Category: Law and Humanities

14

Viewpoint, Voting, and Structuring the Electorate

I am delighted to join the blogging community of Concurring Opinions for the month of April.  Thanks to Solangel Maldonado and Daniel Solove for their gracious invitation.

Denying voting rights to citizens with felony convictions has gotten a bad rap. The reason it’s not worse is because that rap is based on only half the story.  Anyone familiar with the complexion of our prison population knows that felon disfranchisement laws extend striking racial disparities to the electoral arena.  Less known, however, is that citizens with felony convictions are excluded from the electorate, in part, because of perceptions about how this demographic might vote or otherwise affect the marketplace of ideas.  In other words, citizens with felony convictions are denied the right to vote because of their suspected viewpoint.

Picking up on this point earlier this year, Michael Dorf highlighted a dispute between Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum about which of them held the most conservative position concerning the voting rights of citizens convicted of a felony.  Inventing a criminal persona named Snake, Dorf queried what issues might provoke such a person to vote: Lower protections for private property or public safety? Redistribution of public resources from law enforcement to education, health, or recreation?  Elimination of certain criminal laws?  I can fathom many other lawful motivations for voting.  However, as Dorf points out (and decidedly rejects), the underlying objection to allowing citizens with felony convictions to vote is based on an assumption that, if they could vote, they would express self-serving and illegitimate interests. In other words, the viewpoint that felons would express through voting has no place in the electoral process.

I have always assumed that my viewpoint was precisely what I and other voters are supposed to express at the ballot box.  Whether that viewpoint is shared, accepted, condoned or vehemently disdained and abhorred by others is irrelevant to the right to vote.  Not so for citizens with felony convictions.  This group of citizens is presumed to possess deviant views that justify their exclusion from the electorate and the denial of a fundamental right. Read More

7

The Relationship Between Theory and Practice

The longstanding attacks on legal scholarship all seem to assume a particular relationship between theory and practice, one that I believe is flawed.  Recently, I responded to one such critique.  There are others, with Justice Roberts and many other judges and practitioners claiming that legal scholarship isn’t worth their attention and isn’t useful to the practice of law.

It seems to me that those making these critiques assume that the primary value of legal scholarship should be to (1) describe current legal doctrine to make legal research easier for practitioners; or (2) influence an immediate and direct change in the law.  In an earlier post, I argued that #2 above is an unreasonable standard.  Legal change is slow, and rarely will one article have a direct influence.  Rarely does one thing have a direct influence — change typically occurs more through an indirect influence by numerous sources.  Only in the movies or in simplistic historical accounts will we see one article or book lead to dramatic changes.  Of course, it occasionally happens, but rarely.

In this post, I want to tackle claim #1.  The treatise writers and doctrinal legal scholarship of yesteryear has diminished, though it isn’t gone.  Last I checked, there were quite a lot of treatises written by quite a lot of law professors.  But there is today a lot more theoretical scholarship.  Is this scholarship valuable if it doesn’t help in legal research?

The answer is yes for many reasons:

1. As with all humanities, the value of any particular work is hard to quantify.  What’s the value of Kafka’s The Trial or works by Shakespeare?  What’s the value of reading history?  What’s the value of learning things that don’t have direct application to one’s career?  I believe there’s a lot of value.  Reading these works opens up new ways of thinking, sparks new ideas, and helps people understand the world differently.  This can indirectly affect one’s legal practice skills by enhancing creativity, improving one’s writing style, or making one see the facts of a case in a different light. It is interesting that many of the great jurists were also avid readers of literature.  Indeed, many of the great thinkers and writers throughout history had wide-ranging intellectual interests and reading habits.  Would people like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson be as creative if they had more narrow and workmanlike intellectual exploration?  Probably not.  Would Justice Holmes have been as great without his love of the humanities?  I doubt it.

