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Category: Jurisprudence


Federal Reserve Precedent

Here comes the payoff from my comparison of judicial and central bank independence, as described in my last few posts.

Respect for precedent is a useful way of limiting the power of an independent institution like the Federal Reserve.  Furthermore, courts and central banks share a desire for stable policy to anchor expectations (about the rule of law and prices) while retaining the flexibility to adapt to new conditions. This leads to an obvious question.  If courts find common-law stare decisis helpful, why not central banks?

In this respect, a recent change at the Federal Reserve may be far-reaching.  Until the 2000s, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) did not offer any explanation for its monetary decisions.  Under Chairman Bernanke, however, the FOMC began issuing a written statement after each meeting justifying its action (or inaction).  Every so often there is a “dissent” from the opinion, though the dissent is usually fairly brief.

At what point will the FOMC or dissenting bankers start citing these prior statements as some kind of authority?  Put another way, how does a system of precedent develop organically?  Initially, the relevant work product is descriptive.  The English Year Books, which first reported the pleadings under the writ system in medieval days, began as a description of how cases were decided.  Lawyers and judges later started looking at these reports for guidance (how long that process took–I don’t know).  The same could eventually happen for central banks.

I would submit that this would be a positive development, as it would take monetary policy more towards a “rule of law” rather than a “rule of men,” without going to the extreme of the gold standard, which was too inflexible back in the day.  But that gets close to falling outside of my limited area of competence.

One more post coming about how the Fed became independent, and then I’m done with this topic.




The ACA, Citizens United, and Unfair Public Perception of the Supreme Court

I’m thrilled to be guest blogging for Concurring Opinions for July. By mid-month, I’ll post a draft of a recently completed article on quantifying probable cause, a topic inspired by my April guest blogging stint. In the meantime, I’d like to add my reaction to Thursday’s epic Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, with a focus on judicial legitimacy.

I am quite pleased with the commentary on the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act decision, from commentators on

the left and on the right. I am greatly disturbed, however, by the intractable cynicism about the Supreme Court that has gripped the public. The belief that Justices decide cases largely due to their own politics, I submit, actually enables Justices to do so, leading to a vicious cycle.

The attached poster, which has been circulated widely, urges voters to re-elect President Obama so that the Supreme Court can overturn Citizens United, which invalidated laws restricting the ability of corporations, nonprofits, and unions to engage in certain forms of political advocacy during elections. Whatever your opinion of Citizens United, reducing that case’s holding to a three-word declaration that “corporations are people” is simplistic and misleading. Citizens United refused to allow corporate expenditures on speech to be hampered based on the identity (or corporate status) of the speaker. Even Justice Stevens’ dissent acknowledged that corporations receive First Amendment protections in certain situations. The poster’s results-oriented, un-nuanced view of the case is irresponsible.

I could dismiss the poster as political pandering, but “corporations are people” seems to be what a significant portion of the public thinks that Citizens United decided. They also believe it was decided this way based on five Justices’ favoritism of corporations and antipathy towards campaign finance reform. I believe that the media is partially to blame for the public’s conflation of the results of a case with the political biases of the Justices. Articles discussing politically-charged Supreme Court cases often attribute the outcome of a case to the Justices as if the reasoning/procedural posture is secondary, and as if no Justice ever voted to invalidate a statute that he favored or uphold a statute that she abhorred. Just look at United States v. Alvarez, issued on the same day as the Affordable Care Act was deemed a tax. Surely six Justices are not in favor of individuals falsely claiming to be decorated soldiers, yet they invalidated a statute criminalizing such lies.

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Stanford Law Review Online: Discrimination, Preemption, and Arizona’s Immigration Law

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Lucas Guttentag entitled Discrimination, Preemption, and Arizona’s Immigration Law: A Broader View. The author discusses the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, S.B. 1070. He argues that discrimination must be a crucial consideration in the Court’s review of the federal preemption challenge brought by the United States:

The Supreme Court is expected to decide within days whether Arizona’s controversial immigration enforcement statute, S.B. 1070, is unconstitutional. Arizona’s law is widely condemned because of the discrimination the law will engender. Yet the Court appears intent on relegating questions of racial and ethnic profiling to the back of the bus, as it were. That is because the Supreme Court is considering only the United States’ facial preemption challenge to S.B. 1070 under the Supremacy Clause. That preemption claim asserts that Arizona’s statute conflicts with the Immigration and Nationality Act’s federal enforcement structure and authority.

