Category: Courts

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Science, Technology, Judges, and Juries

A study recently published in Science—one of the top scientific journals—terrifyingly explains that “[g]laciers along the Amundsen Coast of Antarctica are thinning” and suggests that the “full-scale collapse” of the Thwaites glacier “may be inevitable.” I don’t want to delve into a debate about whether our Earth is undergoing climate change, or whether any such climate changed is being caused by human activities. However, I do want to talk about the relevance of science to law, and the fact that science, as well as its partner technology, are moving at an incredibly rapid pace.

Questions about the relevance and meaning of science and technology to law can be found in matters ranging from the use of neuroscience to assess criminal culpability or physical injuries, to the use of epidemiological studies to establish causation in toxic tort cases, to the novel liability risks associated with the use of unmanned vehicles. One of the difficulties of employing scientific and technological knowledge in legal matters is that many judges and lawyers are not trained in the nuances of scientific reasoning or the details of understanding modern technology.

I occasionally teach Law & Science courses to judges, and several judges have expressed to me their difficulties in wrestling with science in their cases. This problem of judges trying to understand science is exacerbated when judges are tasked with determining the reliability of scientific evidence under the Daubert standard, which a majority of jurisdictions now use. Some judges try to better understand the science at issue, but they might do this by independently researching the issue. (Perhaps the judicial independent research that has received the most attention is Judge Posner’s “experiment with a novel approach” that he conducted pursuant to deciding Mitchell v. JCG Industries, Inc., where he had the court’s staff don and doff specialized clothing and equipment to determine how long the process took.) This practice may be suspect under the applicable code of judicial conduct, but some judges engage in it nonetheless.

A commonly cited example of judges struggling with technology can be seen in the somewhat embarrassing exchange among the Supreme Court Justices in Ontario v. Quon. In that case a police officer had sued the city, claiming that the police department’s review of his text messages violated the Fourth Amendment. In oral argument, Chief Justice Roberts inquired: “Maybe—maybe everybody else knows this, but what is the difference between a pager and e-mail?” And Justice Kennedy asked what would happen if someone were to text an individual while he was texting with someone else: Does the individual have “a voice mail saying that your call is very important to us; we’ll get back to you?” At least the judges were doing their best to understand the technology at issue, though, before handing down an important opinion on the matter.

On some science- and technology-related subjects that judges decide, there may be other, possibly more qualified decisionmakers available. On some such questions—especially when the science and technology is intermingled with moral determinations—juries are possible decisionmakers. Now juries have a bad reputation with many lawyers. Yes, I’ve seen jurors fall asleep during trial, and I’m all too familiar with some jurors’ focus on details like what kind of shoes a female lawyer wears to court. But juries can offer something that judges cannot. They are ordinarily more representative of their communities than a single judge could be. They serve as a bulwark between the government and the people. They serve to legitimate the law. Through their process of deliberate democratic decisionmaking they can make excellent determinations. Most relevant to decisions involving science and technology, though, juries—by virtue of including more than a single deliberator—can draw on a wide variety of knowledge and experiences. On a jury of twelve, there may be a mother, father, school teacher, engineer, recent college graduate, veteran, victim of assault, retired person, social worker, devout Catholic, plumber, and truck driver. And of course each juror would bring many more characteristics to the table. As a group, then, this deciding body can draw on a broad range of knowledge and experiences. Additionally, jurors often include decisionmakers who are younger than the judges presiding over the case and may be more on the pulse of cutting-edge science and technology. In a case in which a court faces a question such as whether continuous drone surveillance constitutes a Fourth Amendment search because it violates reasonable expectations of privacy, then, a diverse jury might prove to be a better decisionmaker than a judge.

Judicial Ethics at the Second Circuit

A three judge panel on the Second Circuit made an extraordinary intervention to remove a district judge from a case last week. Anil Kalhan has some tough questions about the matter:

Both Judge Gertner and Judge Kopf have suggested that the bizarre nature and circumstances of the motions panel’s order raise questions about whether it is Judges Cabranes, Walker, and Parker, rather than Judge Scheindlin, who have “breached the rules” of judicial conduct. In a manner rich with irony, coming from a panel that had just faulted Judge Scheindlin for her application of the Southern District’s related cases rule, the three judges announced that, “[i]n the interest of judicial economy,” the motions panel would retain jurisdiction to hear the merits of the appeal “in due course,” rather than having that case randomly assigned to another panel. (“Evidently when it comes to related cases,” writes Professor David Cole, “what’s sauce for the district court is not sauce for the court of appeals.”)

The entire post is well worth reading.

