Category: Current Events

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Trashing, Defending, and Deferring to Yeshiva University

University bashing is in fashion, from the broad-gauged film Ivory Tower to particular attacks on given schools. Some critiques usefully expose problems that need correcting with constructive solutions on offer.  But others seem to trash the academy for other reasons, as with a recent diatribe against Yeshiva University, which seems more calculated to exacerbate the school’s problems than help it find solutions.

In an  expose-style that seems to blow the school’s financial challenges out of proportion, Steven Weiss, who acknowledges having been expelled from Yeshiva in 2002, portrays Yeshiva’s leadership since that year variously as gullible, myopic, conflicted, or greedy.  This piece stung because I am a graduate and former faculty member of Yeshiva’s law school (Cardozo) and I know and have worked with some of the people vilified in the story.  While I am not familiar with all of the factual background of the University’s recent experience, Weiss’s story seems awfully one-sided and therefore the story, as much as the facts about Yeshiva, causes concern.

I share Weiss’s praise for Yeshiva’s former president, Rabbi Norman Lamm, whom I knew, worked with, and admired.  Lamm, and later his VP for business affairs, Sheldon Socol, led Yeshiva from the brink of bankruptcy in 1975 to fiscal soundness and renewed its status for academic excellence and cultural distinction.  (Rabbi Lamm told me how, when he was about to declare bankruptcy, his hand shook so intensely that he could not sign the papers.)

But Weiss then makes a foil out of Lamm,  painting a golden era that ended after 2002 when he passed the baton to Richard Joel, the current president, who has faced a different set of challenges that entices Weiss’s wrath.  In Weiss’s telling, after Lamm’s retirement and Joel’s succession, it’s been all downhill for Yeshiva and its students.  Joel, whom I knew as an able administrator and gentleman when he served as Dean of Business Affairs at Cardozo, certainly has a different style than the rabbi-scholars such as Lamm who preceded him.  But Weiss exaggerates in inexplicably inflammatory tones how this style difference has played out, in a story misleadingly headlined “How to Lose $1 Billion: Yeshiva University Blows Its Future on Loser Hedge Funds.” Read More

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A Toast to 50 Cent’s New Series: Power

The rap artist 50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis Jackson, is producing a new series on STARZ called Power. Famed for his entrepreneurial skills in hip-hop and business, not to be overlooked is his important contribution to contract law and knowledge.  Thanks to an intense dispute with his girlfriend a decade ago, students and lawyers have been treated to a saga 50 Cent endured that illuminates the nature of contracts—of legally enforceable bargains. In a tribute to his latest venture, herewith an account of this case from my book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter (Cambridge University Press 2012).

Jackson secured his first recording contract in October 2003. It came with a $300,000 advance.  To boost his professional image as a rapper, he bought a Hummer and a Connecticut mansion once owned by boxer Mike Tyson. The mansion boasted a state-of-the-art recording studio and the rapper hired a full-time caretaker and professional cleaning crew to maintain it.    In 2004 Jackson bought another house in Valley Stream, the small village in New York’s Nassau County where his grandmother lived; in December 2006, he added to his real estate holdings a $2 million house at 2 Sandra Lane, Dix Hills, on Long Island, New York. By then, he had sold tens of millions of recordings, toured the world, and amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in net worth, as chronicled in his 2005 autobiographical film, “Get Rich, or Die Tryin.”  

This success came after hard knocks. Jackson had dealt crack cocaine as a teenager. In 1995, at age 20, he was released from jail and became involved with Shaniqua Tompkins in his hometown of Jamaica in Queens, New York. The two had a son, Marquise, out of wedlock in 1996. Jackson and Tompkins had no money and no real home—living with his grandmother or hers.     In May 2000, Jackson nearly died when he was shot nine times during a gangland ambush. He was in the hospital for weeks, followed by months of rehab spent at his mother’s house, near the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. Though before the shooting Jackson had been negotiating with Columbia Records, the record company stopped returning his calls.

Jackson, however, persevered. In November 2001, he launched a recording company, Rotten Apple Records. The rising rap star Eminem brought Jackson’s 2002 self-produced record to the industry’s attention.  As a result, Interscope Records offered Jackson the 2003 deal that propelled him to fame and fortune. With money flowing in and Jackson leading the high life, Tompkins asserted her right to a share. But Jackson’s relationship with Tompkins was tumultuous. They did not always live together and fought often, sometimes physically.

