasury. Amar considers and responds to the most important Commerce Clause arguments that the panel majority invoked: (1) the unprecedented nature of the mandate in federal law; (2) the lack of a requirement in the mandate provision that each regulated individual be doing anything that affects the economy; (3) the related problem that if Congress could mandate purchase of healthcare, there would be no stopping point to federal power; and (4) the fact that insurance and healthcare are matters of traditional state concern.

David Hicks’s Guantanamo Memoir

Justia columnist Joanne Mariner, an attorney and the head of Hunter College’s Human Rights Program, comments on the memoir of David Hicks, an Australian who was incarcerated at the United States’ Guantanamo Bay detention facility for five-and-a-half years. Mariner notes that Hicks’s Guantanamo memoir is now one of many such works that detail interrogation practices and detention conditions at the facility. She also points out the book has recently made headlines due to the Australian government’s attempt to confiscate the royalties Hicks earned from his publisher, citing Australia’s Proceeds of Crime Act. Mariner notes the parallel between that Act and the United States’ “Son of Sam” laws, which the U.S. Supreme Court has occasionally held to be in violation of the First Amendment, and she explains other troubling aspects of the attempt to apply Australia’s Act to Hicks.

Can Public School Students Constitutionally Be Punished for Their Off-Campus Comments on Social-Networking Sites or Blogs?

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a case in which a young woman, Avery Doninger, sued her former high school for punishing her when she was a student there based on derogatory comments about school administrators that she posted while at home, on her home computer, after school hours, on a publicly accessible blog. Hilden notes that Doninger is now seeking Supreme Court review, based on a split among the federal circuit courts regarding cases similar to her own. Hilden explains two key Supreme Court precedents on school speech, and contends that the Court would have to truly make new First Amendment law if it were to allow schools to punish students for online comments that, like Doninger’s, were made after school hours, at home, on home computers—even if the subject of the comments relates to other students or to school administrators.

What Obama Should Say to the Nation

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf notes that many Americans have expressed disappointment in President Obama’s recent speeches. But, of course, it’s easy to criticize, and much harder to detail what the President actually should be saying. That’s exactly what Dorf does in this column—even going so far as to offer his own hypothetical stump speech for President Obama to deliver—a speech addressing tough issues like tax cuts; how, exactly, to put Americans back to work; and one key policy and legal point that Republicans and Democrats alike ought to agree upon.

Assessing Texas Governor Rick Perry as a 2012 Presidential Candidate: Part One in an Ongoing Series on the Likely Candidates and Their Views on Religion

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton begins her series on likely 2012 presidential candidates and their views on religion. Here, Hamilton assesses the views of Texas Governor Rick Perry. She expresses concern, in particular, with Perry’s lack of belief in the separation of church and state, as exemplified by his speeches; finds in Perry’s record a belief that religion should drive politics; and questions Perry’s claimed beliefs in small government and in federalism.

Armed and Crazy: Should Mentally Ill People Be Permitted to Own Firearms?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb contends that laws broadly preventing certain mentally ill persons from possessing firearms may not be as obviously a good idea as they might seem at first glance. Currently, Colb explains, there is a federal law—passed in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings—to simplify the identification and tracking of persons who have previously been committed to a mental hospital, and who have therefore been divested of their right to possess firearms; those rights, though, can later be restored. Interestingly, though, Colb notes that in other contexts, members of certain groups (such as men) may be statistically far more likely than their counterparts (such as women) to commit gun violence, and yet, are allowed to carry guns nonetheless. Colb also points out that certain types of mental illness, which might lead to commitment to a mental hospital, are not connected to gun violence at all, yet still are swept in by the law.

“Respect” or “Defend” Marriage? The Senate Considers a Bill to Repeal the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA): Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman continues her two-part series of columns critiquing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—which was recently the subject of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. As Grossman notes, a bill is now pending that would reverse DOMA to the extent that DOMA defines marriage, for federal law purposes, as a union between one man and one woman. She describes the varied, pending litigation related to DOMA, and considers some of the reasons DOMA has garnered complaint and opposition: Critics say it imposes unfair disadvantages on married gay couples, and many have observed that DOMA has spawned a bureaucratic nightmare.

Preventing the Next Crisis: What We Must Do to Maintain the Public’s Confidence in the Financial System

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan suggests how, in the future, we can ensure that the debt limit is not, once again, used as a political weapon. He discusses three key solutions: (1) simply eliminating the debt limit via a presidential directive incorporating a Fourteenth Amendment analysis, as The New York Times suggested; (2) and following one of Yale Law professor Jack Balkin’s two suggestions, which are nicknamed “Big Coin” and “Exploding Option.” Buchanan provides background to ensure that readers fully understand each suggestion, and points out a downside to Balkin’s ideas: the public’s confidence in money and the monetary system may turn out to be fragile, if the system is experimented with.