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CELS VII: Data is Revealing Part 2

 

Shouldn't it be "data are revealing?"

Shouldn’t it be “data are revealing?”

[This is part 2 of my recap of the Penn edition of CELS, promised here. For Part 1, click here.  For previous installments in the CELS recap series, see CELS IIIIVV, and VIVII.]

Where were we?  I know: throwing stink-bombs at a civil procedure panel!

At the crack of dawn saturday I stumbled into the Contracts II panel. Up first was Ian Ayres, presenting Remedies for the No Read Problem in Consumer Contracting, co-authored with Alan Schwartz.  Florencia Marotta-Wurgler provided comments.  The gist of Ayres’ paper is that consumers are optimistic about only a few hidden terms in standard-form contracts. For most terms, they guess the content right. Ayres argued that should be concerned only when consumers believe that terms are better than they actually are.  The paper  proposes that firms make such terms more salient with a disclosure box, after requiring firms to learn about consumer’s knowledge on a regular basis. Basically: Schumer’s box, psychologically-calibrated, for everyone.  Florencia M-W commented that since standard-form contracts evolve rapidly, such a calibrated disclosure duty might be much more administratively complex than Ayres/Schwartz would’ve thought.  A commentator in the crowd pointed out that since the proposal relies on individuals’ perceptions of what terms are standard, in effect it creates a one-way ratchet. The more people learn about terms through the Ayres/Schwartz box, the weaker the need for disclosure. I liked this point, though it appears to assume that contract terms react fairly predictably to market forces. Is that true?  Here are some reasons to doubt it.

Zev Eigen then presented An Experimental Test of the Effectiveness of Terms & Conditions.  Ridiculously fun experiment — the subjects were recruited to do a presidential poll. The setup technically permitted them to take the poll multiple times, getting paid each time.  Some subjects were exhorted not to cheat in this way; others told that the experimenters trusted them not to cheat; others were given terms and conditions forbidding cheating. Subjects exhorted not to cheat and trusted not to cheat both took the opportunity to game the system significantly less often than those presented with terms and conditions. Assuming external validity, this raises a bit of a puzzle: why do firms attempt to control user behavior through T&Cs? Maybe T&Cs aren’t actually intended to control behavior at all! I wondered, but didn’t ask, if T&Cs that wrapped up with different formalities (a scan of your fingerprint; a blank box requiring you to actually try to sign with your mouse) would get to a different result.  Maybe T&Cs now signal “bad terms that I don’t care to read” instead of “contract-promise.”  That is, is it possible to turn online T&Cs back into real contracts?

Next, I went to Law and Psych to see “It All Happened So Slow!”: The Impact of Action Speed on Assessments of Intentionality by Zachary C. Burns and Eugene M. Caruso. Bottom line: prosecutors should use slow motion if they want to prove intent. Second bottom line: I need to find a way to do cultural cognition experiments that involving filming friends jousting on a bike. I then hopped on over to International Law, where Adam Chilton presented an experimental paper on the effect of international law rules on public opinion. He used a mTurk sample.  I was a concern troll, and said something like “Dan Kahan would be very sad were he here.” Adam had a good set of responses, which boiled down to “mTurk is a good value proposition!”  Which it is.

After lunch it was off to a blockbuster session on Legal Education. There was a small little paper on the value of law degrees. And then,  Ghazala Azmat and Rosa Ferrer presented  Gender Gaps in Performance: Evidence from Young Lawyers. They found that holding all else equal, young women lawyers tend to bill somewhat fewer hours than men, a difference attributable to being less likely to report being highly interested in becoming partners while spending more time on child care.  What was noteworthy was the way they were able to mine the After the JD dataset. What seemed somewhat more troubling was the use of hours billed as a measure of performance, since completely controlling for selection in assignments appeared to me to be impossible given the IVs available.  Next, Dan Ho and Mark Kelman presented Does Class Size Reduce the Gender Gap? A Natural Experiment in Law. Ho and Kelman found that switching to small classes significantly increases the GPA of female law students (eliminating the gap between men and women). This is a powerful finding – obviously,it would be worth it to see if it is replicable at other schools.

The papers I regret having missed include How to Lie with Rape Statistics by Corey Yung (cities are lying with rape statistics); Employment Conditions and Judge Performance: Evidence from State Supreme Courts by Elliott Ash and W. Bentley MacLeod (judges respond to job incentives);  and Judging the Goring Ox: Retribution Directed Towards Animals by Geoffrey Goodwin and Adam Benforado.  I also feel terrible having missed Bill James, who I hear was inspirational, in his own way.

