Category: Law and Humanities

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Natural Law, Imperialism, and the Birth of Free Exercise Jurisprudence

I have been researching Reynolds v. United States (1879), the Supreme Court’s first Free Exercise case, on and off for several years. For those who are interested, my paper on the topic is now available for download at SSRN. My interest in the case is historical rather than doctrinal. I am interested in what Reynolds, which held that religious polygamy was not protected by the First Amendment, and the anti-polygamy crusade that followed tell us about constitutional politics in the nineteenth century. Historians have generally situated the case within the context of the post-Civil War politics of Reconstruction. The anti-polygamy crusade kicked off by Reynolds is seen as an extension of Reconstruction into the West. I offer a new interpretation.

I began my research by asking myself what the theory of the First Amendment put before the Court by the Reynolds’s lawyers looked like. The Court — following the arguments of the Attorney General — characterized the Mormons as claiming that all religiously motivated action was exempt from the criminal law. This sort of absolutist position, the Court and the government pointed out, would allow absurd results such as the inability to criminalize religiously motivated murders. The Court, however, was knocking down a straw man. The Mormons never in fact made this claim. Rather, they argued that the First Amendment only protected religiously motivated conduct that was not malum in se, that is wrong in and of itself as opposed to being wrong merely because of the law (malum prohibitum). Actions could be judges as malum in se, they went on to argue, by appeal to a set of well-established natural law arguments. These arguments were based in part by a series of more-or-less positive analogies to non-Western legal systems. The Court responded implicitly to this argument by analogizing Mormons to Indians and the federal government to the British Raj. In other words, the Court in effect looked at “The Mormon Question” through the lens of imperialism.

This imperial analogy was more than a one-off rhetorical fillip in the Court’s opinion. It shows up all over the anti-polygamy battles, where it is important for distinguishing the situation in Utah from the situation in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction South. It also gets picked up on in the first generation of cases that invoke Reynolds and its progeny as precedent. These cases, known as The Insular Cases, arose in the context of the United States’ conquest of the Philippines in the Spanish American War of 1898 and addressed the question of the federal government’s authority to engage in imperialism and colonialism abroad. In these cases Reynolds was seen not as a First Amendment case as much as a case about the scope of Congressional power over a conquered people. My paper thus suggests that Reynolds and the anti-polygamy battles need to be seen not only in the context of the domestic debates over Reconstruction that proceeded them. Rather, Reynolds and its heirs must also be seen as a prelude to the international debates over imperialism that followed the Spanish American War.

For those interested, here is an abstract of the paper: Read More

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Dismembered Goats and the Philosophy of Contract Law

My latest offering is now up on SSRN for your enjoyment. This particular paper began with a simple question: “Why did people in the ancient world formalize their contracts by hacking up a goat?” Here’s the abstract for the paper that resulted:

In the ancient Near East, contracts were often solemnized by hacking up a goat. The ritual was in effect an enacted penalty clause: “If I breach this contract, let it be done to me as we are doing to the goat.” This Article argues that we are not so far removed from our goat-hacking forbearers. Legal scholars have argued that contractual liability is best explained by the morality of promising or the need to create optimal incentives in contractual performance. In contrast, this Article argues for the simpler, rawer claim that contractual liability consists of consent to retaliation in the event of breach. In the ancient ritual with the goat, the retaliation consented to consisted of self-help violence against life and limb. The private law in effect domesticates and civilizes retaliation by replacing private warfare with civil recourse through the courts. It thus facilitates the social cooperation made possible by the ancient threats of retaliation while avoiding the danger of escalation and violence that such private violence presented. This civil recourse theory of contractual liability provides an explanation for a number remedial doctrines that have proven difficult for rival interpretations of contract law to explain, including the penalty clause doctrine, limitations on expectation damages, and the basic private law structure of contractual liability. Finally, this Article responds to some of the most powerful objections that might be made against a civil recourse theory of contractual liability.

