Analysis and Commentary on Philosophy and Ethics
What It Means to Be a Zealous Advocate: A Behavioral Approach

Criminal defense attorney Jon May discusses the importance of zealous advocacy in the legal profession, examining what it means to be a zealous advocate, the motivations behind lawyers’ practices, and why zealous advocacy is essential to the justice system. Mr. May argues that while zealous advocacy does not justify unethical conduct, it is a critical component of lawyers’ professional identity and obligations to their clients, and that efforts to eliminate references to zealous advocacy in ethical codes or to prioritize the “public good” over clients’ interests in legal education are misguided.

Justice Alito’s Modified, Limited Hangout

Former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut discusses Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s refusal to recuse himself from a case involving Donald Trump’s claim of immunity related to the January 6th Capitol riot, despite flags associated with the insurrection being flown at Alito’s properties. Mr. Aftergut argues that Alito’s non-denial denials and failure to condemn the violence on January 6th raise serious questions about the appearance of impropriety and the Court’s legitimacy, suggesting that Alito should recuse himself to maintain public trust in the institution.

Progressives Need to Take the Gloves Off and Play Hardball with Our Rogue Supreme Court

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the increasingly partisan and unethical behavior of the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, providing examples of actions by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas that he argues undermine public trust in the institution. Professor Sarat contends that progressives in Congress need to take more aggressive action, beyond speeches and task forces, to hold the Court accountable and rein in rogue behavior, suggesting they use their oversight powers to subpoena justices and potentially reduce the Court’s budget.

Volunteering to Die: A Client’s Agony and a Lawyer’s Dilemma

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies reflects on the ethical and legal dilemmas faced by lawyers representing death row inmates who choose to end their appeals and face execution, drawing on his own experience resisting a client’s choice to be executed, driven by the belief that the conviction was unjust and the death row conditions were inhumane. Professor Margulies grapples with the complexities of upholding the law, respecting client autonomy, and questioning whether intervening in a client’s decision to volunteer for execution is always the right course of action.

God’s Enduring Irony

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies considers the notion of equality and human nature, challenging the idea that monstrous actions make individuals fundamentally different from the rest of society. Professor Margulies argues that recognizing our shared capacity for brutality underscores that even those who commit heinous acts are not inherently “other” and should be held accountable as members of our collective humanity, rather than being cast out or labeled as fundamentally different.

Could Congress Solve the Supreme Court’s Disqualification Problem?

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf argues that the Supreme Court’s new Code of Conduct, despite being a step towards addressing ethical concerns, is insufficient due to its lack of enforcement mechanisms and the Court’s history of questionable conduct. Professor Dorf suggests that, despite Justice Alito’s assertion to the contrary, Congress has the authority to impose stricter ethical rules on the Supreme Court and could even explore innovative solutions like a “pinch-hitter” system using retired Justices or federal appeals court judges to address recusal challenges.

Law Firms Should Not Be Hiring Election Deniers. One Just Did.

Former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut criticizes the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner for hiring Mark Brnovich, the former Attorney General of Arizona, as a lateral partner, citing Brnovich’s prominent role in misleading the public about election fraud. The author argues that such a hiring decision tarnishes the law firm's reputation and undermines the legal profession's responsibility to uphold truth and democratic values.

#MeToo and Good Character Evidence: The Possibility of #MeToo-Informed Leniency Letters

Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler delves into the ethical complexities of writing leniency letters in sexual assault cases, particularly when informed by the #MeToo movement. Professor Wexler argues that while society should be forgiving, as Verdict co-columnist Joe Margulies suggests, leniency letters can often perpetuate “himpathy,” where the judge might overempathize with the defendant—especially if white and otherwise privileged—at the expense of the victim, and that these letters should carefully avoid reinforcing tropes rooted in structural misogyny and American rape culture.

What Precisely Did Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis Do Wrong?

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies discusses the controversy surrounding Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis writing character letters in support of their friend and fellow actor Danny Masterson, who was convicted of rape. Professor Margulies argues that while Kutcher and Kunis should be allowed to plead for “social forgiveness” for Masterson, they crossed a line by encouraging the judge to doubt the jury’s verdict; the challenge lies in how society can adopt a more forgiving attitude without diminishing the severity of wrongdoings.

Justice Alito is Wrong: Congress Can and Does Regulate the Supreme Court

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf responds to a recent Wall Street Journal “puff piece” on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, arguing that, contrary to the op-ed authors’ assertion, Justice Alito’s purported commitment to textualism is disingenuous and that he finds ways (atextually, if needed) to vote consistently for ideologically conservative outcomes. Professor Dorf refutes Justice Alito’s claim that Congress lacks the authority to impose ethical standards on the Supreme Court, pointing out Congress’s historical role in shaping the Court and the existing ethics regulations that apply to the Justices.