When Jackson bought the Dix Hills house in 2006, both agreed it was the best place to raise Marquise, then almost 10-years-old, and Tompkins pled with Jackson to put it in her name. Though Jackson promised to do so, he never did. After the relationship soured, Jackson tried to evict Tompkins from the Dix Hills house.  During that battle, the house burned to the ground under circumstances that authorities considered suspicious. The house had been insured against fire, but the policy lapsed for non-payment of the premium a few weeks before. In response to Jackson’s eviction lawsuit, Tompkins asserted a claim of her own: that the two had a contract entitling her to $50 million. Read More

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Signing off

AFC-cover      Thanks to all for having me back to Concurring Opinions.  I’ve enjoyed the visit immensely.

During my stay, I blogged about the conception of my new book, America’s Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community (Harvard, 2014).  I discussed ideas of constitutional formation and reorganization, alternative theories of popular consent, and certain black nationalists’ view of the Fourteenth Amendment (and even guns and self-defense).  I analyzed Cliven Bundy’s theory of rancher sovereignty, which is shared by many who rallied to his armed defense against the Bureau of Land Management (here and here).  I advocated the creation of a new national office, the Tribune of the People, whose sole responsibility would be defending civil and human rights. Finally, I discussed the Supreme Court’s recent decision on legislative prayer as an example of institutional withdrawal, as issues of prayer were thrown back to the hurly-burly of the public sphere.

News about America’s Forgotten Constitutions can be followed on my author’s page, book blog, facebook, or twitter.  On September 18, 2014, during the week celebrating the U.S. Constitution, I’ll be giving a noontime book talk and signing at the National Archives (more details later).  I hope to see you there.

I am working on a variety of other research projects, including books and papers exploring presidential leadership over individual rights, war-dependent forms of constitutional argumentation (to be published by Constitutional Commentary in the fall), and popular theories of law found in poetry and fiction (my latest, “‘Simple’ Takes On the Supreme Court” is hot off the press).  My papers can be downloaded here.

So long!

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Hitting Back When Hit By Google

Tuesday’s European Court of Justice decision requires internet search engines to omit listing irrelevant or inadequate items in response to searches for individuals by name. The ruling is simultaneously hailed and condemned, depending on whether one stresses individual control over reputation or anti-censorship (e.g.. Henry Farrell in WaPo; Jonathan Zittrain in NYT; the ubiquitous Brian Leiter).  Two aspects of the incentive effects of the recurring problem seem overlooked, as illustrated by a true story (with minor fact changes in the name of privacy).

A few years ago, a colleague got a blistering review of his teaching from a student blog.  There may have been some underlying basis for the criticism, but the post blew it all out of proportion and offered no context for the specific objection and no counterbalancing assessment of the teacher’s considerable strengths. It was both authoritative and damning as well as inadequate and of dubious relevance.

My friend’s distress intensified when this url appeared first in all searches for his name using Ask, Bing, Google, Yahoo! and other search tools.  It came up ahead of the professor’s SSRN page, school biography, library bibliography, and laudatory references in numerous other urls on the web. The result magnified the post’s significance and caused my colleague anguish.

The blog publisher refused his request to take down the post, citing forum policies on open-access, autonomy, and self-regulation.  At that time, at least, the search engines could not be bothered. Day after day, we’d do a search of his name and the inflammatory post kept coming up number one, threatening the professor’s reputation.

Finally overcoming his frustration, the professor chose to fight fire with fire.  He created a new blog and began posting entries at a regular clip.  Gradually, these posts and responses or references to them rose up the lists of hits for his name.  Eventually, the objectionable link sank down the list into a more proportionate presence, there as part of a more complete portrait, not the salient bruise it started out as.

The episode also emboldened my friend to redouble his investment in teaching.  Accepting the old adage that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, he vowed to minimize the chances that such postings, however acontextual or lopsided, would reappear.  His teaching evaluations, in fact, rose from just above average to well above average.

There are obviously many more significant complex issues associated with the hierarchy or presence of misleading or irrelevant information on the internet.  For example, norms in Europe may differ from those in the U.S., and a ruling like that of the ECJ seems unlikely in America.  And there are probably better forums to solve the problem than courthouses, including legislators, markets, and think tanks.

But in struggling with associated trade-offs and conflicting values, the incentive effects should be noted.   I don’t want negative urls polluting my public persona.  But that produces two positive results: I try to avoid doing anything that would feed them and to engage enough to neutralize their effects on my profile.  It worked for my old friend.