The Debt Ceiling Crisis Reveals a Constitutional Gap: How to Choose Among Unconstitutional Options

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on what may happen if the debt-ceiling deal that President Obama announced on Sunday, August 31, is somehow derailed—or if (as is almost certain to be the case) future Presidents face constitutional-law issues that are philosophically similar to the one President Obama may have narrowly avoided here. In discussing the debt-ceiling issue and its constitutional dimensions, Dorf describes the trilemma the President may face; raises the question whether the constitutionality of a measure must be an either/or proposition or if there are intermediate options of a measure's being, say, “very unconstitutional” or “a little unconstitutional”; and describes America’s historic hostility to balancing different constitutional values against one another.

All Roads Lead to Accountability

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci A. Hamilton urges that the Catholic Church urgently needs to take responsibility—and foster an ethic of accountability—regarding clergy child-sex-abuse cases. In describing the path that she argues the Church must take, Hamilton compliments a recent speech by Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, and a book by Jason Berry on money and the Church. As she explains, these writings, too, call for responsibility and accountability from the Church, and for the enforcement of civil law by the courts, in clergy child-sex-abuse cases.

Why Suppress Illegally Obtained Evidence? The U.S. Supreme Court Decides Davis v. United States

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb clarifies for readers one of the most complicated issues within the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence: the suppression of evidence that the police have obtained illegally. Colb focuses, in particular, on a case decided during the past Supreme Court term that presented a thorny question: If police follow appellate court precedent while performing a search, but the Supreme Court later reverses that very precedent, was the search legal (because appellate case law authorized it at the time) or illegal (because the Court decided later that the appeals court had erred)? In addition to discussing this issue, Colb also focuses on a number of major Court decisions in the area, to shed light on the evolution of Court doctrine.

“Respect” or “Defend” Marriage? The Senate Considers a Bill to Repeal the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA): Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In the first in a two-part series of columns about the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on the origins of DOMA; the reason DOMA did not have any practical implications until 2004; and why, even now, Section Two of DOMA has had no real effect. In Part Two of the series, Grossman will go on to consider Section Three of DOMA, which has had serious real-life implications, for it says that same-sex marriages cannot be recognized for any federal purpose.

When Do Message-Board Rants Count as Illegal Threats Against a Presidential Candidate? The Issue That Caused a Ninth Circuit Panel to Split, 2-1

Justia columnist, attorney, and author Julie Hilden comments on a recent, split decision from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. As Hilden explains, the case involved the “true threats” doctrine, which determines when a statement is an illegal threat, and when it is protected by the First Amendment. The defendant’s message-board postings about then-candidate Obama were ominous, but were they full-fledged threats under the legal test? Hilden explains why two Ninth Circuit judges said no, but one said yes.

The Sixth Circuit’s Big Rulings on Obamacare and Affirmative Action: The Second in a Two-Part Series of Columns

Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram David Amar completes his two-part series of columns on two key decisions from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. His last column focused on the Circuit’s Obamacare ruling; this one focuses on the Circuit’s ruling on an issue relating to affirmative action. Amar describes two different lines of Supreme Court precedent that offer different ways of analyzing affirmative action cases, and considers the possibility that the Court will take the opportunity—by reviewing this or another lower-court decision—to clean up apparent tensions between these two lines of High Court cases.

Sister Wives: An Illustration of Why Polygamy Is, and Should Be, Illegal

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on the reality television show Sister Wives and the litigation that is connected to it. The family depicted on Sister Wives—consisting of one man, four “wives,” and 16 children—fled Utah to avoid potential bigamy charges. (Nevada’s bigamy law defines the offense in a less restrictive way than Utah’s does.) Now, the family’s lawyer, Jonathan Turley, is challenging Utah’s law as unconstitutional. Hamilton contends, to the contrary, that the law is perfectly constitutional, and explains the history of the law and the related precedent in support of her argument.

The Constitutionality of Senator McConnell’s “Last-Choice Option” for Averting Default

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf weighs in on the debate over whether Senator Mitch McConnell’s plan to prevent the federal government from defaulting on its obligations is constitutional. Dorf explains McConnell’s plan and analyzes three possible constitutional objections to it, concluding that none of these objections is, in the end, persuasive. Indeed, Dorf suggests that the more closely one looks at the plan, the more clear it is that it should be a first choice among possible solutions.

The Reality Show Sister Wives: Will Its Stars Prevail in Their Civil Rights Lawsuit?

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman covers the bigamy case that may soon arise from the reality TV show Sister Wives. As Grossman explains, the family at issue consists of a man, his four wives (one via legal marriage, and three via “spiritual marriage”) and his sixteen children and stepchildren. The family fled from Utah to Nevada to evade possible bigamy charges from Utah authorities. Grossman contrasts the bigamy laws of the two states, and considers whether the Supreme Court precedent of Lawrence v. Texas—the 2003 case where the Supreme Court held that the constitutional right of privacy includes a right of adults to enter into consensual, intimate relationships without interference from the state—protects bigamists.

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

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

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