Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on the Supreme Court’s recent family law decision in Astrue v. Capato. As Grossman explains, the case involved a woman’s becoming pregnant with her husband’s sperm—which he had had frozen—after he passed away. The legal question that the situation raised was whether the resulting posthumously conceived children would be deemed to be the husband’s children under the Social Security Act, for purposes of receiving child survivor’s benefits. As Grossman explains, the answer to this question will vary based on the law of the state. Grossman describes some of the complexities of modern parentage law, which derives mostly from state law, but also has federal law aspects. She also explains why the Court ruled as it did, deeming the children at issue not to count as the husband’s children for Social Security survivor’s purposes, and giving six rationales for reaching that result. Grossman also calls upon states to clarify the status of posthumously conceived children, rather than leaving them in legal limbo and out in the cold for Social Security survivor's benefits purposes.
Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram Amar comments on legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin’s recent article in The New Yorker regarding the highly controversial Citizens United case, holding that not just persons, but also corporations, have a First Amendment right to spend money to advocate for or against candidates for election. Amar respectfully raises questions about Toobin’s account of the case and how it was decided by the Court. In particular, he focuses on whether this was the rare case in which oral argument actually mattered to the case's outcome, as Toobin suggests.
Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes on the arguments of those who have advocated for austerity as a solution for America’s and other countries’ still-struggling economies. First, Buchanan rebuts, in detail, the claim that government spending cuts will revitalize the economy by getting the government out of the way of the private sector. Then, he counters the argument that the reason austerity did not work was that it was never truly adopted in Ireland, the U.K., the U.S. or elsewhere. The only good news relating to austerity measures, Buchanan says, is that we have not yet seen governments “doubling down” on austerity by advocating even greater degrees of austerity, after the first austerity programs have failed to improve their economic situation—which would, he notes, be truly disastrous as well as inhumane.
Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner describes America's very slow progress toward ending prison rape. Mariner chronicles developments in this area from the 70s to today. She focuses especially on early empirical studies; a landmark 2001 Human Rights Watch Report; and the subsequent legislation the report helped trigger, The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which was passed in 2003. Mariner also notes that only last Thursday, May 17—nearly nine years after PREA’s passage—did the Justice Department finally issue the national standards on prison rape that PREA requires. Mariner describes in detail these important standards and their reach, and deems them to constitute a critical step forward, as Attorney General Holder has said.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on a recent First Amendment/Internet law ruling from a Utah-based federal judge. As Ramasastry explains, the ruling limited the scope of a a Utah law that (1) criminalized knowingly or intentionally disseminating harmful content to minors over the Internet, and (2) required website operators to tag or label such content in such a way that the tags or labels can be picked up by search engines. Ramasastry argues that the court struck the right balance by upholding but clarifying the first part of the law, and striking down the second part on First Amendment grounds. When it comes to screening content, she adds, the best solution is not a legal one. The better solution is, she argues, for parents to select screening software if they so choose; and for parents to have a serious talk with their kids to prepare them to deal psychologically with the kind of explicit material that they are likely to see, one way or another, even if parents do install screening software on all home computers.
With the huge JPMorgan Chase trading loss receiving much coverage in the news lately, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf argues that the loss is evidence that conservatives’ laissez-faire approach to the market is untenable. Dorf begins by explaining how the JPMorgan Chase loss occurred and why some think a regulation called the Volcker Rule would have preempted the loss, had it been in effect, while others disagree. (That rule, Dorf notes, forbids banks from using depositor funds for speculative priority trading—in other words, for making their own bets—but also has an important exception.) Dorf also opines that the result of this year’s presidential election may well affect the Volcker Rule, with a possible future President Obama welcoming the Rule, and a possible future President Romney junking it, as he has suggested he will do. Dorf also expresses concern about the possible results if Romney is elected and the Rule and related regulations do not go into effect.
Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a criminal case in which he argues that a deeply unjust sentence was handed down. Dean contends that it is high time for presidential clemency for the prisoner, Clarence Aaron, especially as the record shows that the Pardon Attorney gave President George W. Bush’s staff inaccurate and incomplete information in the case. As Dean explains, drawing on reporting by The Washington Post and ProPublica, Aaron—a 23-year-old first-time offender at the time of his arrest—was convicted for his role in abetting a non-violent drug deal. Dean notes that other participants in the deal had made careers in the drug business, and received light sentences in exchange for pointing the finger at Aaron, who received three life sentences. Their testimony has, since then, been shown and admitted to be false, yet Aaron still languishes in jail. Especially now that Aaron has the support of the relevant U.S. Attorney, Deborah Rhodes, and the sentencing judge, Dean contends that it is high time that Aaron receives a pardon.
Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on recent events regarding the Philadelphia Archdiocese and clergy child sex abuse. She praises former Philadelphia D.A. Lynne Abraham and current Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams for their courage and hard work in pursuing the matter, and establishing not only crimes, but also a cover-up. Hamilton notes that the trial of Msgr. William Lynn, who is charged with suppressing the identities of priest perpetrators, marks the first time a member of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy has been put on trial. Despite Pennsylvania’s short statute of limitations for child sex abuse, Hamilton explains, the prosecutors still found a way to make their case—finding two victims whose claims still fit within the statute of limitations, and successfully admitting evidence about 22 other victims whose claims are time-barred at trial. Hamilton faults the Philadelphia Archdiocese not just for the underlying crimes that are alleged, but also for the deficits of its own private investigation, which she argues has re-victimized the victims, given the insensitive way in which it has been conducted.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on “ag-gag” laws, which prohibit people from gaining entry into, or employment in, an agricultural production facility, including an animal agriculture facility, under false pretenses. Colb notes that Iowa recently passed such a law, and that North Dakota, Montana, and Kansas also have such laws. Colb argues that the laws are aimed at concealing the true facts about how animals are treated in such facilities, because of the fear that if consumers knew the truth of the cruelty that is perpetrated there, they might change their eating habits. Supporters of that view see those who enter these facilities knowing they will convey information about them to the outside world as undercover reporters and whistleblowers, while the animal industries see them merely as trespassers. Colb details ways in which consumers are misled or misinformed about animal agriculture, suggesting that there is a need for undercover reportage so that the truth can be known. For instance, she explains how milk production entails slaughter, contrary to popular opinion, and not just on factory farms. Colb questions, though, whether consumers really want to know a truth that could complicate their lives with new ethical questions leading to possible dietary changes, and whether if consumers do learn that truth, they will really change their behavior. Colb also examines why humans may not feel empathy for animals, citing the coping strategies that often accompany humans’ acceptance of systematic violence, including violence toward other humans.
Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on a recent important decision from the Connecticut Supreme Court. As Grossman explains, the case arose when a manufacturing company failed to take action to stop the ceaseless name-calling that the plaintiff endured in his workplace regarding his sexual orientation. Even worse than the slurs themselves, some of the plaintiff’s tormentors would say the slurs while standing right behind the plaintiff while he was operating heavy machinery. Grossman begins by sketching the legal landscape (federal and state) regarding sexual orientation discrimination, and then goes on to focus on the law of Connecticut, where the employer was located, and the result the Connecticut Supreme Court reached in the case. Grossman also questions why the employer took the case all the way up to Connecticut’s high court when the illegality of the acts involved was quite clear.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision from an Eastern District of Virginia federal judge, who effectively held that the use of the “Like” icon on Facebook is not protected by the First Amendment. The case arose when the employees of a sheriff who was up for re-election decided to “Like” his opponent’s Facebook page. Once the sheriff was re-elected, he fired those employees (as well as others). But the fired employees who had used the “Like” icon sued, arguing that the sheriff had illegally fired them for the exercise of their First Amendment rights. Hilden takes issue with both the judge’s decision to rule against the fired employees, and his approach to the case, which caused him to refuse to interpret what the Facebook “Likes” meant. Citing Supreme Court precedent, Hilden notes that the High Court has often protected and interpreted symbolic speech, and that the Court, in the recent case of Morse v. Frederick, has interpreted the meaning of ambiguous speech as well. She thus concludes that the judge should have both interpreted the “Likes,” and also held that they were First Amendment-protected.
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 Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments upon the proposed Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act (PWFA), which was recently introduced in the House of Representatives. Grossman explains that, if the bill becomes law, it will guarantee pregnant women the right to reasonable accommodation when the short-term physical effects of pregnancy conflict with the demands of their job, as long as the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. Grossman explains the limited protections that federal law currently offers pregnant women, how even those protections have been narrowed by courts, and why further protections are needed. Grossman describes the holdings of relevant Supreme Court cases, explains the provisions of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), and argues that the PDA’s protections are markedly insufficient, especially in light of the courts’ narrowing of pregnant women’s rights. Grossman concludes that the passage of the PWFA is urgently needed to ensure fair treatment for pregnant workers.
Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan continues his series of columns commenting on what a Mitt Romney presidency would look like from an economic point of view. In this column, the second in the series, Buchanan considers what the roles of the House and Senate would be in setting economic policy in a possible Romney presidency; describes the role that House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, would be likely to play; and postulates that, in a Romney presidency, America would see the imposition of austerity measures similar to those that we are now seeing in Europe, as well as the diminution of much of the federal government, with potentially disastrous consequences. Overall, Buchanan argues that a Romney presidency would only make America's current economic predicament much, much worse.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on the controversy that is brewing regarding Elizabeth Warren, the likely nominee for the Massachusetts Senate seat most recently held by Ted Kennedy. The controversy stems from Warren’s mentions of her Native American roots, and it turns out that Warren is, in fact, 1/32d Native American (specifically, Cherokee), so that her claim of having Native American roots is technically true, even if those roots are minimal. So why is the controversy continuing? Dorf suggests that it is because Republicans are trying to somehow connect Warren’s roots to affirmative action issues, even though there seems to be no evidence that Warren was ever herself a beneficiary of affirmative action. The Republicans’ goal, Dorf suggests, is to use affirmative action as a wedge between minority voters and working-class white voters.
Justia columnist Anita Ramasastry comments on the legal issues that may arise from MissTravel.com, a website that says that it matches “generous travelers who hate to travel alone with attractive travelers who would love the opportunity to travel the world for free.” The site has been compared to an online escort service, although the site itself argues that the analogy is unfair. Ramasastry considers the legal issues that may arise from the Miss Travel site—focusing both on (1) whether the site could get in trouble if illegal activity ensues, and (2) whether there is any recourse if the companion of the “generous traveler” gets into hot water when the two are overseas. Ramasastry also notes that state Attorneys General have gone after online escort ads’ host sites, but that such sites are generally immune from civil liability for user postings under the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Still, Ramasastry notes, under certain circumstances such sites might be hit with criminal charges if they knowingly induce prostitution. She notes, however, that Miss Travel is importantly different from such sites.
Guest columnist and Justia writer and editor David Kemp comments on a new development on Facebook: users’ ability to add the fact that they have become organ donors as a “Life Event” on their Timelines. Kemp notes that the reason for this development is to encourage organ donation after death—and that it’s been very successful in doing so. He also comments on three likely reasons why Facebook chose this particular cause, as opposed to all the other causes that it might have promoted. While applauding the feature’s benefits, Kemp also considers some risks connected to the use of Facebook in this way—including the risk that other medically-related applications may lead to the disclosure of private health information, which could potentially implicate federal privacy laws. (Already, the “Life Events” application, Kemp points out, can reveal a broken bone or weight loss.) Ultimately, Kemp raises the question whether Facebook may evolve in such a way as to provide not just social networking, but also social engineering.
Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a fascinating new twist in the Watergate story—evidence that Woodward and Bernstein spoke to Watergate grand jurors. The evidence was unearthed by Jeff Himmelman, who has written a biography of former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, who served during the Watergate years. It consists of a seven-page memorandum, dated 1972, that summarizes a conversation between Bernstein and a Watergate grand juror. The find prompted Bernstein recently to comment wryly, “Maybe they’ll send us to jail after all.” The memorandum is all the more notable because it is clear that Judge Sirica, who presided over the Watergate grand jury proceedings, did not believe that Woodward and Bernstein had obtained any information from any grand juror. Dean tells the story of how Woodward and Bernstein managed to avoid suffering consequences, despite their having intentionally had contact with at least one grand juror. He also provides a sampling of attorneys’ opinions as to whether the law was, or was not, broken, assuming that contact between Woodward and Bernstein and one or more grand jurors did indeed occur.
Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on past and recent developments regarding Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) on both the state and federal levels. As she explains, a RFRA functions as follows: If a religious believer carries his burden to prove that a given law places a “substantial burden” on his right to religious exercise, then the government must prove that the law it is seeking to enforce serves a compelling interest and is the least restrictive means to accomplish that interest, or the law will not be applied. Hamilton describes a typical RFRA, chronicles the history of RFRAs, and describes a kindred federal statute, RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. She focuses especially on a recently proposed North Dakota RFRA, which is being introduced through the initiative process. In addition, Hamilton considers how RFRAs, if enacted into law, might affect school-voucher programs.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on instances in which the criminal law punishes people’s thoughts and/or words instead of—or in addition to—their acts, despite the First Amendment’s protections for speech and thought. Colb analyzes the uneasy relationship between criminal and civil litigation, on one hand, and guarantees of free speech, on the other. She also covers the categories of speech that the Supreme Court has deemed unprotected by the First Amendment. Moreover, Colb notes that it is perfectly constitutional to use a person’s words as evidence of what he or she has done, or is planning. In addition, Colb describes the subtle answer to the question of whether limits on free thought can constitutionally be imposed, for thought is the essence of culpability. Finally, she concludes by describing the permissible use of evidence of thoughts in determining what may be deemed a hate crime (as well as what may be deemed a violation of discrimination law).