Clarence Thomas, Donald Trump and the “Tribal View” of Ethics or What Would Abe Fortas Think About Today’s Scandals?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat critiques U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas for his close relationships with conservative billionaires and the luxurious gifts and perks he’s received from them without proper disclosure, as recently reported by ProPublica. Drawing parallels to the case of Justice Abe Fortas, who resigned in the 1960s after a series of ethical missteps, Professor Sarat suggests that the current divisive political climate enables and even rewards ethically questionable behavior among leaders, as long as it aligns with tribal loyalties and partisan allegiances.

Donald Trump, Robert Bowers, and the Criminal Law

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies reflects on two recent high-profile legal events: the indictment of Donald Trump for allegedly subverting democracy and the death sentencing of Robert Bowers for the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Professor Margulies suggests that these cases, viewed by many as a triumph for the rule of law, represent societal attempts to protect integral aspects of American identity, with their punishment seen as purging threats to this identity. However, Professor Margulies argues that the law should not be weaponized to decide who belongs in society, as it usurps an authority that rightfully belongs to the people.

Why Didn’t the U.S. Bomb Kyoto?

UNLV Boyd School of Law professor Leslie C. Griffin explores the nuanced and multifaceted influences behind the U.S. decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of Kyoto during World War II. Drawing upon the speculated influence of Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s personal connection to Kyoto and weather conditions affecting bombing success, Professor Griffin emphasizes the complex interplay between personal morality, strategic considerations, and even uncontrollable factors like the weather in shaping historical outcomes.

Chief Justice John Roberts and the “Privilege” of Seeing the World from Behind Fences and Barricades

Amherst professor Austin Sarat reflects on the acceptance speech by Chief Justice John Roberts of the American Law Institute’s Henry Friendly Medal. Professor Sarat argues that the speech demonstrates the Chief Justice’s lack of empathy for litigants whose lives the Court’s decisions affect and a lack of awareness of his own life of privilege.

“We Acknowledge the Court’s Rulings” and Other Terrible Apologies

In this second in a series of columns on the litigation ending in settlement between Fox News and Dominion Voting Systems, Illinois Law professor Jennifer K. Robbennolt, University of Houston Law professor Jessica Bregant, and Illinois Law professor Verity Winship comment on the non-apology Fox made at the end of the case. The authors argue that the Fox/Dominion settlement is a stark example of the multiple audiences for an apology and how the incentives and desires of private parties and public audiences may diverge.

“Somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me.”

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies comments on the text message from Fox News host Tucker Carlson that apparently crossed the line and led to his being fired. Professor Margulies explores the two most common reactions to that text message and explains why one reaction is silly and the other is dangerously naïve.

Money Well Spent

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies compares the costs of United States military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, with what that same amount of money could accomplish at home. Professor Margulies points out that necessary investments like cleaning up toxic waste, replacing lead pipes and service lines, and fixing “structurally deficient” bridges cost a fraction of what the country has spent (and will spend) on unnecessary military operations worldwide.

Jack’s Choice, Our Challenge

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies describes a choice that Jack Teixeira—the 21-year-old former member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard accused of leaking classified documents on Discord servers—now faces: paint himself as a heroic truth-teller martyred by a war-mongering liberal political establishment, or as a chastened young man who made a terrible mistake but who loves his country and would never intentionally do her any harm. Professor Margulies points out this choice leads to the further question whether can society forgive Teixeira, or any wrongdoer, if they insist they have done no moral wrong.

Trump Lawyer Jenna Ellis Snatches Shame from the Jaws of Redemption

Former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut comments on the public censure of Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis for her misrepresentations on Fox News and elsewhere regarding the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election. Mr. Aftergut points out that now, thanks to Jenna Ellis, we have a discipline case on the record against a lawyer whose only misconduct was in misleading the public in the public square.

Imagine We Lived in a Different World

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies describes the crucial difference between a world where we ask, “What happened?” and one where we ask, “Who is to blame?” Professor Margulies explains that the first question seeks to identify the many factors that cause something bad to happen, with the goal of preventing that bad thing from happening again; in contrast, the second seeks only to punish.

Meet our Columnists
Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is a Distinguished Professor of Law at UC Davis School of Law and a Professor... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan, an economist and legal scholar, is a visiting professor at both Osgoode Hall... 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

Samuel Estreicher
Samuel Estreicher

Samuel Estreicher is Dwight D. Opperman Professor of Law and Director of the Center of Labor and... more

Leslie C. Griffin
Leslie C. Griffin

Dr. Leslie C. Griffin is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las... 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

Professor Marci A. Hamilton is a Professor of Practice in Political Science at the University of... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

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

Austin Sarat
Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at... more

Laurence H. Tribe
Laurence H. Tribe

Laurence H. Tribe is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University and... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

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