Overall, it was a tightly organized conference – kudos to Dave Abrams, Ted Ruger, and Tess Wilkinson-Ryan.  There could’ve been more law & psych, but that seems to be an evergreen complaint. Basically, it was a great two days.  I just wish there were more Twiqbal papers.

 

 

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Kozinski Unplugged

Alex_KozinskiWhat makes Alex Kozinski tick? That is the question that many have asked ever since the Romanian-born lad, who once considered himself a Communist, tasted the “forbidden luxuries” of bubble gum and bananas while in Vienna. It was at that pinpoint in time that he became “an instant capitalist.” Fast forward four decades or so and Kozinski, now the Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, continues to baffle folks on all sides of the ideological divide. “I disagree with the liberals on the bench half of the time,” he chuckles, “and the conservatives the other half” is how he put it in a 2006 Reason magazine interview.

Ever the maverick, always the wit, and unvaryingly brainy, the trimmed jurist (he’s lost weight) is just as comfortable listening to a rough version of “Gloria” by Jim Morrison and the Doors as he is with taking in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D (recorded by Jascha Heifetz with the Boston Symphony Orchestra).

Make no mistake: Alex Kozinski is an acquired taste. Like anchovies, his flavor is bold – a true delight to uninhibited types, a true displeasure to staid types. Dating Game pick, Anthony Kennedy law clerk (while on the Ninth Circuit) and thereafter clerk to Warren Burger, assistant White House Counsel to President Reagan, Special Counsel of the Merit Systems Protection Board, chief judge on the Court of Federal Claims, and now circuit judge, he relishes a lively give-and-take during oral arguments and likewise welcomes the thrill of an exhilarating bungie jump. In other words, he likes to mix it up.

So who is this all-American with an accent who enjoys complex judicial work almost as much as a savory corned-beef sandwich at Attman’s Deli in Baltimore? Who is this man who flies his fanciful flag when others shy away into the quiet of the dark? Some answers to such questions can be found in a recent Reason magazine interview with the Chief Judge. Entitled “Judge Alex Kozinski: From Communist Romania to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals,” the transcribed and video Las Vegas exchange with Matt Welch is quite revealing. At times serious, at times humorous, and at other times surprising, the interview exemplifies the kind of diverse brand of thinking and speaking that is quintessentially Kozinski.

With the kind permission of the folks at Reason, I am happy to share a few snippets of the recent interview with the Judge, who, by the way, is also my good-hearted friend . . . notwithstanding our sometimes different takes on life, law, and rock-n-roll. With that said, here’s Alex:

On tyranny:  “[O]ne time I [said] something that sounded somewhat critical of the government, and my father almost lost his job over it. . . . There was a newspaper called Free Romania, and I was seven years old. [People in my father’s office asked:] ‘Do you know how to read?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yes.’  And they said, ‘Can you read [the paper] here?’ And I said, ‘Well, why is it called Free Romania? All those people are in prison.”

On Communism: While Communism may seem good on paper, it is really “a prescription for oppression. It [is] a prescription to give people power over other people that are not subject to lawful control or lawful checks . . . . [I]t inevitably leads to corruption [and] it inevitably leads to oppression.”

Read More

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Guest Post: Jonathan Lipson on the Mess in Detroit

Lipson_WebPhotoSorry to interrupt the symposium, but this is in the way of a breaking law-news update.  I asked Jonathan Lipson (Temple), a former guest blogger here and all-around bankruptcy superstar, to offer our readers some thoughts on the recent decision out of the Detroit bankruptcy.  Here are his views:

Detroit: Kicking the Federalism Question Down the Rhodes

Yesterday, Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes stayed a state court suit to derail Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy.  While Judge Rhodes may ultimately dismiss the bankruptcy petition on his own, the decision forestalls one of the harder questions underlying the filing: To what extent may an Article I bankruptcy judge approve a bankruptcy plan that (may) conflict with state constitutional protections for municipal union members?

The answer will be difficult for several reasons, mostly having to do with the recursive interactions between federal and state law in this context. Bankruptcy Code § 943(b)(4) permits a bankruptcy judge to approve a “plan of adjustment” (as it is called) if the “debtor is not prohibited by law from taking any action necessary to carry out the plan.”

While chapter 9 case-law is sparse, one court has interpreted this to mean that it could not approve a plan that altered state-law priority-protections for bondholders. In re Sanitary & Improv. Dist. #7, 98 B.R. 970 (Bankr. D. Neb. 1989). Municipal union members may cite this, and then point to Michigan’s constitution, which provides:  “The accrued financial benefits of each pension plan and retirement system of the state and its political subdivisions shall be a contractual obligation thereof which shall not be diminished or impaired thereby.” Mich. Const. Article IX, § 24.

