Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on a case the U.S. Supreme Court will consider this term that presents the question whether the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits sentencing a juvenile offender to life without the possibility of parole. Colb considers the wisdom and constitutionality of imposing such a sentence on a person who was under 18 at the time of his crime.
Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—argues that Attorney General William Barr erroneously characterizes the families of victims of violent crimes as a homogeneous group unified in their support of the death penalty. Sarat points out that, in fact, some families of victims oppose the application of the death penalty (for a variety of reasons), so by trying to justify the reinstatement of the federal death penalty as bringing closure to victims and their families, Barr and his political allies are simply using these victims and their families to support his political ends.
Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb considers the case for occasionally including status—“who you are”—in assigning blame in criminal matters. Colb explains that generally, our penal system prohibits “status offenses,” but sometimes, such as in the case of psychopaths, we are comfortable deciding how to punish a person based at least in part on who they are.
Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies comments on an essay by John J. Lennon, who is serving time in New York for murder, and a response by the sister of the murdered man responding to Lennon. Margulies points out that exceptional stories like Lennon’s set the bar too high, at the expense of the many who are ordinary.
Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies comments on the recent incident in which Amy Cooper, a young white woman, called the police on Christian Cooper, an African American man who was birdwatching in Central Park. Margulies argues that the repercussions of Ms. Cooper’s actions—her suffering public ridicule and losing the valuable commodity of anonymity—achieve both the consequentialist and retributivist purposes of our penal system, so for the state to prosecute her as well would serve only to humiliate and demonize her
Touro law professors Jeffrey B. Morris and Rodger D. Citron conduct a profile of John J. Gleeson, the lawyer and former judge who has been appointed as a “friend of the court” to advise the federal district court on a matter where the U.S. Department of Justice is seeking dismissal of the case against former national security advisor Michael Flynn. Morris and Citron describe Gleeson’s background both on and off the bench and predict that, if given the opportunity to fulfill his role, Gleeson will certainly be fair and proper in determining the proper way to deal with Michael Flynn’s case.
Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb describes an incident where her dog “K” stalked and killed a rabbit, and she considers what criminal-law inferences we might draw from observing such predators’ behavior toward their prey. Colb ponders what distinguishes a dog who kills a rabbit from psychopaths who commit heinous crimes, noting that among humans, a so-called “moral imbecile” lacks conscience and empathy for others, and our society deems such individuals as deserving punishment.
Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on last week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court reversing the convictions of two New Jersey officials for their role in the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal of 2013. Although the Court made clear that the underlying conduct was dangerous and wrong, its holding reversing the convictions may effectively permit corrupt bullies to continue to exercise political power, due in part to inadequate responses from other political actors.
Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on the insanity defense, considering when and why juries (and others) might perceive a criminal defendant to be not guilty by reason of insanity. Colb proposes that if a criminal defendant’s mental illness looks like an outside force that made him behave in an out-of-character fashion, then the jury is more likely to find him not guilty by reason of insanity.
Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb discusses the four purported goals of the criminal justice system—deterrence, incapacitation, retribution, and rehabilitation—and argues that retribution may preclude rehabilitation. Colb considers whether restorative justice—wherein a victim has a conversation with the offender and talks about what he did to her and why it was wrong—might better serve the rehabilitative purpose than long prison sentences do.
Kathryn Robb, executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy, comments on a public-health crisis that is getting relatively less attention right now: the scourge of child sex abuse. To address this crisis, Robb calls for greater public awareness, stronger laws protecting children, and legislative action
Guest columnist Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—points out one unusual effect of the COVID-19 pandemic: deferring the executions of death row inmates. Sarat observes that while past pandemics have not affected the rate at which states have executed inmates, last week the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted 60-day stays in the execution sentences of two men, and other states seem poised to follow suit.
SMU Dedman School of Law professor Joanna L. Grossman comments on the recent conviction of Harvey Weinstein for criminal sexual assault in the first degree and rape in the third degree. Grossman points out that our country’s antidiscrimination laws do not actually protect the people they intend to protect, instead focusing on employer policies and procedures. She argues that we should take this opportunity to learn from the system of criminal law, which did work in this case, to fix the antidiscrimination laws that purport to protect against sexual harassment and misconduct.
NYU law professor Samuel Estreicher and 3L Christopher S. Owens analyze, based on the facts presently known to the public, whether President Trump committed the federal crime of battery. After describing the elements required for the offense of bribery, Estreicher and Owens conclude that Trump’s conduct would support a finding of an exchange of official acts (by Trump) for things of value (the public statement sought from Zelensky), as well as the corrupt intent necessary to maintain a bribery charge.
Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb discusses blackmail and the paradox of coercion, that is, the phenomenon where the law permits two different actions but prohibits a person from making one action a condition of the other. Colb proposes that our laws should evolve over time toward a framework that is less and less supportive of coercion.
Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb why the question whether a state may abolish the insanity defense (presently before the Supreme Court) is similar to the question whether a state should adopt so-called animal welfare laws. Colb argues that both the insanity defense and animal welfare measures provide the public with a sense of moral relief but only if we willfully ignore the reality of how animals and criminal defendants are treated.
Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb cautions against using a disgust reaction alone to justify legislation—particularly legislation involving criminal penalties. Colb points out that disgust can sometimes help us determine that something bad is in fact going on, but we should not to allow disgust to power our moral choices without interrogation.
In this second of a series of columns, Illinois law professors Lesley Wexler, Jennifer Robbennolt, and Jennie Pahre continue their discussion of the legal mechanism of cy pres—by which a court decides a remedy based on how closely it serves the intended purpose (originally from the law of trusts). The authors draw upon the plot and characters of the television show Fleabag to illustrate how restorative justice might help re-center the #MeToo debate away from its seemingly sole punitive focus and more towards the twin purposes of victim restoration and deterrence.
Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb considers when the void-for-vagueness doctrine, which has a due process component, does and does not make sense. Colb argues that differences in the length of a criminal sentence have little or no deterrence effect, so imposing long sentences as an attempt to deter crimes is a waste of resources.
Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb discusses the criminal defenses of self-defense and defense of others and considers what role emotions should and do play in society’s assessment of whether a person’s violent conduct is justified and thus not criminally punishable. Colb argues that fear, rather than anger, most clearly motivates legitimate uses of self-defense or defense of others, but the mere fact of the victim’s anger (which might be present in addition to fear) should not necessarily mean the victim is criminally culpable.