But discarding the relevance of discrimination as a component of that ostensibly limited preemption claim expresses the federal interest too narrowly. State laws targeting noncitizens should also be tested against another fundamental federal norm, namely the prohibition against state alienage discrimination that dates back to Reconstruction-era civil rights laws. In other words, the federal principles that states may not transgress under the Supremacy Clause should be defined both by the benefits and penalties in the immigration statute and by the protections embodied in historic anti-discrimination laws.

He concludes:

While the precise force and scope of the Civil Rights Laws with regard to non-legal resident aliens remain undetermined, and Arizona claims to be penalizing only undocumented immigrants, defining the federal interest solely through the lens of immigration regulation and enforcement is still too narrow. Federal law is not only about federal immigration enforcement—it is equally about preventing discrimination. Measuring state laws only against the intricacies of federal immigration statutes and policies misses this essential point.

Some Justices may recognize the broader non-discrimination interests presented in the federal government’s preemption claim. And even if the pending challenge does not enjoin any or all of the S.B. 1070 provisions, civil rights challenges will more directly raise the rights of immigrants, their families and communities. But that eventuality should not obscure the importance of understanding that the federal values transgressed by S.B. 1070 and similar laws encompass both immigration and anti-discrimination imperatives.

Read the full article, Discrimination, Preemption, and Arizona’s Immigration Law: A Broader View by Lucas Guttentag, at the Stanford Law Review Online.


Stanford Law Review Online: The Money Crisis

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold entitled The Money Crisis: How Citizens United Undermines Our Elections and the Supreme Court. Senator Feingold explains how the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United threatens the integrity of our political process:

As we draw closer to the November election, it becomes clearer that this year’s contest, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, will be financially dominated by big money, including, whether directly or indirectly, big money from the treasuries of corporations of all kinds. Without a significant change in how our campaign finance system regulates the influence of corporations, the American election process, and even the Supreme Court itself, face a more durable, long-term crisis of legitimacy.

[In Citizens United,] the Court was presented with a narrow question from petitioners: should the McCain-Feingold provision on electioneering communications (either thirty days before a primary election or sixty days before a general election) apply to this movie about Hillary Clinton? The movie, of course, was not running as a normal television commercial; instead, it was intended as a long-form, “on demand” special.

Yet Chief Justice Roberts clearly wanted a much broader, sweeping outcome, and it is now clear that he manipulated the Court’s process to achieve that result. Once only a question about an “on-demand” movie, the majority in Citizens United ruled that corporations and unions could now use their general treasuries to influence elections directly. Despite giving strenuous assurances during his confirmation hearing to respect settled law, Roberts now stands responsible for the most egregious upending of judicial precedent in a generation. As now-retired Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent to the majority in Citizens United: “[F]ive Justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”

He concludes:

The Court has a clear opportunity. A new challenge from Montana could allow the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision in Citizens United, and at least two justices have hinted that the 2010 ruling is untenable. In granting a stay of a Montana Supreme Court decision upholding that state’s anticorruption laws, Justice Ginsburg, writing with Justice Breyer, found the pulse of the chaos Citizens United has wrought: “Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations ‘do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.’”

Justice Ginsburg is correct. Today’s framework for corruption cannot stand.

Read the full article, The Money Crisis: How Citizens United Undermines Our Elections and the Supreme Court by Russ Feingold, at the Stanford Law Review Online.

Note: corrected for typos


Justice McLean on Originalism

“Antiquity has its charms, as it is rarely found in the common walks of professional life; but it may be doubted whether wisdom is not more frequently found in experience and the gradual progress of human affairs; and this is especially the case in all systems of jurisprudence, which are matured by the progress of human knowledge.  Whether it be common, chancery, or admiralty law, we should be more instructed by studying its present adaptations to human concerns, than to trace it back to its beginnings.  Every one is more interested and delighted to look upon the majestic and flowing river, than by following its current upwards until it becomes lost in its mountain rivulets.”

Jackson v. The Steamboat Magnolia, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 296, 307 (1858)


More on the Filibuster and Statutes

Yesterday I talked about how current filibuster practice undercuts the super-strong version of stare decisis for statutory precedents.  Let me throw out some other implications of having a supermajority rule to pass most legislation in the Senate.

1.  Sunset provisions look very different if you think that getting a law reenacted or reauthorized will take 60 votes in the upper house.

2.  The presumption of constitutionality that attaches to Acts of Congress may be greater if they cannot be enacted without sixty senators.  Or you cannot say with assurance that there is a political remedy for statutes that are constitutionally problematic.

3.  As I noted in a prior post, severability is less attractive if you think that sixty votes in the Senate are required to replace a severed provision that is critical to the statute.  If the entire Affordable Care Act falls next month, then the filibuster is probably the culprit.