2. There is a value in critiquing legal decisions and laws, even if the critique winds up remaining in dissent.  Why do justices bother to write dissents?  After all, it often takes decades if not 40-50 years for the Supreme Court to change the law.  They write dissents in the hope that one day the Court will see things differently.  They write them to make a record.  There is a value in criticizing legal opinions and laws even if it doesn’t immediately result in a change.  Indeed, many of the critiques of legal decisions and laws that I read in legal scholarship are very powerful ones.  Courts and lawmakers should pay more attention, as the scholarship often reveals logical flaws in reasoning, clear errors in applying precedent, assumptions that are based on faulty facts, assumptions that are wrong based on empirical evidence, or assumptions that are contrary to widely-accepted conclusions in science or social science.   Courts and legislatures may hide their heads in the sand, but that shouldn’t be a justification for criticizing legal scholarship — it should be a basis for criticizing courts and lawmakers.

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6

The Usefulness of Legal Scholarship

A reader of my post about the N.Y. Times critique of legal education writes, in regard to the value of legal scholarship:

I happen to be on the editorial board of a T14 law school’s law review, so I have to cite check and read articles regularly. Of those I’ve read, I can’t think of a single one I thought would be useful to a practicing lawyer. The problem is, in my experience, most seem to advocate a fundamental change in philosophy to an area of law that diverges from what precedent would suggest. To me, this seems extremely unhelpful, because A. Lower courts aren’t likely to accept a grand new theory that seems to contradict what SCOTUS is saying, B. As far as I can tell SCOTUS seems not to usually change its theory either, and C. I don’t think most policymakers tend to read law review articles.

This leads me to be inclined to believe that most law review articles are useless. Are you saying my sample is unrepresentative of what’s out there? Or do I simply have a narrower definition of usefulness? Could you perhaps suggest some articles from the past year that in your mind represented useful legal scholarship?

This commentator assumes that usefulness is the equivalent of being accepted by the courts.  I quarrel with this view for many reasons:

1. An article can have an influence on cases, even if difficult to demonstrate.  Many courts don’t cite law review articles even when they rely on them.  Judges are notorious for not being particularly charitable with citations.  They often copy verbatim parts of briefs, for example.  If a law professor relies on a scholarly work even in a minor way, the professor will typically cite to the work.  Not so for courts.

2. Most articles will not change the law.  Changing the law is quite difficult, and if most law review articles changed the law, the law would be ridiculously more dynamic than it currently is.

3. No matter what discipline or area, most of the things produced are not going to be great.  Most inventions are flops.  Most books, songs, movies, TV shows, art works, architecture, or anything produced are quite forgettable and will likely be forgotten.  Great lasting works only come around infrequently, no matter what the field.

4. Most people are forgettable too.  In the law, most practitioners and judges have been forgotten.  Only a few great ones are remembered.  Of the judges who are most well-known, it is interesting that many were more theoretical in nature and had a major impact in changing the law — typically in ways law professors might change the law.  Think of Benjamin Cardozo, who wrote many articles and books and who radically changed the law.  Think of Felix Frankfurter, a former law professor.  Think of Louis Brandeis.  Think of Oliver Wendell Holmes.  These were jurists who were thinkers.  They were readers.  They were literary.  They were writers of scholarship too.  Maybe the forgettable practitioners and judges are the ones who ignore legal scholarship.

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3

Q&A with Lior Strahilevitz about Information and Exclusion

Lior Strahilevitz, Deputy Dean and Sidley Austin Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School recently published a brilliant new book, Information and Exclusion (Yale University Press 2011).  Like all of Lior’s work, the book is creative, thought-provoking, and compelling.  There are books that make strong and convincing arguments, and these are good, but then there are the rare books that not only do this, but make you think in a different way.  That’s what Lior achieves in his book, and that’s quite an achievement.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Lior about the book. 

Daniel J. Solove (DJS): What drew you to the topic of exclusion?