The article, “Consent to Retaliation: A Civil Recourse Theory of Contractual Liability,” is, to my knowledge, the first full-length article on civil a recourse theory and contract. Civil recourse, of course, has been a much discussed topic in the philosophy of tort law, where it has been championed by John Goldberg and Benjamin Zipursky. My take on the normative foundations of civil recourse, however, is a bit different than theirs. Hence, in addition to illuminating the mystery of the hacked up goats, my hope is that the article will contribute to debates in the philosophy of contract law and the philosophy of private law more generally. Enjoy!

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Book Review: Divergent Opinions: Why Community Matters — A Review of Sunstein’s Going to Extremes

Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, by Cass Sunstein. Oxford University Press: New York 2009. Pp. 171. $21.95

Cass Sunstein argues in his new book Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide that extremism is a phenomenon that is enhanced when people of like minds get together to talk. When we think of people that lie at the extremes of society, our minds are often drawn to reclusive characters. People like John the Baptist living in the wilderness “wearing clothes made of camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey;” (Matt. 3:3-4) or people like Raskolnikov from Fydor Doystoyveski’s Crime and Punishment – a reclusive character who develops a radical and warped sense of morality in response to his perception of society’s values. In reality, people that live on the extremes are rarely alone. They are surrounded by a network of like thinkers who confirm the attitudes, beliefs and interpretations of sensory data that those persons embrace as normal. Extremes are about information. That is, where you get your information from; whether you believe that information to be reliable, and how willing you are to accept information outside of your preferred source.

Going to Extremes is about how, when and why extremes develop in communities. The theme of the book is that “[w]hen people find themselves in groups of like-minded types they are especially likely to move to extremes” (p. 2). Sunstein’s work fits into the genre of human behavioral psychology proposed by James Sidanius and others that views extremists’ cognitive complexity as more complex than moderates. See James Sidanius, Functioning Sociopolitical Ideology Revisted, 6 POLITICAL PSYCHOLOGY 637, 639 (1985). This is in contrast to extremism theory, which largely assumes that political extremists display less-sophisticated cognitive behavior than moderates. About the form of extremism we call terrorism, Sunstein writes at one point,

it is tempting to think that terrorism is a product of extreme poverty, lack of education, or a kind of mental illness. It turns out that all of these thoughts are quite wrong. Most of the time, [terrorists] come from middle-income families. Nor have terrorists lacked education. There is no evidence that they suffer from mental illness…. Alan Krueger argues that terrorism is a form of political protest, and those who lack civil rights and civil liberties not having other means of engaging in protest resort to terrorism. To Krueger’s point, we might add that when civil liberties do not exist citizens have only one prominent source of information – the state – and that source cannot be trusted. (p. 115)

Terrorism then becomes a reaction against information that the extreme positions assume can’t be right. Thus, in Sunstein’s work, the why and how of extremisms (like terrorism) can be associated with how individuals interact in communities – the trust they place in the information received, the confidence they derive from like-minded members, and the authority or submission they respond to as a member of the community.

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Post on Legal Scholarship

Yale announced today that Robert Post will succeed Harold Koh as Dean of its Law School. I am thrilled to hear the news. I read Post’s book Constitutional Domains: Democracy, Management, Community while I was in college, and it helped convince me to go to law school. During my recent visit at Yale, Post struck me as one of the most intellectually interesting and friendly faculty members. Virtually every student I talked to who worked with him described him as an outstanding mentor.

Many of our readers might be interested in Post’s take on legal scholarship.
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What Is Empathy? Obama’s Philosophy of Law and the Next Supreme Court Justice

heart1aThere has been a lot of discussion on what President Obama meant when he said he wanted to choose a person who would judge with “empathy” for the U.S. Supreme Court.   When articulating his decision to vote against Chief Justice John Roberts, Obama noted that 95 percent of cases would be relatively straightforward where most justices would agree, but “what matters on the Supreme Court is those 5 precent of cases that are truly difficult.”  Obama further explained:

In those 5 percent of hard cases, the constitutional text will not be directly on point. The language of the statute will not be perfectly clear. Legal process alone will not lead you to a rule of decision. In those circumstances, your decisions about whether affirmative action is an appropriate response to the history of discrimination in this country or whether a general right of privacy encompasses a more specific right of women to control their reproductive decisions or whether the commerce clause empowers Congress to speak on those issues of broad national concern that may be only tangentially related to what is easily defined as interstate commerce, whether a person who is disabled has the right to be accommodated so they can work alongside those who are nondisabled — in those difficult cases, the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart.

