Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the Aaron Swartz case—in which the brilliant young computer programmer was, according to many commentators, including Dean himself, overzealously prosecuted—and eventually chose suicide over the likely lengthy prison sentence that he faced, based on his downloading for free numerous journal articles that otherwise would have cost money to access, and using MIT facilities to do so. Dean recalls instances where others have proved more reasonable, such as the case of a Vietnam War demonstrator with which Dean was familiar, and deems the Swartz case an instance of blatant prosecutorial overcharging. Dean also warns that there is nothing unusual about Swartz's case, in that prosecutorial overcharging is rife.
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.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on a recent decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, throwing out the conviction of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni who was captured in Afghanistan in 2001. Dorf chronicles Hamdan’s long legal journey, and the repercussions that it has had for U.S. law. Dorf also explains that while the most recent decision regarding Hamdan is narrow, it nevertheless carries symbolic significance, casting doubt on the Bush Administration’s and the Obama Administration’s respective, and similar, detainee policies.
Justia guest columnist and Touro Law Center professor Rodger Citron comments on the recent Supreme Court argument in an important case centering on the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). As Citron explains, the ATS, enacted by the first Congress in 1789, authorizes federal courts to hear “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the laws of nations or a treaty of the United States.” But can the ATS be applied to conduct based outside the U.S.? As Citron explains, that is the issue that the conservative Justices brought up at oral argument. Citron predicts, however, that in the end the Court will not limit the ATS’s reach to conduct that occurs within the United States, but that the Court will affirm the lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ case.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on an admiralty case in which the Supreme Court will hear oral argument next week, on the first day of its new Term. As Dorf explains, the case raises a narrow question at first glance: whether a houseboat counts as a “vessel” under federal maritime law. But Dorf also notes that, upon closer inspection, the case has a much wider meaning, illuminating the relevance of longstanding jurisprudential debates to real-world litigation. In particular, Dorf relates the case to a famous debate between two major thinkers on jurisprudence, H.L.A. Hart and Lon Fuller. Hart was a positivist; Fuller hewed to a “natural law” view; and Dorf explains how each of these stances relates to the case before the Court. Dorf also parallels the Hart/Fuller disagreement with one between Justice Scalia and Richard Posner.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on the roles that introverts and extroverts, respectively, may play on juries. Drawing on the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, Colb notes that the American legal system assumes that extroversion is optimal, and both law schools and the legal world, more generally, reward it. But, Colb asks, what if we’re wrong in our assumptions about introverts and extroverts? Colb describes some of the detrimental effects that our collective elevation of extroversion may be having on the criminal justice system, and on society more generally, especially as extroverts tend to have overly optimistic views, when more balanced views would ideally be better (as is, perhaps, illustrated by the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis). Meanwhile, studies also show that in groups, people's views tend to follow those of others in a group—in a tendency toward conformity. Thus, Colb asks us to consider our juries: Are we really getting twelve individual views of the case in jury deliberations, or are the influences of conformity and extroversion undermining that ideal? If, indeed, they are, Colb offers an intriguing solution.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry discusses the problem of jurors’ using social media to research—or even communicate with others about—the trials on which they serve. Ramasastry offers statistics and examples regarding the nature and frequency of the problem of juror social-media use, and discusses the new model jury instructions addressing this issue. She also covers some egregious instances of jury misconduct in this area, and considers whether instituting a new rule of peer policing by jurors, of other jurors’ social-media use, will turn out to be a good idea in the end. In particular, Ramasastry expresses considerable concern about the propriety of judges’ mandating peer-to-peer juror policing regarding social-media use, and thus potentially altering natural jury dynamics.
Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on an interesting and important issue regarding the power of federal courts. Specifically, Amar addresses the question whether a federal court can issue an injunction against future prosecution: If a district court tells you that the actions you are about to take are immune from prosecution, should you be able to rely on that immunity, even if it turns out that the district judge had provided it based on a flawed legal premise? As Amar points out, the Supreme Court precedent on this question is far from clear, and at least one of the Court’s liberals has suggested that reliance by a party on immunity that is wrongfully accorded to that party by a district court may be foolhardy. Amar also explains how this issue has arisen in a current controversy about Mississippi abortion services.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb raises an intriguing question regarding the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, also known as the ACA or, more colloquially, as Obamacare. Colb notes that leaks from the Court have suggested that Chief Justice Roberts initially was inclined to vote with his four conservative colleagues to strike down the ACA, but later changed his mind to side with the Court’s liberals and uphold the legislation. Assuming for purposes of argument that (1) the leaked information is accurate, and (2) Chief Justice Roberts’s claimed flip-flop was based in part on public sentiment, did Roberts do anything wrong? Colb suggests, interestingly, that the correct answer to that question may be “No.” Using two hypothetical court scenarios, as well as the ACA case itself, Colb isolates the kinds of cases and issues in which a judge would be wrong—or right—to take public sentiment into account.
Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on the ten key takeaways from last week’s Obamacare opinion. Some of the lessons Amar suggests that the opinion teaches are not just about the Supreme Court, but, interestingly, also about the media, and about Intrade users. Moreover, when it comes to the Court and its Justices, Amar points out lessons that we might learn about Justice Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts, respectively, from the opinion. Amar also points out lessons that we might learn from the opinion about Commerce Clause doctrine and doctrines regarding constitutional federalism.
Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes aim at the arguments that the dissenting justices made regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and, more specifically, regarding the taxing power. Those taxing power arguments, Buchanan contends, proved to be a dangerous red herring. Buchanan makes his case to that effect by using some ingenious hypotheticals; he argues that it is perfectly logical to deem a certain measure a tax for some purposes, but not for others. It is substance, he says, rather than form, that ultimately matters. Moreover, Buchanan notes, a tax by its nature need not be motivated by the government’s aim to raise money, although the ACA will, indeed, raise some money. Often, Buchanan points out, taxes are meant not to raise money but to incentivize or penalize certain behaviors. Ultimately, Buchanan notes that it is of no import, legally, that the ACA is not characterized as a tax; the key is that it, in part, operates as a tax.
Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on Chief Judge John Roberts’s role in the Supreme Court ruling upholding Obamacare. Dean anticipated that Roberts would vote, as he did, to uphold the healthcare statute, and Dean notes some other learned commentators who had also anticipated Roberts’s stance. A major factor in Dean’s prediction as to where Roberts would come down was Robert’s own testimony in the confirmation hearings that led him to join the Court. Describing himself in those hearings as an “umpire,” Roberts made clear that he would apply pre-existing, well-grounded legal rules, and not create new ones out of whole cloth. To show how Roberts did just that, Dean sums up the various Commerce Clause precedents that were relevant in the Obamacare case, and explains how Roberts dutifully followed them.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf discusses the Supreme Court’s decision in Elgin v. Dep’t of Commerce, which was just recently handed down. Dorf argues that the opinion, though not one of Term’s blockbusters, is still quite significant. That is, in part, because the decision may have implications for the U.S.’s controversial practice of using drone strikes to kill persons deemed to be U.S. enemies—including even U.S. citizens who are abroad. Moreover, Dorf notes that Elgin may have implications for the question whether the Obama Administration has been on firm legal ground when it has declined to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In addition to these more practical implications of Elgin, Dorf contends that the decision may also be significant as a matter of constitutional theory regarding the respective roles of each of the branches of government.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.