Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on the ongoing ratings fight regarding the film “Bully,” a documentary about kids and bullying that is scheduled to premiere March 30th. The producer and director of “Bully” are fighting for the film to get a PG-13, and not an R, rating, so that teenagers can see it. Hilden argues that films like “Bully”—documentaries where the true-life use of expletives or other explicit material is necessary to truly understand the film’s subject matter—should be excepted from the usual application of the MPAA ratings system. As other examples of film that should benefit from such an exception, Hilden cites the based-on-a-true story “Boys Don’t Cry” and the documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.” Hilden also suggests that the MPAA should use a much broader pool of parents in determining what movies parents, in general, think are acceptable for their children to see.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the “Kony2012” 30-minute video, which recently received over 75 million views on YouTube and film-sharing site Vimeo—with even the White House taking notice. As Ramasastry explains, the video is a profile of the brutal warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for his war crimes. Kony, a native Ugandan, mounted a war against Uganda’s government, using tactics including the recruitment of child soldiers and the commission of atrocities. Ramasastry covers Kony’s crimes; notes the praise for, and criticism of, the “Kony2012” video; and concludes that, despite some drawbacks and criticisms, the “Kony2012” video has proven to be an effective way to exert pressure for justice to be done.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on a recent Israeli Supreme Court decision that held that a law exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service unconstitutionally denies equality of treatment to other Israelis, who either must serve in the military, or—if they are conscientious objectors—must perform alternative service. Dorf notes that the Israeli decision is not only interesting in its own right, but also sheds light on two questions that U.S. courts must frequently face: How should courts evaluate laws that confer special benefits on certain minorities within society? And, when should people and institutions be exempted from legal requirements based on religious objections? In particular, Dorf points out that the Israeli decision has interesting comparative-law implications for American debates about affirmative action, and about the granting of religious exemptions to otherwise-applicable laws.
Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean discusses recent Watergate-related books and other writings, as we approach Watergate’s 40th anniversary. Dean makes the interesting observation that as more and more information is being released about Watergate, more writers are getting its history wrong, perhaps because of the difficulty of sifting through the massive record that now exists. Dean praises Mark Holland, however, as a sterling exception to that rule—noting that Holland’s book, which focuses on why Mark Felt became “Deep Throat,” shows an excellent command of the record, and indeed, casts light on a dark subject. In contrast, Dean notes that another respected journalist lacked the command of the record truly necessary to write accurately and insightfully about Watergate.
Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on two significant threats to New York State’s children. Hamilton begins by noting the recent, tragic death of an infant from herpes. She notes that the infant likely contracted the disease from a mohel who performed “oral suction” on the infant after Orthodox Jewish ritual circumcision. (Oral suction is a controversial practice in the Jewish community, and has fallen out of favor with many. In ancient times, the practice was thought to contribute to hygiene, but as it was learned that it could spread disease, it was mostly abandoned. Those who still practice it typically employ a glass tube to avoid direct contact and disease transmission.) Noting that this is not the first such death to likely be associated with oral suction, Hamilton argues that this risky procedure should be banned, and notes that its religious nature provides no legal defense for those who follow the procedure. She also warns that not only the mohel, but also the parents, could be held responsible for the death, depending on what they knew about the procedure’s risks. In addition, Hamilton covers a second ongoing threat to the well-being of New York’s children: clergy child sex abuse. Hamilton contends that New York ought to follow the example of Philadelphia, when it comes to the reporting of clergy child abuse—for there, District Attorney Lynne Abraham eventually enabled justice to be done due to her grand jury investigation into the cover-up of abuse.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a recent practice that has made a larger number of compatible kidneys available to those who need them: the “donor chain.” As Colb explains, donor chains allow pairs of people—one person who is willing to donate a kidney, and another who is in need of a kidney (but not immunologically compatible with the intended donor)—to become links in a chain of such pairs, and thus to each receive compatible kidneys. Indeed, through such a chain, willing and compatible donors may be found for each would-be recipient on the chain. There is no question that these chains save lives, but Colb notes that many more lives would be saved if, in addition to allowing donor chains, we also allowed people to sell their kidneys to those who need them. Thus, she considers the rationales for banning kidney sales—while pointing out that people with one kidney typically live as long as those with two. In the end, Colb asks whether it really makes sense for federal law to allow donor chains, but not to allow kidney sales—using a hypothetical where the would-be kidney seller himself needs the money urgently to cover a loved one’s health care needs.
Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on a recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, holding that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. (As readers may know, DOMA defines a marriage as a union between a man and a woman, for purposes of federal law and federal benefits.) The court also held that statutory classifications based on sexual orientation should trigger heightened scrutiny from reviewing courts, and that an anti-same-sex marriage law cannot survive such scrutiny. Grossman provides background on DOMA, and describes the current impact of, and court challenges to, DOMA’s anti-same-sex marriage section. She also describes federal legislative and executive challenges to DOMA, and recaps California’s complicated history regarding same-sex marriage. In addition, she focuses on the interesting question of what level of heightened scrutiny (intermediate, strict, or other) courts will apply when reviewing cases alleging sexual-orientation discrimination. Grossman predicts that whether by repeal, administrative undercut, or judicial invalidation, DOMA is on its way out.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent Louisiana federal district court decision striking down an extremely broad and vague law prohibiting registered sex offenders from accessing a large variety of websites. Hilden argues that the judge’s decision, which followed a bench trial, was plainly correct under First Amendment case law. Accordingly, she contends that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is likely using the law, which he signed, and the decision, which he has vowed to appeal, for political purposes. Hilden also raises the questions whether any law restricting Internet access for ex-offenders could pass muster; if so, what it might look like; and whether individual websites’ policing themselves—or creating separate sections for adults and children—might be part of the solution.