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr has a very thought-provoking post examining what Obama means by “empathy.”  He writes:

What makes the issue interesting, I think, is that the broad divide over the role of ambiguity in legal decisionmaking is quite real, and yet not often explicitly drawn out. But to those who take the first approach to legal ambiguity, Obama’s view of empathy is just asking for a judge who is lawless. From that perspective, Obama wants a judge who will ignore the law: He wants a judge who might look at the precedents and text, weigh the merits as 70/30, and then vote for the weaker “30” side only because that furthers his political agenda. To those who see legal ambiguity as inviting a careful judicial weighing — indeed, who think that the critical role of a judge is to engage in that careful judicial weighing — emphasizing the need for “empathy” is an invitation to replace law with politics.

Orin’s post reminds me of the debate between H.L.A. Hart and Ronald Dworkin.

In The Concept of Law, H.L.A. Hart famously observed:

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Lawrence Friedman and the History of Privacy

I recently uploaded to SSRN a short review essay of Lawrence Friedman’s “Guarding Life’s Dark Secrets: Legal and Social Controls over Reputation, Propriety and Privacy (Stanford 2007).  No book is perfect, but this one is probably the best book on the history of privacy law that I have read.

Here’s the abstract of my review:

A short review essay of Lawrence Friedman’s “Guarding Life’s Dark Secrets: Legal and Social Controls over Reputation, Propriety, and Privacy” (Stanford Press 2007). The essay argues that Friedman tells a nuanced and compelling story of the rise and fall of the “Victorian Compromise,” a series of interlocking legal doctrines protecting the reputations of elites around the turn of the twentieth century. “Dark Secrets” undeniably advances our understanding of both the genesis of privacy law and the relationships between law and culture in the Gilded Age. As a work of legal history, it is an instant classic – a must-read for anyone interested in privacy law. But although Dark Secrets is first-rate legal history, it is less successful in its latter chapters when Friedman shifts his focus from the past to the present. The limits of Friedman’s social criticism raise important questions about the ability of history alone to provide answers to social problems in our modern, networked information society.

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Forgiving the Ex, Part II

In a post last week, I discussed the negative effects of persistent anger against a former spouse, including the harm to their children. I suggested that maybe lawmakers need to encourage divorced parents to forgive each other. As I write this sentence, I realize how naïve and simplistic that sounds. How are lawmakers supposed to help people forgive a former spouse who abused, betrayed, or neglected them? Doesn’t encouraging people to forgive suggest that their anger is unwarranted? Doesn’t it suggest that the injurer’s actions were justified or that one is condoning or excusing her wrongful and unjust behavior? Well, no. Forgiveness does not mean that the forgiver does not have a right to be angry. To the contrary, the person who forgives chooses to “abandon [her] right to resentment . . . toward one who unjustly injured [her] while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward [the injurer].” Enright et al. (1999).

When asked if they have considered forgiving someone who has hurt them deeply, people often reply that the other person “doesn’t deserve forgiveness.” That may be so, but one does not forgive for the injurer’s benefit, but for one’s own benefit and possibly, for the benefits to one’s children. As I discussed in my earlier post, forgiveness may reduce anger and its negative effects on one’s physical and psychological health and parenting abilities. It might also reduce some of the destructive behaviors some parents engage in after divorce such as interfering with the other parent’s access to the children or disparaging him or her in front of the children. It might also enable some former spouses to cooperate as co-parents in their children’s upbringing. The question is not why divorced parents should forgive, but rather how can they be encouraged to do so?