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What Everyone Should Remember about Buffett’s Views on Executive Compensation

Intelligent and well-meaning as they are, critics of Warren Buffett’s decision to have Berkshire Hathaway abstain from voting as a shareholder of Coca-Cola on the latter’s executive pay proposal suffer from two problems.  Some, like Joe Nocera of the New York Timesseem to believe that, since Buffett is powerful and historically a strong vocal critic of executive compensation, he is obliged to cast Berkshire’s vote against it.  When he explained last weekend that directors may not always vote against proposals with which they disagreed others, including Vitaliy Katsenelson at the Institutional Investor, lamented that directors may not always stand up for what they believe.

These positions are a combination of misreading history and naïve. Buffett has always stressed that, as costly to shareholders as executive compensation may be, in raw amounts and in terms of conflicts of interest, they pale in comparison to the vastly larger costs to shareholders of other conflicts between executives and shareholders, especially on acquisitions.  No rational investor should believe that directors are unabashed devotees of the shareholder interest at every turn.  Here is an excerpt from remarks Buffett made as discussant at a Cardozo Law School conference I hosted in 1997, the themes of which he has repeated for two decades:

As a stockholder, I’m really only interested in the board accomplishing two ends. One is to get a first class manager and the second is to intervene in some way when even that first class manager will have interests that are contrary to the interests of the owners.

I think there are great difficulties in achieving both of those ends. I’ve been a director of, counting them up, seventeen publicly owned companies, not counting ones which we control (which probably shows a very dominant, masochistic gene) (laughter). But over that time I’ve wrestled with just these couple of problems and there may be processes that would improve them.

The first one: getting the first class manager. I have never seen in those seventeen cases – and I’m not aware of it in other cases – where a question of mediocrity or worse and the evaluation of change has been made in the presence of a chief executive. It just doesn’t happen. So, I think absolutely to have any chance of having that one solved, you have to have regular meetings of evaluation of chief executives, absent that chief executive. If they are rump meetings or something of the sort – if they’re not regularly scheduled – there is just too much tension created. Because a board may be a legal creation, but it’s a social animal. It is very difficult for a group of people without a very strong leader to all of a sudden, spontaneously decide that they’re going to hold some meetings elsewhere and discuss whether this person who may be a perfectly decent individual, really should be batting clean-up.

So, I think there should be a lot of emphasis on process in terms of evaluation of a CEO. I don’t know how you create a greater willingness on the part of directors to really bounce somebody that they would bounce if they owned 100% of the company or if their family was dependent on the income from the business and so on. I just have not seen it in corporate America.

If you get that first class chief executive – which is a top priority – he doesn’t have to be the best in the world, just a first class one. And I may agree with Jill to some extent – you may be able to turn a five into a five-and-a-half or something by having him consult with lots of other CEOs and get a lot of advice from the board. But my experience is that you don’t turn a five into an eight. I think you’re better off getting rid of the five and having him find something else to do in life and going out and acquiring an eight.

The second problem is: even a first class chief executive has some interests that are in conflict with the shareholders. One is his or her own compensation. The second one gets into the acquisition category. There are psychic benefits to an executive of running a bigger show or just having more action or whatever that can be in conflict with the shareholders, even though that executive may be first class in other respects. The nature of acquisitions is that they get to the board at a point where if you turn them down you are rejecting the chief executive, you are embarrassing him in front of his troops, you’re doing all kinds of things. So, it just doesn’t happen.

I have seen board after board approve deals that afterwards the board members say, “you know, I really didn’t think it was a very good idea but what could we do about it?” And there should be a better mechanism. But I’m not sure what it is. There should be a better mechanism, though, for a board to make those important decisions where a first class chief executive can have an absolutely different equation than the shareholders, weighing all of the personal economic and non-economic considerations. There should be a mechanism that enables the board to bring independent judgment on those in a way that doesn’t put the CEO in a position virtually where he or she has to resign or is embarrassed in front of the troops. And I would welcome any discussion on those matters.

The compensation question where the first class executive could be in conflict with the owners, I think it gets abused some but I don’t think that it amounts to that much when compared with the other two questions – getting the right one and also the question of acquisitions. I think it costs shareholders some money that’s unnecessary, and I think that a lot of the compensation schemes have been quite illogical, but I don’t think that they are overwhelming in terms of evaluation.

On compensation, I can turn purple in meetings. But in the end, the big, dumb acquisitions are going to cost shareholders far, far more money than all of the other stuff.

 

 

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Podcasts on America’s Forgotten Constitutions

For those who might be interested, I recently did two podcast interviews on my new book, America’s Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community (Harvard, 2014).

