Analysis and Commentary on Courts and Procedure

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.

What Does the Pew Research Center’s Recent Survey Showing an Historically Low Favorability Rating of the Supreme Court Tell Us?

Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram Amar comments on the results of a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, regarding the percentage of adult Americans who hold a favorable view of the Supreme Court. Amar notes that the current percentage is 52%, a 25-year low. After describing the details of the Pew Survey, Amar considers the possible reasons for this low rating, suggesting that factors that may play a role include (1) The perception that the Court is no better than Congress (which gets low favorability ratings and is, obviously, partisan); (2) The impressions of the Justices that have been conveyed by some recent confirmation processes, particularly when nominees have made embarrassing gaffes that were ceaselessly repeated in the media, or have constantly avoided questions about the law; and (3) Republicans’ displeasure with the Court on social-issues cases, despite the Court’s conservative track record in its cases generally—and in certain blockbuster cases—over the last dozen years, in combination with what seems to be the advent of a more radicalized Republican Party.

Did Keith Olbermann Blow His Lawsuit Against Current TV By Saying “I Screwed Up” on Letterman? Absolutely Not!

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a remark that was recently made by Keith Olbermann—the longtime news anchor and a friend of Dean’s—on David Letterman’s “Late Show.” Dean argues that the remark, “I screwed up,” has been seriously misinterpreted and placed in the wrong context. As Dean discusses, the remark’s meaning is particularly important because it may well play a part in a lawsuit regarding Olbermann’s termination last month from his position as the anchor of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” and Chief News Officer at Current TV. Dean clarifies the context of the comment—noting that Olbermann meant that he’d screwed up in joining Current TV in the first place, not that he’d screwed up in his work there. Dean also raises a larger issue of the press’s picking up on language in initial court pleadings—such as Current TV’s in this case—when parties are not ultimately accountable for what they’ve said in those early pleadings.

The Trial of the Century?

Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner comments on the official beginning of the military commission proceedings against Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and his four co-defendants. As Mariner notes, the United States is seeking the death penalty against all five men, who are accused of a litany of crimes relating to the 9/11 attacks: terrorism, hijacking, murder, conspiracy, and intentionally causing serious bodily injury. Mohammad, as Mariner explains, has taken responsibility for the attacks, and the other four defendants are alleged to have played key organizational or financial roles in the attacks. Mariner argues that for the verdict in these cases to be seen as just, the defendants must be granted basic procedural guarantees and must face an impartial and independent tribunal. However, Mariner argues, neither the procedures that will be used, nor the tribunal itself, fit these requirements. In particular, Mariner emphasizes the key differences between judicial independence and military discipline, when it comes to the administration of justice, and urges that civilian courts, not courts-martial, should be the tribunals adjudicating these cases. She cites the Zacarias Moussaoui civilian trial as a success in showing that the civilian justice system can work well even in terrorism cases, and suggests that these cases, too, should have gone forward in the civilian justice system.

Newt Gingrich Is Right That Judicial Supremacy Has Been Challenged Before, but Wrong to Try to Turn Back the Clock

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf takes strong issue with presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s comments regarding judicial supremacy. In particular, Dorf explains, Gingrich has suggested that federal judges could be summoned—even by force—to explain their decisions before Congress, and that Supreme Court Justices and lower federal court judges with whose opinions Gingrich disagrees ought to be impeached. Dorf explains that, as Gingrich states, there have indeed been times in American history when judicial supremacy—which holds that all other government actors must act as if bound by the rulings of the Supreme Court—has been controversial. However, Dorf contends, Gingrich—in suggesting that we revert to those times—fails to appreciate how and why the courts’ role has evolved over the course of American history up to the present, and, worse, puts forth a dangerous proposition.

Should Bloggers Be Deemed Journalists, With the Power to Trigger the Supreme Court’s Favorable Rules Regarding Damages, Invoke Retraction Statutes, and Protect Confidential Sources? A Federal District Judge Offers Some Answers

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a Portland, Oregon-based federal district judge’s ruling in a case where a key question was when—if ever—a blogger can count as a journalist. The judge, addressing a defamation suit that was brought against the blogger, declined to allow her to invoke two Oregon laws that were meant to protect journalists by (1) requiring potential defamation plaintiffs to give journalists who are potential defamation defendants a chance to correct or retract the allegedly defamatory statements, if the plaintiffs want to recover their full damages; and (2) allowing journalists to protect their confidential sources by keeping them anonymous. In addition, the judge—moving on from Oregon-law issues to federal-law issues—refused to grant bloggers the right to invoke favorable U.S. Supreme Court case law regarding damages unless the bloggers qualified as journalists under the judge’s multi-factor test. Hilden takes issue with both of the judge’s Oregon law rulings, and, to some extent, also with his proposed multi-factor test as to who counts as a journalist.

The California Supreme Court Rules that Prop. 8’s Proponents Have Standing to Defend the Initiative: What Does That Mean in the Ninth Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court?