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The Bard of the Financial Crisis

shakespeare.jpgOver the weekend, I re-read A Merchant of Venice, and I was struck by the fact that Shakespeare manages to include in the play virtually every element of the current financial crisis. Scene one begins with a discussion of risk assessment, and Antonio’s belief that he has managed to tame the vagaries of commercial fate through diversification. Asked by Salarino if he “Is sad to think upon his merchandise” (I.i.40), Antonio responds:

Believe me, no. I thank my fortune for it

My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,

Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate

Upon the fortune of this present year.

Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad. (I.i.41-45)

Having ignored the problem of fat tails and black swans, Antonio decides to engage in a bit of dodgy finance. He borrows in the wholesale market from Shylock under terms that appear favorable, but have a huge downside in the unlikely event of his default. Antonio, of course, is unconcerned. From his point of view he is getting cheap money by taking on what seems like an extremely remote risk. He then takes these borrowed funds and uses them to make what can only be described as a no doc, subprime loan. Bassiano wants money for a speculative venture — the wooing “In Belmont [of] a lady richly left” (I.i.161) — and Antonio agrees, in effect renting out his credit rating:

Try what my credit in Venice can do;

That shall be racked even to the uttermost

To furnish thee to Belmont to fair Portia.

Go presently inquire, and so will I,

Where money is; and I no question make

To have it of my trust or for my sake. (I.i.180-185)

Shylock, for his part, does not approve of the loose monetary policy in Venice, which he rightly blames on wild lending practices, such as Antonio’s loans:

How like a fawning publican he looks.

I hate him for he is a Christian;

But more, for what is low simplicity,

He lends out money gratis and brings down

The rate of usance here with us in Venice. (I.iii.38-42)

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Robert Tsai’s Eloquence and Reason

tsai-eloquence.jpgProfessor Robert Tsai (American University, Washington College of Law), who previously guest blogged here in January 2006, has just published Eloquence and Reason: Creating a First Amendment Culture (Yale University Press, Nov. 2008). According to the back cover blurb:

This provocative book presents a theory of the First Amendment’s development. During the twentieth century, Americans gained trust in its commitments, turned the First Amendment into an instrument for social progress, and exercised their rhetorical freedom to create a common language of rights. Robert L. Tsai explains that the guarantees of the First Amendment have become part of a governing culture and nationwide priority. Examining the rhetorical tactics of activists, presidents, and lawyers, he illustrates how committed citizens seek to promote or destabilize a convergence in constitutional ideas. Eloquence and Reason reveals the social and institutional processes through which foundational ideas are generated and defends a cultural role for the courts.

I’ve read a few chapters of this book earlier on, and I highly recommend it. Robert Tsai’s work is always interesting and thought-provoking. He writes beautifully, and he demonstrates with great insight how rhetoric influences constitutional law.

From a blurb on the back cover by Professor Mark Tushnet (Harvard Law School): “A provocative meditation on the ways the metaphors used in constitutional doctrine empower, limit, create, and recreate the public over which the written Constitution is said to assert authority. Intriguing case studies arise from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Christian Right of the 1980s, and the attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1940s.”

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Harnessing the Wisdom of Crowds to Spot Spin

According to Business Week, this month marks the birth of Spinspotter, a website that lets users identify and discuss phrases in news stories that smack of bias. The website owner, a former Microsoft executive, will generate income by selling advertisements connected to the bias-infected new stories identified by users. For instance, Toyota might want to hang Prius ads around the phrase “gas guzzler.” Or Microsoft and Apple might want to buy ad space next to a news article that deems Windows Vista a “bug-filled failure.”

This is an intriguing, and mischevious, combination–users expose media bias (or its gullibility to spin doctors) while spin doctors append ads to win back or capture those cynical eyeballs. Given the site’s construction around key phrases, bias accomplished through silence may be missed. So often, media outlets emphasize the positive in politicians and industry such that the lack of criticism reveals a bias worthy of the SpinSpot treatment. But if crowds are indeed wise, they may find a way to highlight those bias-filled silences.