Analysis and Commentary on Philosophy and Ethics

Pay for Slay?

Illinois Law professor Lesley Wexler discusses the decision by Hamas to pay funds to those wounded and to the families of those killed by Israeli military forces and considers whether such payments ought to be condemned as “pay for slay” disbursements. Wexler concludes that due to the unconditional nature of the offer, at least some payments made by Hamas might be appropriate because they are not conditioned on affiliation with or motivation by Hamas’s military wing.

The San Francisco Fur Ban

Cornell University law professor Sherry F. Colb analyzes some of the assumptions implicit in a fur ban, as San Francisco recently implemented, including the view that fur is a luxury while leather is a necessity and the view that wild animals have a right to live while farm animals do not. Colb explains why these distinctions are nonsensical and calls upon proponents of the fur ban to let people know that there is plenty of vegan food in San Francisco and elsewhere, and that no one needs to spend another moment participating in cruelty to animals.

Wait … Was the Sheriff of Nottingham Somehow the Good Guy?

George Washington law professor and economist Neil H. Buchanan explains why regressive taxes make Republicans “reverse Robin Hoods” by focusing on the core disagreement between those Republicans and everyone else about the ethics of taxation. Buchanan points out that the Republicans’ argument boils down to the tautology that rich people deserve what they have because they have it.

United Airlines and the Milgram Experiment

Cornell University law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on the recent incident involving a French bulldog puppy dying in-flight when the flight attendant allegedly insisted that the carrier containing the dog be put in the overhead bin. Colb provides one possible explanation for the incident in terms of human behavior as observed in the famous Milgram experiment, in which subjects obeyed directions from an authority figure to administer increasingly strong electric shocks to another person despite experiencing moral distress at doing so.

R.I.P. Ron Rotunda—A Man Responsible for Watergate’s Most Lasting Positive Impact

Former White House counsel John W. Dean describes the incredible legacy of fellow Verdict columnist, Professor Ronald D. Rotunda, who passed away unexpectedly earlier this week. Dean explains how he came to know Rotunda—through the Watergate hearings—and Rotunda’s critical role in developing the modern-day ethics rules that govern lawyers (“post-Watergate morality”). A prolific writer, Rotunda is perhaps best known for co-authoring the revered Legal Ethics: The Lawyer’s Deskbook on Professional Responsibility, as well as a highly regarded treatise on constitutional law.

Are Animal Rights and Human Rights in Tension?

Cornell University law professor Sherry F. Colb considers four ways in which human rights successes might seem to impede the progress of animal rights (and vice versa) and explains why none of these four ways stands up to critical analysis. Colb concludes that a commitment to human rights is perfectly consistent with an embrace of animal rights and that rather than being in conflict, to support one without the other is incoherent.

Lawyers, Passwords, and the Obligation to Keep Clients’ Secrets

Chapman University, Fowler School of Law, professor Ronald D. Rotunda explains in concrete terms what the ABA's recommendation that attorneys "keep abreast" of "the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology" means: change your passwords into passphrases to keep confidential information secure. Rotunda describes how easy it is to hack simple passwords and cautions lawyers that the ramifications of compromised client information can be significant and far-reaching.

#MeToo, Time’s Up, and Restorative Justice

Illinois Law professor Lesley Wexler comments on the 2018 Golden Globes acceptance speech by Laura Dern calling for restorative justice in the context of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements. Wexler analyzes the possible meaning of this somewhat ambiguous call to action, explaining that it could mean the restoration and reintegration of women who have suffered employment setbacks at the hands of their harassers and assaulters, and pointing out that it could also carry the more traditional notion of restorative justice, which includes the wrongdoers and the community as a whole to engage in "apologies, restitution, and acknowledgments of harm and injury."

The Seduction of Piety

Cornell University law professor Joseph Margulies continues his discussion of what he calls "pious stories" that come up in discussions of the criminal justice system, explaining why the media and policy-makers continue to repeat these stories despite their being egregiously incorrect or even dangerously incomplete. Margulies points to three characteristics common to all three of these stories: they reduce complex social processes into over-simplified parables about heroes and villains, they engender racial colonialism, and they are perpetuated by people deeply committed to criminal justice reform.

The Trump Presidency and the #MeToo Movement

Professor and resident senior fellow in the Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania, Marci A. Hamilton likens the relationship between the #MeToo movement and Donald Trump’s presidency as a David versus Goliath moment. Hamilton describes the contrast in apparent values between the two but finds comfort in the #MeToo movement’s demonstration that there is still identifiable right and wrong that we as a society can see and discuss.