4.  The principle that one Congress cannot bind another is, in reality, not true.  A stacked Congress (one with 60 senators or more on an issue) can entrench its initiatives to a significant extent. Much of the Affordable Care Act, for example, is pretty much immune from repeal by Congress.


Stare Decisis and the Filibuster

I’m in idea-testing mode, as I’ve been invited to a Symposium at Notre Dame on “The American Congress:  Legal Implications of Gridlock.”  My first thought was that this was asking panelists to identify solutions for gridlock.  My second thought was that this conference is about the collateral consequences of gridlock.  Pursuing that line of inquiry, I wonder if the “super-strong” presumption of statutory stare decisis should be abandoned for Acts of Congress.

A leading source of gridlock in Congress is the current practice of the filibuster.  Now I’ve written about how that practice is contrary to the Senate’s traditions and should be reformed, but let’s say nothing changes.  In effect, that means that we have a supermajority rule for most legislation.

Courts interpreting statutes, though, do not acknowledge this fact.  They assume that Congress is a majoritarian body.  The most important conclusion that follows from this faulty premise is that stare decisis should be particularly strong with respect to interpretations of federal statutes.  Why?  Well, because Congress can correct an incorrect construction fairly easily.  That point does gloss over the inertia that exists in a majority-rule legislature (committees, party leaders, the executive veto), but I gather that the idea is that this inertia is insufficient to alter the sanctity of statutory precedent. But why should these precedents be treated so respectfully when it takes sixty votes in the Senate to “fix” erroneous decisions?  Granted, this is less difficult than correcting a faulty constitutional opinion, but that does not translate into a “super-strong” rule of stare decisis for federal statutes.

I’ll have more to say about the relationship between the filibuster and interpretation tomorrow.


Louis Pollak (1922-2012)

From the federal courthouse comes the very sad news that Senior District Court Judge Louis Pollak has died.  Judge Pollak, a jurisprudential giant, mentor to many, and former dean of both Yale and Penn Law Schools, served on the bench from 1978 until his death.  He will be missed.


(Update: The Inquirer’s brief obituary is here, though obviously there is much more that could and will be said.)

Symposium on Brett Frischmann’s Infrastructure, April 24-27

book coverThis week, Concurring Opinions is hosting a symposium on Brett Frischmann’s book, Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources.  Having long followed and enjoyed Brett’s work, Deven and I are honored to organize the discussion.

The book is described here (OUP site) and here (Amazon). The introduction and table of contents are available here. As the introduction notes,

Viewing foundational environmental and intellectual resources through the infrastructure lens yields interesting insights regarding commons management institutions. In particular, both environmental and intellectual property legal systems construct semi-commons arrangements that create and regulate interdependent private rights and public commons.

The symposium will include contributions from Julie Cohen, Laura Denardis, Andrew Odlyzko, Tim Wu, Marvin Ammori, Timothy B. Lee, Robin Chase, David Isenberg, David Post, Adam Thierer, Rick Whitt, and Barbara A. Cherry.


Of Law and Self-Loathing

“I’m a self-loathing law student,” confessed one of the students in my Critical Race Theory seminar this week. Several others immediately owned up to the same affliction. I will stipulate that self-loathing is probably not an affect we all should strive to achieve. But I was heartened anyway.

Twenty-five years ago when I began teaching law, my social-justice-minded students regularly veered from rage and tears at moral wrongs to a defiant hope. They sustained themselves and one another with a faith that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, as Dr. King is thought to have said. And they ultimately placed their trust in law and especially the courts.

My students were not alone. Even by the mid-1980s, many of us lawyers and law professors were still recovering from the collective daze of delight induced by the Second Reconstruction and the Warren and Burger Court eras. Of course, we were already in the throes of affirmative-action backlash and judicial retrenchment; colorblind constitutionalism was shaped before our very eyes; and even as a law student I had studied Harris v. McRae in my equal protection class and learned that the formal declaration of a constitutional right is not the same as the economic security needed to exercise it. Yet the romance, the belief that getting the courts to pronounce a legal right was a mighty blow for justice, lingered on.

Maybe it was the continued influence of the post-war “idea of America as a normative concept,” as Edward Purcell  put it in 1973: the incorporation throughout social and political debate of “terms that were analytically confused but morally coercive – patriotism, Americanism, free enterprise system, mission, and, most grossly, ‘we’re number one.’” In the culture of legal academia, this logic translated into a faith in the jurisprudence of legal process. In my little corner of the world we were all reading Democracy and Distrust and trying to locate neutral principles. The faith that procedural fairness, at least, could be achieved despite a lack of consensus about the good life reinforced a belief in the American rule of law as an unshakable bulwark of democratic fairness. That sentiment was entwined with a professional loyalty to the law: to have gone to law school was in itself a statement about one’s commitment to the law as the royal (I mean “democratic”) road to justice.