Lior Jacob Strahilevitz (LJS):  It was an observation I had as a college sophomore.  I lived in the student housing cooperatives at Berkeley.  Some of my friends who lived in the cooperatives told me they felt morally superior to people in the fraternities and sororities because the Greek system had an elaborate, exclusionary rush and pledge process.  The cooperatives, by contrast, were open to any student.  But as I visited friends who lived in the various cooperative houses, the individual houses often seemed no more heterogeneous than the fraternities and sororities.  That made me curious.  It was obvious that the pledging and rushing process – formal exclusion – created homogeneity in the Greek system.  But what was it that was creating all this apparent homogeneity in a cooperative system that was open to everyone?  That question was one I kept wondering about as a law student, lawyer, and professor.

That’s why page 1 of the book begins with a discussion of exclusion in the Greek system.  I start with really accounts of the rush process by sociologists who studied the proxies that fraternity members used to evaluate pledges in the 1950s (attire, diction, grooming, firm handshakes, etc.)  The book then brings us to the modern era, when fraternity members peruse Facebook profiles that provide far more granular information about the characteristics of each pledge.  Proxies still matter, but the proxies are different, and those differences alter the ways in which rushing students behave and fraternities exclude.

DJS: What is the central idea in your book?

LJS: The core idea is that asymmetric information largely determines which mechanisms are used to exclude people from particular groups, collective resources, and services.  When the person who controls a resource knows a lot about the people who wish to use it, she will make decisions about who gets to access it.  Where she lacks that information, she’ll develop a strategy that forces particular groups to exclude themselves from the resource, based on some criteria.  There’s a historical ebb and flow between these two sorts of strategies for exclusion, but we seem to be in a critical transition period right now thanks to the decline of practical obscurity in the information age.

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5

Constitutional Protestantism or Constitutional Televangelism

I appreciate Doug taking up questions from my earlier post and I think he’s right about the central role elites play in interpreting constitutional texts.

I think this is yet another area where Jack’s analogy (or really, Sandy Levinson’s analogy, which Jack credits generously) between constitutional faith and religious faith, between the Bible and the Constitution, is highly instructive.  The Protestant idea that we all can read and interpret the Word for ourselves is just that—an idea.  It is an important idea for reasons I’ll say something about in a second, but it’s somewhat aspirational.  One can, and some people do, believe in the authority or even the inerrancy of the Bible without reading it much (or at all).  It is also possible to read it without understanding it very well.  Most people today report that they find Biblical text hard to understand (although the irony is not lost on me that the survey I just linked to saying so was conducted by the Vatican).

Luckily, if you have a hard time reading or understanding your Bible or your Constitution, help is on the way!  Many experts and leaders—elites, as Doug says—stand ready to help by offering interpretations, often complete with textual citations, that ordinary people can understand (and there is no need for most people to actually go look up the citations).  Very often these authorities offer their interpretations in a manner that is charismatic, memorable, and convincing.  Their interpretations are all the more convincing when they happen to square with one’s own pre-existing beliefs about what the Bible or Constitution ought to say or mean.

So does all this mean the Protestant idea has no practical effect?  Quite the contrary.  The Protestant idea has an extremely important effect.  The normative premise that we all are able to read and interpret the text for ourselves means that we do not have to trust the priests in the temple; we do not have to trust the Justices who emerge from behind the curtain of the Court.  We get to decide for ourselves who to trust, whose interpretive authority to respect.  This is, as Jack says, a great theology for dissent.  We can decide we agree with people who say that on a particular question, all nine Justices got it wrong.

This is why Jack’s conception of constitutional Protestantism is linked in a such a deep way with his account of the role social movements play in constitutional change.  But in my view, the mechanism by which constitutional Protestantism empowers social movements to make constitutional changes has little to do with ordinary people literally reading the constitutional text and coming up with their own interpretations of its meaning. Read More

0

What kind of constitution is the subject of this book?

First, thanks to Danielle and Jack for the opportunity to participate in this symposium.  I’m happy to do it because I think this is a fantastic book.