Because the plan proposed by Detroit’s emergency financial manager, Kevyn Orr, apparently reduces accrued benefits significantly, retirees would argue that the plan would diminish and impair their contractual rights.

But Orr may respond in three ways. First, he may cite the recent City of Stockton case, and argue that state law cannot prevent a municipal debtor from “adjusting” (i.e., reducing) debts, because federal law is supreme.  See In re City of Stockton, 478 B.R. 8, 16 (Bank. E.D. Cal. 2012).  Of course, if the federal law in question (the Bankruptcy Code) defers to conflicting state law, this argument doesn’t get him very far.

So, his second move may be to argue that a plan that diminished accrued contractual benefits would not violate the law, because it has long been accepted that the Bankruptcy Power is far greater with respect to contract rights than property rights.

As I (and others) have explained elsewhere, this distinction seems foundational.  Michigan’s constitution may protect municipal union members’ contract rights, in other words, but that’s all they are: contract claims, subject to “adjustment” under federal bankruptcy law.  If municipal retirees had really wanted solid protection, Michigan’s constitution should have characterized their accrued benefits as “property,” not “contract,” rights.

Third, and most instrumentally, the Michigan constitution does not appear to prevent Orr from exiting current agreements prospectively.  Bankruptcy Code section 365 would give Detroit the power to reject such contracts if they are burdensome (there are actually a couple different rejection standards, but it seems likely he could meet them).  Even if Orr’s hands are tied as to accrued obligations, the argument would go, he could terminate large numbers of current employees, some of whom he may rehire at lower wages.  If municipal employees want their jobs back, they (or their unions) would have to compromise accrued benefits claims.

This would in effect pit current employees against former ones (retirees).  Like those who have successfully reorganized mass-tort, Orr may be able to use this tension to extract concessions from the unions.  Or, the unions may be able to use this same tension to get a better deal than the one that’s on the table.

Either way, setting up these sorts of bargains is, in my view, one of the most important federal interests here.  I have argued in the context of the Catholic Church bankruptcies, for example, that that should be the system’s overarching goal, especially in normatively difficult cases.

Yet, further confounding the analysis are the mixed signals the Supreme Court has sent on the interaction between Congress’ Article I powers (especially bankruptcy court power, in cases such as Stern v. Marshall) and “states’ rights.”  On one hand, cases such as Seminole Tribe and Alden (and, indirectly, Stern) suggest that the Court takes state sovereignty seriously:  the federal government has limited powers to intrude into states’ affairs, which may include interpreting their constitutions (okay, let’s ignore Bush v. Gore).  On the other hand, cases such as Hood and Katz suggest that the Court will make an exception for bankruptcy, discharging state claims and permitting suits against states to recover preferential transfers, respectively (okay, let’s ignore Stern).  Perhaps Judge Rhodes will have a relatively free hand here.

How this will unwind in Detroit is difficult to predict, but seems likely to matter to the outcome. In the meantime, we will have to wait for Judge Rhodes to decide whether to permit Detroit’s case to go forward at all.  Bankruptcy Code section 921(c) provides that the bankruptcy “order for relief” cannot be entered until resolving objections to the petition.  This can include an objection that the filing “does not meet the requirements of this title.”

The unions are likely to argue that Detroit’s bankruptcy petition flunks because Orr’s plan would violate the state constitution, as “incorporated” by Bankruptcy Code section 943(b)(4).  Orr would respond by arguing the supremacy of federal bankruptcy law, perhaps along the lines noted above . . . . And so on.

Given these complexities, it would be understandable if Judge Rhodes wanted to kick the federalism question further down the road, in the hope that all major stakeholders—e.g., bondholders and employees—can avoid the costs of litigating these questions, and settle them in a plan they agree on.

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Diversity on the Supreme Court

While in recent decades the Court has become more diverse in some areas, such as gender and race, presidents have also appointed Justices with increasingly uniform educational and professional backgrounds. This lack of professional and educational diversity may be sub-optimal. Adrian Vermeule, for example, offers a carefully-reasoned argument for having at least one Justice with training in another discipline (he suggests appointing a Justice with a PhD in economics). At its most extreme, Vermeule’s argument insists that the professionally-diverse Justice have no training in law, to correct for correlated biases held by lawyer Justices.