The Electric Politics interview is more far-ranging and can be found here.

The ConSource interview delves more deeply into the book itself, especially the settlers who broke away from New Hampshire to establish the Republic of Indian Stream, the nineteenth-century socialist constitution written by Icarians (and blessed by the State of Illinois), and John Brown’s armed efforts to refound the Republic.  We also talk a bit about archival work.  Go here.

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Berkshire’s 2014 Annual Meeting

Among delightful things I did last week in Omaha was lunch with Bloomberg reporter Noah Buhayar on Thursday ahead of Saturday’s meeting of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.  Noah wrote several stories in which he kindly quoted me. Here are highlights.

1. Coke Pay.  On Berkshire’s abstention from voting on whether to support or oppose Coca-Cola’s executive pay plan, which other Coca-Cola shareholders challenged and which Buffett considered excessive, Noah correctly quoted what I said Thursday as follows:  “People like to raise tricky issues at the Berkshire meeting, and that’s probably the trickiest one.  You’ve got to decide when you’re going to throw that weight around.” That’s pretty much the answer Buffett and Munger gave on Saturday.  (See Noah’s piece referencing Coke here.)

2. Shareholder Activism.  On Charlie Munger’s remarks about shareholder activism being bad for America–and the responses of two activists–Noah quoted me from a Sunday morning follow-up interview:  “As iconoclastic and unusual as Berkshire Hathaway is, it represents big, corporate America on this issue of activism.  Munger perceives activist investing as making corporations more like commodities than complex, social institutions that over time can contribute value.” (See Noah’s piece on this topic here.)

3. Stock Picking to Business Building. On Buffett’s move from picking stocks to building companies:  “He became famous as a stock picker, and that reputation still dominates in the public image.  He was very good at doing that, but that has not been the definition or content of Berkshire in recent years.”  (See Noah’s piece on this big shift at Berkshire here and my elaboration of it here.)

4. Mood and Continuity.  I predicted on Thursday: “The mood at the meeting will be celebratory, with the stock near an all-time high. Topics at the gathering are often similar from year to year.  From one meeting to the next, the big thing that changes is size. Everything’s bigger.” (See Noah’s piece referencing the celebratory mood here.)

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. And it’s a good thing too.

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Town of Greece v. Galloway and Institutional Withdrawal

Every so often, the Supreme Court seems to be doing something other than clarifying the principles of constitutional law to guide the resolution of future cases.  Instead, it may be doing little more than sketching the terms for institutional withdrawal from a field of social action.

Yesterday’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which allowed a town supervisor to pick someone to solemnize town meetings even though it is highly likely such statements will turn out to be sectarian, bears all the hallmarks of a hasty retreat.  First, there is the monumental move of describing the chosen prayer-givers as private speakers, subduing Establishment Clause objections by resorting to free speech ideas (I will note that Free Exercise language is sprinkled liberally throughout the opinion, but no one seriously claimed that one must have a right to speak at government functions in order to worship in a meaningful way).  Recall that when public school officials tried the private speech argument in the school prayer (Lee v. Weisman) and football prayer (Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe) cases, the Justices rejected it out of hand.  Now, the Court likes the argument in a prayer case. The main difference cited is that those cases involved children and this one involves adults, but fear of coercing children should hardly extinguish the objections of adults, who might very well need to be present for the people’s business.  We are quickly informed that adults in the religious minority must buck up (more on this in a moment).

Second, as some commentators have observed, the ruling gives very little by way of guidance to judges who must determine when the Establishment Clause has been transgressed (and when the Speech Clause has not).  It appears that the Court may be giving up on the idea that sectarian expressions must be guarded against, once you have an honest to goodness public forum. Even if a citizen isn’t forced to attend town meetings, does she have a right to be free from offensive prayer at court proceedings and other government-sponsored events?  Is the Court really going to start drawing fine lines between government settings (apart from schools), identifying ones that present an inherent risk of improper proselytizing?  Doubtful.

Third, if the answers to these questions are: probably not, then the Court may simply be giving the appearance of leaving serious questions open for litigation, but in fact be effectively insulating a certain kind of religious politics, i.e., over prayer, from judicial review.  Once the state creates a public forum, we are told it can’t censor the content of the expression that follows to ensure it is “generic or nonsectarian.”  Doing so would interfere with the invisible hand that governs the marketplace of ideas and often now trumps Establishment Clause concerns.