Among many other things, this book offers a particularly well-developed story about the role that stories play in constitutional argument and constitutional change.  I thought I’d start there, because that piece is at the foundation of the argument of the book.  Also it has the fun property that once you start thinking in its terms, you start seeing examples everywhere.  Indeed you see these moves even in debates that are not, explicitly, constitutional debates.

And this raises an interesting question: to what extent is this book about faith in the Constitution, and to what extent is it, instead, about faith and redemption in something like the broad political/constitutional project of the United States?  It is hard to separate these things.  But let’s look at places where the two might plausibly come apart.  Jack (citing Mark Graber) notes that in recent years, among liberals, the canonical example of a policy problem the constitution does not address is the distribution of income and wealth (132-33).  So let’s begin with the stories we tell about fiscal policy.

Last April, President Obama made a speech on the deficit and fiscal policy in which he offered a defense of Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance, along with Social Security.  He said: “From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity.  More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.  But there’s always been another thread running through our history -– a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.”  After discussing such collective projects as schools, science, the military, and the interstate highway system, Obama argued that Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and Social Security were part of this “American belief that we are all connected,” which is in part a “conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security and dignity.”  He argued, “We are a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further – we would not be a great country without those commitments.”

Rick Santorum sharply criticized these comments in a speech in June.  Santorum quoted the lines above and responded, “Ladies and gentlemen, America was a great country before 1965!”  When the applause died down, he continued: “Social conservatives understand that America is a great country because it was founded great.  Our founders, calling upon, in the Declaration of Independence, the Supreme Judge, calling upon Divine Providence, said what was at the heart of American exceptionalism.  In the Declaration of Independence it said ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.’  You see, our founders understood that we were going to take the principles, Judeo-Christian principles, that had been out there for centuries, and we were going do something radical.  We were actually going to found a government upon these principles.”

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1

Constitutional Redemption: Narratives, Historical and Fictional

It’s an honor to be here, commenting on Jack’s hugely impressive and erudite work of constitutional scholarship. If you haven’t read it yet, the most useful thing I can say to you is to stop reading what I have to say and go read what he does. I especially admire his discussion of the role of narrative in constitutional argument, and it is that part of the book that I’d like to focus on. I should say at the outset that I don’t have any criticisms—and I may not even have any comments!—to make. Really, what I have are some questions. (And I don’t mean that in the standard, law professor-y “I’m going to make my comments and then add a question mark at the end” sense. I really don’t have answers for these questions.)

Jack lays out his own narrative of constitutional development at pages 18-23. It is a powerful narrative, one that describes American constitutional development as a slow and always-incomplete attempt to redeem the promise of the Declaration of Independence, which Jack understands as embodying an attack on “the social structure of monarchy” (p. 23), or, even more ambitiously, a “demand for social equality” (p. 22). There is a great deal to find appealing in this narrative, and its brevity should not lead us to underestimate its potency (as, I think, Adrian Vermeule did in his review of the book).

Others may wish to comment on the lessons Jack draws from this narrative, or even on its historical accuracy. But that’s not my interest here. Instead, I’m interested in why the narrative’s claim to historical accuracy is important in the first place.

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4

At the Brainwash

In Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), the anonymous British artist Banksy documented the transformation of Thierry Guetta from a used clothing salesman and amateur videographer into the art star “Mr. Brainwash.”  The film is a droll sendup of the art world, culminating in Guetta’s wildly successful monster art show, which consists exclusively of asinine Banksy knockoffs.  Among other things, Guetta’s artwork prominently features reproductions of an iconic photograph of 80s rappers Run-D.M.C.  For example, “Old Photo” (pictured) combined the Run-D.M.C. photograph with an anonymous 19th century photograph.