The Helpful Role Lawyers Can Play in Rebuilding American Democracy

Illinois Law dean and professor Vikram David Amar offers some wisdom he shared during his keynote remarks at the swearing-in ceremony of new lawyers in Springfield, Illinois, describing how lawyers can help build American democracy. Amar comments on the specific duties and responsibilities lawyers swear to uphold, and explains why these duties are critical to the very foundations of our country.

Trouble in Paradise? The Paradise Papers and the Ethics of Lawful Tax Avoidance

University of Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the recent release of records known as the Paradise Papers, which reveal the identities of thousands of individuals and corporations using offshore jurisdictions as a tax avoidance strategy. Ramasastry argues that while such actions may in many cases be legal, they are also unethical. She points out that if we focus on the harm of tax avoidance to society, rather than how it is legally defined, then we can see that it contributes to growing inequality and increases tax burdens on resident taxpayers who cannot change their citizenship or move their money.

Mass Murder and the Mundane

Cornell University law professor Joseph Margulies observes that the stock market—which tends to disregard even unusual events that within a range of predictability—reflected no surprise at the extraordinary carnage of three mass murders over a period of five weeks. Margulies points out that US stock markets saw steady growth despite Stephen Paddock shooting and killing nearly 60 people and wounding over 500 more in Las Vegas; Sayfullo Saipov killing eight people and seriously injuring over ten others in Manhattan; and Devin Patrick Kelly killing 26 people and injuring 20 more in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Does this truly mean that human destruction on a scale like this has no impact on national life?

Considering a New York Bill to Legalize Compensated Surrogacy

Cornell University law professor Sherry F. Colb considers some pros and cons of legalizing and enforcing gestational surrogacy agreements, as the New York State legislature is currently considering doing. Colb points out that legalizing these agreements would help clean up the patchwork of different surrogacy laws in different states (and thus make the outcome of conflicts more predictable), but she also notes that government endorsement of surrogacy may perpetuate or ignore related issues of equality and born children seeking adoption.

Bitcoin and the Legal Ethics of Lawyers

Chapman University, Fowler School of Law, professor Ronald D. Rotunda comments on a recent opinion by the Nebraska bar concluding that lawyers may receive digital currencies such as bitcoin for their services, but only subject to certain conditions. Rotunda provides a brief explanation of bitcoin and explains why the opinion makes no sense. Rotunda calls upon lawyers and state bars to consider the impact of new technology on lawyers, but not to impose special rules on novel tools that are simply a new way of engaging in a traditional endeavor.

Ideal Victims and the Damage of a Damage Free Victory

Illinois law professor Lesley Wexler considers the how the public perceives victims of physical abuse who renounce the monetary rewards to which they are legally entitled. Wexler points to several high-profile cases in which the victim donated or did not seek monetary damages, and critiques the media for lauding the economic selflessness of these female assault victims in a way that obscures the important role of compensatory and punitive damages, particularly for victims who rely on those damages to seek to become whole.

Should the Law Permit Sexual Contact Between Police and Suspects?

Cornell University law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on the law in at least three states that permits police officers to have sexual contact with people they suspect of prostitution. Colb explains the rationale behind these laws and argues that under three prevailing philosophical approaches to the law—libertarian, feminist, and traditional morality-based—such contact should not be permissible.

Can Robots Practice Law?

Chapman University, Fowler School of Law, professor Ronald D. Rotunda comments on the laws regulating the practice of law, and specifically, defining (or not defining) what the practice of law means. Rotunda argues that despite (or because of) the difficulty of defining the practice of law, computers and technology are advancing the practice of law and the work of lawyers.

It’s an Either-Or Question: Trump or Decency

Marci A. Hamilton, a professor and resident senior fellow in the Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania, minces no words in criticizing President Trump’s taking sides with neo-Nazis and supporters of the KKK. Hamilton calls upon everyone to make known where they stand—either with Trump in betraying fundamental American values, or on the side of decency.

Indicting the President: President Clinton’s Justice Department Says No

Chapman University Fowler School of Law professor Ronald D. Rotunda explains his legal conclusion in the opinion letter he authored for Ken Star regarding the ability of a federal grand jury to indict a sitting president. Rotunda points out that the key difference between then and now is the presence of a special prosecutor statute protecting independent counsel from removal.

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

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... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

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