Since at least the Warren Court, legal liberals have believed that an alert judiciary policing the religious sphere helps keep the peace.  But conservatives learned a very different lesson over the years.  After decades of organizing against the mythical wall of separation between church and state, conservatives–and the jurists that represent their views–have arrived at the conviction that judicial involvement has marginalized people of faith and silenced them, while rendering the courts politically vulnerable.  The resolution in Town of Greece is best understood in this light of backlash politics and institutional withdrawal.

Prayer has been the single most visible issue, both real and symbolic, contributing to conservative counter-mobilization.  So if Engele v. Vitale represented the high point of judicial involvement in religious matters, and if Lee v. Weisman and Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe were holding pattern cases, Town of Greece finally absorbs and unleashes those political lessons with a vengeance. It does so by returning prayer issues back to the rough and tumble of ordinary politics. Outside of the school context, it seems that much is permissible by way of “ceremonial prayer” (but why leave it at “ceremonial” prayer?).  Justice Kennedy’s opinion tells us as much.  First, religious minorities who do not hear their religious leaders at government events are told to toughen up, for “[a]dults often encounter speech they find disagreeable.”  Once again, the resort to free speech rhetoric is undeniable: religious objectors are treated like hecklers who should not be given a veto over the religious majority.  An objector’s remedy is one of self-help, just like anyone who is confronted by objectionable speech on the streets: to remain and try to ignore the offending religious speech or leave the gathering.  Justice Kennedy suggests, in a hopeful way, that no one will think any less of you either way.  If you exit, your “absence will not stand out as disrespectful or even noteworthy.” Staying won’t be “interpreted as an agreement with the words or ideas expressed.”

Second, citizens are explicitly warned not to run to court and make too much out of single invocations that go too far.  This is more language seeking to insulate prayer from further litigation.  A judicial remedy might be available only if a litigant demonstrates “a pattern and practice” of ceremonial prayer being used to “coerce or intimidate others.” It might be a problem if government officials directed audience members to pray, or “singled out dissenters for opprobrium,” or allocated “benefits and burdens” on the basis of participation in prayer. In “the general course,” however, mere exposure to unwanted or insulting religious ideas would not make out an Establishment Clause violation.

Will blurring the rules in an attempt to get the courts out of prayer disputes work to reduce religious strife?  I’m not as confident as Justice Kennedy that reduced judicial attention to government-organized prayer will diminish antagonistic politics. At best, it may displace conflict from the courts to local communities and disperse conflict regionally.  In fact, it may very well intensify the activity of legal liberals.  For one thing, we will now see redoubled efforts by religious minorities and nonbelievers to test whether these “public forums” springing up truly are open to all faiths (or those with no faith at all), or are actually shams.  In other words, will the Muslim, the atheist, the devil worshipper, the Odinist, and the Wiccan really be permitted to solemnize town meetings?  If they are not, will their exclusion be done on a content-neutral basis?  The people of Greece really did bend over backwards, apparently never once turning someone down who wanted to solemnize a town meeting.  What happens when citizens decide that only a Christian solemnization is appropriate for the occasion?  Under limited public forum rules, the government is accorded some leeway to determine the purpose of the forum; on the other hand, viewpoint discrimination presumably can still be a problem.

Second, we will surely experience a resurgence of prayers at legal proceedings and other government-sponsored events.  Those situations, too, will continue to be tested in the courts. The re-writing of doctrinal rules (what happened to the endorsement test?) incentivizes further government-religion partnerships through creative use of the public forum doctrine.  A public forum need no longer be a physical space in the traditional sense, but could be a metaphorical pot of money or now, a moment in the agenda when one might speak or pray.  Each time this strategy is judicially approved, it removes the state from constitutional responsibility over the religious activity that subsequently occurs.  At some point, this strategy of recharacterizing Establishment Clause issues as simple Speech issues must reach a logical limit.  Just not yet.

Will clashes over prayer become more intense or less so?  Will there be fewer religion cases in the courts?  Time will tell.  But one thing is apparent: the Supreme Court no longer wishes to be blamed for taking God out of the public square.

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Tribune of the People

bostonglobe-504oped_tsaiCLRYesterday, the Boston Globe published my piece proposing the creation of a new national office dedicated to the protection of civil and human rights. I wanted to give a little more context to the idea here, beyond what the op-ed format allowed.