So when critical legal studies, feminist legal theory, and then critical race theory hit the academy around this time, the crits (like the Legal Realists before them) were accused of “nihilism” and shown the door. Critical legal theory was not just a disloyalty to the civil rights movement but to the rule of law itself. It was subversive, in those mid-1980s days, to pass around The Hollow Hope  and to insist, as the crits were loudly doing, that “reification” and “legitimation” were basic functions of legal reasoning. The trust that the system works – or, at least, could work if we got it right – was now being dubbed “legal liberalism” by the crits, and being skewered in massively long and ponderous articles about fundamental contradictions. But the critics could be challenged by asking them where their “positive program” was. And they could (sometimes) be silenced by demands that they leave the law altogether.

For the crit project seemed deeply and radically anti-law. We junior professors, reading their work and sometimes contributing to it, felt like outlaws (which brought with it a sense of being dangerous and cool, along with a sense of vulnerability heightened by our lack of tenure and the material consequences of being perceived as a nihilist). At the same time, interestingly, the practice of teaching was not too different for us as it was for our older Legal Process colleagues. It was all about puncturing our students’ illusions, showing them the indeterminacy of legal reasoning and teaching them how to surf on it, questioning the use of words like “fairness.” It was just that we had no shining neutral-principles machine to lift from the bottom of Pandora’s box at the end of the day.

I don’t mean to suggest that legal liberalism and faith in the rule of law as central to the American way ever died. At a conference at Santa Clara Law School last week on race and sexuality, some of the lawyers and academics gathered there bemoaned a “politics of civil rights” that has somehow placed marriage equality at the top of the LGBT agenda. The charge was familiar: too many lawyers and non-lawyers alike believe that “gay is the new black;” that the civil rights movement brought about racial equality and “now it’s our turn;” that if we prove we are just like them, we’ll all be free. The rush to assimilate to mainstream institutions and practices throws under the bus, as usual, those most vulnerable to premature death – those without the racial, economic, and bodily privileges (and/or the desire) to get married, move to the suburbs, and blend in.

What was different was that an alternative position, the “politics of dispossession” as Marc Spindelman named it, was also on the table – not as a stance that made one’s commitment to the law suspect from the get-go, but as an accepted ground for lawyering. When thinking about sexuality we might want to begin, under this politics, not with marriage but with the kids doing sex work on International Boulevard in Oakland, as Margaret Russell pointed out. And, after decades of critical theory, it was taken as a truth in that room — if an inconvenient one — that to do this would mean instantly coming up against poverty, racism, and violence, forms of suffering law is not well positioned to ameliorate.

In this way, lawyering for social justice is a contradiction. Not in the “nihilist” sense, the law-as-a-tool-of-the-ruling-class notion that those who want justice ought to give up their bar cards and go protest in the streets. (My friend Norma Alarcón once identified this romantic position as the desire to “be out in the jungle with Che.”) Rather, the politics of dispossession begins with recognizing that the law is not designed to go to root causes; that fundamental changes in the ground rules, which is what the most vulnerable need, come from organizing;  and that lawyering isn’t useless, but that it looks different if it is prison abolition you want and not a marriage license.

More abstractly, the understanding in that room was that, as Patricia Williams said to the crits in one of the founding texts of critical race theory, law is both inadequate and indispensable in the struggle for justice. Post-legal-liberalism lawyering begins here.

What’s also new is that this commitment to living in the contradiction — accepting the tension between law and justice as a place to work rather than as a source of despair — is increasingly expressed not only by battle-scarred veterans at academic conferences but by law students. The desire to make positive social change has not gone away among my students. They still hope and expect that law can be used in the service of justice. But along with a waning of faith in the courts, they express an increasingly sophisticated awareness of the limits of the law more generally. They know, already, that justice and law are not the same. The task is no longer disillusioning them, but helping them develop the skills for finding what works and what doesn’t.

Okay, so “self-loathing” is probably not the best way to say it. But this wry recognition of the imperfection of law seems to me nevertheless an improvement over the wounded attachment to law as a portal to justice that seemed to mark so many progressive law students a generation ago. As the same student said later in the conversation that day, “That’s my contradiction, and I’m sticking to it.” There’s a wisdom there that’s heartening.