But the joke was on Guetta.  Glen E. Friedman, the author of the Run-D.M.C. photograph, sued Guetta for copyright infringement in the Central District of California (Friedman v. Guetta, Case No. CV 10-00014 DDP).  Guetta responded that the Run-D.M.C. photograph lacked originality and claimed fair use, but on May 27, 2011, Judge Pregerson granted Friedman’s motion for summary judgment.  Unsurprisingly, Pregerson held that the original photograph was sufficiently original.  But Pregerson also rejected Guetta’s fair use defense, finding that Guetta’s use of the photograph wasn’t transformative because he and Friedman both used it in a work of visual art, and that Guetta infringed on the market for the photograph because Friedman licenses it commercially.
On the law, Pregerson’s decision is surely correct.  At least it tracks the outcome of the recent Cariou v. Prince case and the older Rogers v. Koons case in finding appropriation art insufficiently transformative for fair use.  But why?  In each case, the infringing work looks different from the original work, so it is “transformative,” at least in the literal sense.  Of course, appropriation deprives original authors of license fees, but the ultimate question is whether they are entitled to such fees in the first place.
Interestingly, courts and commentators often focus on the right of original authors to control their work.  As Pregerson put it, “Without such protection, artists would lack the ability to control the reproduction and public display of their work and, by extension, to justly benefit from their original creative work.”  But why does justice require that authors control and benefit from uses of their work, other than copying?  Indeed, is justice even the relevant standard?
Of course, Guetta is an astonishingly bad artist.  As Banksy muses in Exit Through the Gift Shop, “Andy Warhol was replicating images to show they were meaningless.  And now, thanks to Mr. Brainwash, they’re definitely meaningless.”  But doesn’t fair use protect meaningless art, too?
14

Thoughts on an Earthquake: Narratives and Governance

[Attorney and journalist Andrew J. Sutter is the only foreign member of the Iwate Prefecture Bar Association. He lives most of the year in central Tokyo. We've invited him to give his perspective on recent events in Japan. --FP]

There’s been a joke making the rounds of Tokyo during the past week or so: The government announces in the morning that there could be a sudden blackout sometime by early evening, since power capacity is down and the demand is already very near to capacity. In America, the blackout happens, and stores get looted. In China, the blackout happens and no one notices, since they’re already a common occurrence. In France the blackout happens, and people start to make love. In Germany the blackout happens, and no one cares, because everyone has solar power. In Japan, millions of Japanese conscientiously reduce power consumption, so the blackout is avoided – and then people are pissed off because the blackout didn’t happen as announced.

Aside from showing the gentleness of the Japanese sense of satire, it’s a true story, based on events in Tokyo exactly one week after the Touhoku (northeastern Japan) earthquake. The joke arrived on my wife’s cell phone about an hour or two after officials rescinded the warning.

The joke also shows a certain trust in the government and in the reliability of its pronouncements. More about this below the fold.
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Key Performance Indicators: Power as Knowledge

There is an excellent review essay by Simon Head on the future of British universities in the NYRB. It discusses the Strategic Plan of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), including the “Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) led every six or seven years.” As of 2008, panels of 10 to 20 specialists in 67 fields evaluate work during RAEs. As the author explains,

The panels must award each submitted work one of four grades, ranging from 4*, the top grade, for work whose “quality is world leading in terms of originality, significance and rigor,” to the humble 1*, “recognized nationally in terms of originality, significance, and rigour.” The anthropologist John Davis . . . has written of exercises such as the RAE that their “rituals are shallow because they do not penetrate to the core.”

I have yet to meet anyone who seriously believes that the RAE panels—underpaid, under pressure of time, and needing to sift through thousands of scholarly works—can possibly do justice to the tiny minority of work that really is “world leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.” But to expect the panels to do this is to miss the point of the RAE. Its roots are in the corporate, not the academic, world. It is really a “quality control” exercise imposed on academics by politicians; and the RAE grades are simply the raw material for Key Performance Indicators [KPIs], which politicians and bureaucrats can then manipulate in order to show that academics are (or are not) providing value for taxpayers’ money.

Imagine “needing to sift through thousands of scholarly works” in short order; what a bizarre process. There are many critics of RAE; this essay is particularly worth reading because it connects the dots between corporate-speak and the new academic order:
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