In Part One in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram Amar comments on the Supreme Court and affirmative action—a timely subject due to the Court's recent grant of review in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, which involves affirmative action in college admissions. Amar contends that, when it comes to this explosive issue, the two wings of the Court have both engaged in intellectual dishonesty, and he details how the Justices adopted their current distrust: Amar charges the Court's liberals with an unwillingness to apply meaningful strict, or even intermediate, scrutiny to race-based programs; charges its conservatives with the unfair treatment of remedial rationales; and takes issue with some Justices' treatment of history and precedent. Amar's analysis includes some shockingly out-of-context quotes that Justices, over time, have used to try to make their points in this highly controversial area.
George Washington law professor and economist Neil Buchanan comments on the financial relationship between U.S. and China—which he argues is far from as problematic as some claim. Buchanan covers the issues that have been raised regarding China’s holding U.S. debt; argues that the mutual China/U.S. dependence is ultimately healthy; discusses a possible worry on China’s part that the U.S. would accomplish a stealth repudiation of its debt through deliberate inflation, but deems that worry unrealistic; and considers whether the U.S. holds political power over China due to its holding our debt. Ultimately, Buchanan suggests, Americans should not be particularly concerned about the U.S.-China relationship, but should be quite concerned by the situation of the have-nots in both countries. Both governments, Buchanan concludes, need to ensure that the prosperity their country enjoys benefits not just the elites, but also the whole of society. While China is besting us in infrastructure improvements, he notes, it is not, at the same time, improving its citizen’s lives as it ought to. Yet the economic relationship between our two nations, he says, is sound.
Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner discusses two recent steps toward limiting the scope of the detention provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the controversial, recently-passed federal statute regarding the military detention and trial of terrorist suspects. The first step was an Obama Administration policy directive that effectively negates an NDAA section that purports to require that non-citizens suspected of strong links to terrorism be held in military, not civilian, custody. The second step was the commencement of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Due Process Guarantee Act, which was introduced after the NDAA was enacted into law. As Mariner explains, the Due Process Guarantee Act would protect both citizens and lawful permanent residents arrested in the U.S. against being detained indefinitely under a military rationale. Moreover, the Act would set a baseline prohibition on indefinite military detention in such cases, allowing such detention to be used only when Congress explicitly provides for it. Mariner sees these steps as constituting progress, but contends that amending the NDAA itself would have been a better remedy—especially as a presidential directive can always be reversed by a future president.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry considers the sometimes disturbing ways in which retailers—both brick-and-mortar or online—use consumer data. Beginning with a New York Times story that related how a father learned of his teenage daughter's pregnancy when Target started sending her baby-related coupons, Ramasastry suggests that regulation is necessary if consumer privacy is to be protected, and that such regulation probably should render certain areas of private information strictly off-limits. Ramasastry discusses the Obama Administration's proposed set of consumer-privacy principles, called the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, and notes that the Administration's stance is that if Congress will not enact such principles into law, then the FTC has the power to enforce them via regulation. Ramasastry also discusses what, specifically, such principles could mean for retailers like Target. Finally, Ramasastry discusses existing websites that can help consumers protect their online privacy.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the Supreme Court’s recent decision to review a case involving race-based affirmative action in higher education. As Dorf explains, the Court has not resolved an affirmative-action case since 2003, and thus this new case will be especially closely watched. Dorf discusses the affirmative action precedents that the Court has already handed down, including the famous Bakke case, and the University of Michigan cases, Gratz and Grutter—the impact of which, Dorf explains, has been modest. The new case that the Court will review, Dorf explains, involves the University of Texas's admissions system—which offers admission to all Texas students who rank in the top ten percent of their high school class, and also adds consideration of race as one of a number of factors in admissions decisions. Dorf describes the issues the Texas case raises, and predicts that the Court's opinions—on both sides—will necessarily lack candor, as both liberals and conservatives pay lip service to an ideal of colorblindness, but do not actually hew to that ideal.
Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the imminent publication of a biography by David M. Dorsen of esteemed jurist Henry Friendly, Henry Friendly: Greatest Judge of His Era. As Dean explains, Judge Friendly served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1959-1986, and his decisionmaking drew the highest praise from fellow judges and Justices. Dean provides an overview of the biography’s coverage, and notes that its emphasis is not on what Friendly decided, but rather on his decisionmaking process. Dean contends that this work—the product of six years’ research and hundreds of interviews—is not to be missed by either the serious scholar or the general reader. (Dean notes, for full disclosure, that he is a friend of Dorsen’s, but also quotes high praise for the book from Judge Richard Posner and others.)
Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on the recent hearings regarding contraception coverage for employees of religiously-affiliated institutions. Hamilton starts by going back to the time of the Framers, and noting their concerns about the potential abuse of power by legislators. In the context of the contraception-coverage debate, Hamilton argues, Congress is being overly influenced by religious and religiously-affiliated institutions’ lobbyists. Those lobbyists’ religious arguments, she contends, lack any constitutional or statutory basis, especially now that the Obama Administration has offered a compromise, under which the institutions would not have pay for their employees’ contraception coverage; insurance companies would pay instead. Hamilton parallels this fight with an earlier Congressional controversy, regarding RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. She argues that there, too, religious institutions’ lobbyists sought—and gained—more for such institutions than could possibly be justified, because legislators capitulated when they should have held firm.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on ways in which election funding can still be made more fair and just—even after the Supreme Court’s highly controversial Citizens United decision. (In Citizens United, as readers may recall, the Court invalidated a provision of McCain-Feingold that forbade the use of general corporate-treasury funds or union funds for financing political advertisements during the sixty days prior to a primary or general election.) Dorf covers the impact of Citizens United; the impact of another recent campaign-finance Supreme Court decision that preceded it; the calls that some have made for a constitutional amendment allowing campaign-finance reform; and options that Congress still retains, even after Citizens United, to reform the campaign finance process—such as simply requiring that media companies provide campaigns with copious free advertising space and time.
Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on a recent case that was brought by a woman who alleged that she was fired because, after giving birth, she asked if she could pump breast milk in a back room at her workplace. The judge held that she did not have a right to do so, under either Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on gender, or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Grossman takes strong issue with the ruling, which reasoned oddly that lactation and pregnancy are somehow unrelated. Grossman notes that the lactation-discrimination conflict is part of a long-running war—involving employers, employees, insurance companies, state governments, and the federal government—about whether women, alone, should bear all the consequences, costs and hardships of reproduction, or whether their employers and/or others must play a part. In addition to the lactation-discrimination case, Grossman also covers prior cases involving contraceptive equity and infertility discrimination, as well as discussing the legal protections that woman can turn to when the reproductive process conflicts with work, and the role the EEOC has played in this area of law.
George Washington law professor and economist Neil Buchanan comments on the state of the economics profession today, linking it to the frustration many Americans feel when economists seem unable to come up with a clear set of prescriptions as to how the economy can be improved. Buchanan traces the root of the problem to the way in which economists are now trained, and the expectations placed upon PhD candidates. Ideally, Buchanan says, economists would be trained to study important and interesting real-world issues. Instead, he observes, they are not asked to actually try to understand the economy, but rather to master certain technical skills and to gain a command of topics in advanced mathematics that have limited, if any, direct real-world applications. Buchanan notes that some excellent economists do learn to grapple with real-world problems, but he observes that they do so more by happenstance, than as a result of their training. He traces the roots of this longstanding situation, and predicts that it will only change if and when the incentives presented to economics PhD candidates change.
Justia columnist Vikram David Amar and Justia guest columnist Alan Brownstein, both U.C., Davis law professors, comment on the recent controversy regarding Department of Health and Human Services regulations regarding the extent to which employees of religious organizations must be provided with insurance coverage for contraceptive services, as part of the insurance they obtain through their employment; and on President Obama’s proposed compromise. With Obama’s proposal drawing fire from both sides, Amar and Brownstein describe the framework in which they contend that the issue should be analyzed. Acknowledging both the serious religious liberty interest here and the value to many women of insurance that provides contraceptive access, Amar and Brownstein note that often, acknowledging such an interest also confers a benefit on the religious organization or person. (For instance, a true conscientious objector gains the benefit of not having to go to war, despite his sincerity and despite his not seeking out that benefit.) Here, if a religious institution does not have to cover contraceptive services, it not only vindicates its beliefs, but also saves money. Amar and Brownstein contend that part of the ideal approach to such questions would minimize such secular benefits of religious observance. They also note that another part of the ideal approach would be mitigate or spread the costs of honoring religious liberty, so that they do not fall disproportionately or heavily on an individual or group. Finally, they apply their ideal approach to the controversy over the HHS regulations, suggesting that religious organizations that are exempted from the regulations be asked to provide some kind of alternative to compliance—just as a conscientious objector in wartime would.
In Part Two in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her commentary on the Supreme Court’s recent GPS (Global Positioning System) decision, which concerned the scope of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. As Colb explains, the Court was unanimous regarding the decision’s result: The police had, indeed, performed a Fourth Amendment search or seizure by—without a warrant—attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s car, and then using the device to monitor the car's movements over a four-week period. Yet, as Colb points out, the Court was divided as to the reason for the result, offering two alternative rationales for the case's outcome. Here, in Part Two, Colb explains why Justices Scalia and Alito—both deemed to be conservative—nevertheless differed regarding what the proper rationale for the Court’s unanimous ruling ought to be. Colb argues that Justice Alito’s rationale is the more compelling of the two.