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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on a case that the Supreme Court will take up this November. As he explains, the case potentially raises thorny questions regarding two important topics: (1) the relationship between Congress and the President with respect to American foreign policy in the Middle East; and (2) the power (or lack of power) of federal courts to weigh in on such matters, pursuant to the Court’s “political question” doctrine. The case, MBZ v. Clinton (that is, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), involves a 2002 law passed by Congress that, among other things, requires the Secretary of State, upon the request of a citizen or the citizen’s legal guardian, to record the place of birth for U.S. citizens born in the city of Jerusalem “as Israel.” President Bush signed the law into effect, but issued a signing statement to disclaim the legal effect of part of the law he was signing—on the ground that forcing the State Department to record Jerusalem births as being in Israel would impermissibly interfere with the President’s constitutional power to formulate and speak on behalf of American foreign policy. The plaintiffs in the M.B.Z. lawsuit seek to force the executive branch to follow the terms of the statute, notwithstanding the signing statement’s disclaimer. Whether they can do so, Amar explains, depends on whether the case at issue triggers the political question doctrine, under which there are some questions on which even the U.S. Supreme Court cannot rule, on the ground that they are properly resolved by one of the U.S. government’s political branches, rather than by the Court.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a case in which the Supreme Court heard oral argument last week. As Dorf explains, while the case may seem technical, it will have some very substantive consequences for the judicial enforcement of federal rights. The question the case directly raises is whether private parties (specifically, Medicaid patients and providers) can sue states to demand that they comply with the requirements of the federal Medicaid law. Interestingly, the Obama Administration's view is that they cannot, while the right-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s view is that they can—even though Democrats traditionally favor court access, and Republicans traditionally are more likely to oppose such access. Dorf explains why the Democrats’ decision to oppose court access here, while favoring it generally, is a high-risk strategy that might backfire, depending on the Court’s resolution of the case.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the Cleveland, Ohio, City Council’s recent efforts to pass ordinances that penalize the convening of flash mobs that become violent or disruptive. Ramasastry explains the City Council’s original proposed ordinance, and why the city’s mayor vetoed it, and notes that there are significant problems with the City Council’s second attempt at a flash-mob ordinance, as well. She advocates an approach that focuses on action, not speech, when it comes to flash mobs, and reminds us that the “chilling effect” of overly broad ordinances can end up stopping First-Amendment-protected speech before it starts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.