Justia columnist Vikram David Amar, and Justia guest columnist Alan Brownstein, both U.C., Davis law professors, comment on the latest ruling in the litigation regarding Proposition 8, the California anti-gay-marriage initiative. Amar and Brownstein begin by noting that this ruling holds that the initiative’s proponents have the authority to defend the initiative in California state court, now that elected representatives have declined to do so. They then summarize all the Prop. 8 litigation that has occurred thus far. In addition, they explain what may happen if this case reaches the U.S Supreme Court based on the standing issue it presents (that is, the issue of whether the parties at issue are legally able to bring this case). They cover a reason why the Supreme Court might decline to find federal standing: until now, initiative proponents have not been elected or specifically deputized by the people. Finally, they briefly discuss some other troubling questions regarding the Prop. 8 litigation that the California ruling did not address.

Why the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Declined to Change Its Mind About “Nipplegate,” Despite a Recent Opportunity From the U.S. Supreme Court to Do So

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden explains why a case regarding the famous 2004 “Nipplegate” incident—involving Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, and the Superbowl—has returned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit: An FCC crackdown led to a whopping fine for CBS, which is still being litigated. The Supreme Court recently sent the case back for reconsideration, in light of the High Court’s recent, related decision in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. But upon reconsideration, two judges on the three-judge Third Circuit panel reached essentially the same decision that they had reached on the first go-round, despite the High Court’s direction to take into account the Fox ruling. In light of that fact, Hilden suggests that the “Nipplegate” case may end up at the Supreme Court—for the Justices may be unhappy with the Third Circuit panel majority’s approach of reiterating its prior decision, while emphasizing certain points it made earlier even more, in light of Fox, rather than altering its approach with Fox in mind.

Scholars’ Amicus Brief Controversy Reflects the Evolving Relationship Between the Bench and the Legal Academy

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the evolution and role of the “scholar brief.” A scholar brief is an amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief submitted to a court—usually, the U.S. Supreme Court—by a law professor acting in his or her role as scholar, rather than advocate. Dorf notes that a column in The New York Times recently pointed to Harvard Law Professor Richard Fallon’s article draft questioning the value of scholar briefs, by suggesting that they are very often not particularly scholarly. In this column, Dorf considers why scholars’ amicus briefs have proliferated recently, and what light that proliferation sheds on the evolving relationship between the bench and the legal academy. In particular, Dorf connects the proliferation of scholar briefs to the increasing divide between legal scholarship in the academy, and the more practical work of the courts, including the Supreme Court. And yet, he notes that the academy’s work—contrary to the claims of some—actually does continue to have relevance to courts, in part by showing how disciplines such as economics and psychology can better illuminate the workings of the law.

The Supreme Court’s First Ruling of the New Term, Cavazos v. Smith: Supreme Court Annoyance, The Ninth Circuit, and Summary Reversals

Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on a recent, rare Supreme Court summary reversal. A summary reversal occurs when the Court summarily grants review and then reverses the federal circuit court’s decision without the benefit of full written briefs and oral arguments. In this instance, Amar suggests that the Court may have opted for summary reversal in light of its apparent annoyance with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In a criminal case in which a grandmother was accused of shaking her grandson to death, her defense was that the child died, instead, of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The Ninth Circuit sided with the grandmother, and reversed the conviction. The Supreme Court then twice directed the Ninth Circuit to reconsider its reversal, but the Ninth Circuit twice reaffirmed that reversal. Amar suggests that Supreme Court annoyance with the Ninth Circuit, which is the subject of a disproportionate number of summary reversals, may have led the Supreme Court, this time, to opt for summary reversal in this case, as well.

An Update on the Fisher v. University of Texas Affirmative Action Case, and the Procedural Issue That Might, But That Need Not, Complicate Things For the Supreme Court

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.

An Upcoming Case About Israel, Jerusalem, and Presidential Power Offers the Supreme Court the Chance to Clarify the Rules About “Political Questions”

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.

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.

Hawaii’s Battle Over Its Statutes of Limitations for Child Sex Abuse: Why the Legislature Was Right to Unanimously Vote for Reform, and Why the Governor Should Not Fulfill His Veto Threat

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on the situation unfolding in Hawaii with respect to the state's laws regarding statute of limitations for child sex abuse. As she explains, Hawaii's House and Senate each unanimously passed a bill that would create a two-year-long window of opportunity for child sex-abuse victims to file civil claims against their abusers, and against those who aided the abusers, even if the former statute of limitations had previously expired; and that would eliminate civil statutes of limitations entirely. But Hamilton – who has worked on the legislation with Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, abuse survivors, and others over the past year – notes that Hawaii governor Neil Abercrombie has issued a statement indicating that he will veto the bill. Hamilton takes strong issue with his reasons for doing so, and contends that he should change his mind.

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 Co... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George Washington U... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University. Colb tea... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973. Befo... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He has w... 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 of L... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is one of the country’s leading church-state scholars and the Fox Professor of Pra... more

David S. Kemp
David S. Kemp

David S. Kemp is an attorney and managing editor at Justia. He received his B.A. in Psychology from... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

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

Anita Ramasastry
Anita Ramasastry

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

Ronald D. Rotunda
Ronald D. Rotunda

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley Chair and Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence, at... more