My research suggests, however, that the extreme step of eliminating formal legal training will introduce a particular bias which some will find objectionable. In the past, Justices who did not attend law school were significantly more politically predictable than Justices who shared the benefit of formal legal education. Today, of course, a president choosing a Justice who did not attend law school would likely select a person who also has expertise in another field. But it is not clear a Justice with an advanced degree in economics or another discipline would exhibit the same political restraint as a Justice who went to law school. It seems more likely that Justices who attend law school will be either better-equipped or more inclined than others to vote independently of their personal political views. This may be reflected in greater levels of judicial restraint, incremental decision-making, and application of doctrines such as stare decisis.

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Dronenburg and Reasonableness

San Diego County Clerk Ernest Dronenburg filed a petition yesterday seeking to prevent California county clerks from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples until a set of legal issues have been clarified. A reporter from the Union-Tribune called me to discuss the filing, and I ended up being quoted for the idea that the filing was “reasonable” because of legal uncertainties, as a sort of counter-balance to an Aaron Caplan quote that the request will not not “go far.”

Both of which are, I think, correct — but in different ways. Due to the limits of the newspaper medium, a twenty-minute phone interview ended up condensed into a soundbite which — well, which may not seem reasonable. I suspect that this has to do with word limits and editors and the need for a news story with a particular narrative balance. (“I mostly agree with what the other guy said” is a boring article.) But here on blog, we can elaborate in more detail on exactly which ways the Dronenburg filing may or may not be reasonable. Read More

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Have Presidents Gotten Better at Picking Ideologically-Compatible Justices?

Do Justices vote independently of all political forces surrounding their appointments? My earlier post discusses how, even in recent decades, Justices’ votes have been surprisingly independent of the ideologies of Senates to which they were nominated. Even so, it may be that presidents fared better than the Senate and recently enhanced their ability to appoint ideologically-compatible Justices.

History is rife with examples of Justices who disappointed their appointing presidents.   As recounted by Henry Abraham, Teddy Roosevelt complained vociferously about Justice Holmes’ ruling in Northern Securities, Truman called Justice Clark his “biggest mistake,” and Eisenhower also referred to Justices Warren and Brennan as “mistakes.”  My earlier study finds frequent grounds for presidential disappointment, based on voting records for eighty-nine Justices over a 172-year period. Just under half of these Justices voted with appointees of the other party most of the time. Still, of the last twelve Justices, only two, Stevens and Souter, aligned most often with appointees of the other party. This low number calls into question whether the frequency of presidential disappointments has diminished recently.

My recent paper identifies change over time using regression analysis and more nuanced measures of presidential ideology. The analysis shows ideologies of appointing presidents did not significantly predict Justices’ votes before the 1970s, but they gained significant predictive power thereafter. This enhanced success coincides with Presidents Nixon’s and Reagan’s efforts to prioritize ideology in appointments to the bench. While earlier presidents did not uniformly ignore nominees’ ideology, they lacked modern technological resources. By the Reagan administration, computerized databases allowed presidential aides to quickly assemble and analyze virtually all of a nominee’s past writings. The improved information may have enabled presidents to better anticipate nominees’ future rulings.

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The Senate’s Influence over Supreme Court Appointments

Thanks, Sarah, for the warm welcome. It is a pleasure to guest blog this month.

With pundits already speculating about President Obama’s next Supreme Court nominee, it seems a good time to discuss relationships between political forces surrounding Supreme Court appointments and Justices’ decisions. Justices sometimes disappoint their appointing presidents, and ideologically-distant Senates are often blamed for presidents’ “mistakes.” For example, David Souter and John Paul Stevens turned out to be far more liberal than the Republican presidents who appointed them (Bush I and Ford, respectively). These presidents both faced very liberal Senates when they selected Souter and Stevens.

Are nominees like Souter and Stevens anomalies or part of a larger pattern of senatorial constraint? My recent article in the Hastings Law Journal offers the first empirical analysis of the Senate’s role in constraining presidents’ choices of Supreme Court nominees over an extended period. It considers ideologies of Senates faced by nominating presidents and measures whether the ideologies of these Senates predict Justices’ voting behavior. The analysis substantially qualifies earlier understandings of senatorial constraint.

Earlier empirical studies consider only limited numbers of recent nominees (see article pp. 1235-39). They suggest that the Senate has constrained presidents’ choices, and many scholars theorize that the Senate has enhanced its role in the appointments process since the 1950s. Analysis of a larger group of nominees shows the Senate’s ideology has had significant predictive power over Justices’ votes in only two isolated historical periods. Senatorial ideology was last significant in the 1970s, shortly after the filibuster of Abe Fortas’s nomination to be Chief Justice, but then it actually lost significance after the Senate rejected Bork in 1987.