The basic idea is that we need a single national figure to instantiate rights and defend them consistently. For a variety of reasons, our existing political-legal structure fails to do this robustly and consistently. Enforcement of civil and human rights is fractured among multiple bodies with narrow mandates (U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights), all of which are captured by party politics. Those in the trenches know how much a general commitment to rights, along with which rights to promote, can vary wildly depending on which party controls the White House. Amicus briefs offer only an ad hoc solution, because such writings are driven by interest group concerns, which can be quite distorting, and don’t carry the kind of institutional weight that government briefs do (if they are read at all by judges, as opposed to their clerks). All of these factors reinforce the idiosyncratic way in which relevant law, including international and comparative law, is presented to jurists.

Historically, presidential agendas have at times aligned with the goal of promoting civil or human rights. But case study after case study underscores how challenging this can be. The bureaucratic politics, party dynamics, and reputational hurdles can be daunting to navigate for anyone who might want a president to take vigorous action on behalf of individual rights.

The idea I have proposed is adapted from one presented by a group of experts based at the University of Chicago in the immediate post-World War II period. At the time, the group–led by the visionary Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chancellor of the University of Chicago and former Dean of Yale Law School) and the fiery Giuseppe A. Borgese (professor of Italian literature)–hoped to inspire the creation of a world constitution. Many later found the overall project too utopian. But whatever one thinks of such strong internationalist proposals, the project allowed Americans to reflect deeply on what ailed American constitutional self-governnance.

Perhaps the most penetrating critique that emerged from the working group’s many meetings involved separation of powers. They believed Americans had become slavish followers of Montesquieu, by insisting that institutional functions had to be strictly distinguished in the name of ensuring political liberty. But strict separation was a disaster: American politics had been consumed by paralyzing party politics and bureaucratic dysfunction, utterly incapable of dealing with urgent problems. Members of the Chicago group turned separation of powers orthodoxy on its head by offering reforms that retained some measure of institutional distinctiveness, but also dramatically increased the overlap of functions.  For example, they thought it wise to give a president explicit constitutional authority to initiate legislation and to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

These mid-century reformers felt comfortable injecting greater energy into government in part because they had a strong belief in rights. The Tribune of the People idea encapsulates that commitment, as it was intended to be an office charged with defending “the natural and civil rights of individuals and groups against violation or neglect” by government. The Chicago group tried to design an office that would “neither be a duplicate or retainer of the President in office, a Vice-President in disguise, nor his systematic heckler and rival.”  A Tribune should be “truly the spokesman for real minorities, not the exponent of a second party.”

In a sense, other countries heeded this call, while Americans have largely forgotten the conversation. Today, there are a number of analogues worth studying. Countries that have a national figure dedicated to the enforcement of rights include Albania, Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijian, Bulgaria, Columbia, Costa Rica, Estonia, France, Guatemala, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, and Serbia. Each of those countries has a Defender of Rights, Commissioner for Human Rights, or Chancellor of Justice. There exists a U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who recently weighed in on Oklahoma’s bungled execution by lethal injection, but has no real power to influence rights development here.

So it seems it is well past the time to consider whether we are doing all that we can institutionally to protect civil and human rights.

 

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Methods of Execution and the Search for Perfection

113px-The_deathThe recent botched execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma raises a point that I often discuss with my Torts students.  The evolution of capital punishment is largely a futile search for a humane way of killing people.  I say futile because every execution method can go wrong or become stigmatized in a serious way.

Back in the day, executions were supposed to be horrible.  (Consider the Cross, burning at the stake, boiling in oil, drawing and quartering, etc.)  Once people decided that this was torture, then society moved through different options, each of which was considered as a progressive or liberal improvement at the time.

1.  Beheading:  The condemned does not see the ax falling on his head, and it was all over after one blow.  Except when it took several blows because the executioner was a klutz.  That was then a really painful death.

2.  Hanging:  No need to cut anything or shed blood.  Except if the rope was too short (then the head got ripped off).  Or if the rope was too long, people took a long time to die in agony.

3.  Firing Squad:  The condemned can wear a blindfold and it should be over quickly.  Unless the firing squad does a poor job.

4.  The Guillotine:  This was a big improvement over an ax.  It makes far fewer mistakes and is relatively painless.  Once it got associated with the Terror of the French Revolution, though, that was off the table.

5.  The Electric Chair:  When it was introduced, “Old Sparky” was supposed to be a great improvement.  After all, it was a machine and did not involve cutting.  Except when the voltage was too high and burned people, or too low and didn’t kill.

6.  The Gas Chamber:  Hitler’s Germany made this technique impossible to use again.

7.  Lethal Injection:  That was supposed to be painless and foolproof.  Except when the IV is not done correctly or the chemicals are administered in the wrong proportions.