Category: Legal Ethics

3

Bootstrapping Against Capital Punishment

Bootstrap_1.jpgWe’ve been fairly called out for giving insufficient attention to the ongoing quiet revolution in capital punishment law. It is true: our criminal law coverage is underdeveloped. My excuse – as usual – is incompetence. DP law presents a host of complicated doctrinal problems: sounding off at random to the latest development is dangerous. On the other hand, no one said blogging was supposed to be safe.

Today, Doug Berman comments on the NYT story on capital punishment costs. The story offers anecdotal evidence that the judiciary has responded to underfunded capital defense units by shutting down prosecutions. If the trend continues, “states unwilling to pay the huge costs of defending people charged in capital cases may be unable to conduct executions.” Doug sums up:

Consequently, states that do not adequately fund capital defense get sub-standard efforts that lead to more costs on the back end during appellate review. Indeed, as the posts below highlights, any capital punishment system is necessarily a very costly endeavor.

My cynical response to these observations starts with the observation that stringent judicial review of capital claims hinges largely on Justice Kennedy’s continued status as swing Justice. The executing States would move quickly to reduce capital defense guidelines given even subtle signals from the Court that ultimate merits review would be unavailing.

Moreover, it seems odd to me to claim that the death penalty is expensive and therefore inefficient when, of course, it is expensive primarily as the result of a self-conscious litigation strategy by folks like Steven Bright and Brian Stevenson. The death penalty doesn’t have to be expensive: abolitionists have made it so on purpose. By setting ever-higher standards for effective capital defense through litigation and by example, abolitionists have made death penalty prosecutions more difficult for states to swallow. Of course, abolitionists can have mixed motives: a standard that increases cost will also likely reduce wrongful conviction in any individual case. But it is odd that the article spent so little time examining the possibility that costs aren’t a byproduct of the search for innocence but instead a direct result of what we might think of a litigation strategy to impose a constitutional tax on capital prosecutions. The article says – without further explanation – that “Lawmakers say [a particular judge] and the defense lawyers are deliberately driving up the costs to make sure that the death penalty is too expensive for the state.” Well, no kidding!

Increasing costs is good strategy if your only goal is to prevent executions. But it is a bad strategy – as least when compared to the innocence project – at increasing public support for abolition. And it is a worse strategy if your concerns are more broadly directed. Legislatures will resent being bootstrapped out of their preferred sentencing means. And it is unlikely that the death penalty funds taken from indigent defense organizations by spiteful legislatures will ever be restored.

(Image source: Wikicommons)

10

Judicial Bullies on T.V.

David Lat highlights the following video, featuring an encounter between a faux judge (former Florida Circuit Court Judge Marilyn Milian, now the private dispute resolution “judge” on the People’s Court) and a faux lawyer (a current Miami Law student). I know that this is supposed to be entertainment, but I’ve got to say, it felt like a case study in Steven Lubet’s Bullying From the Bench. Judicial temperament means never having to say you are sorry, but only because you don’t flip out on the parties before you.

Now that you are finished watching the bullying (I knew you couldn’t help yourself) click through to Lat’s thread, where the commentators have a really interesting discussion going on.

0

New Summer Program

This is an exceptional new summer law study program open to both law students and interested law professors. Summer Study in Italy, will take place from June 6- July 21 2008. Three weeks in Rome follow by three weeks in Florence. Students will be lectured by Professor Chadsworth Osborne, Jr., and Hugo Valencia, and several esteemed representatives of the Italian legal system — such that it is. Six hours of credit available from a choice of 4 courses. Groups outings will be arranged to important and historic sites. All inclusive tuition is $3000. This includes housing but not airfare and meals. However, the airfare should be highly discounted as you do not actually have to travel to Italy to participate. Video transmissions will include classes, meals, and all outings so you will be able to absorb the beauties of Italy while at home. Why eat at Italian McDonalds when the program permits you to stay at home and eat at your local McDonalds or any other restaurant of your choice. The program fillled quickly last year and was a huge success. Applications are found at Privilegelaw. See you in Roma!!

16

Is Sorting Law School’s Only Function?

17402.jpgBainbridge and others are abuzz over Rush and Matsuo’s paper, Does Law School Curriculum Affect Bar Examination Passage? An Empirical Analysis of the Factors Which Were Related to Bar Examination Passage between 2001 and 2006 at a Midwestern Law School. The paper reports that simply taking “bar courses” generally does not improve performance on the Bar Exam.

The paper is clearly written but not (for me) surprising: it fits unpublished research I’ve seen, and common sense. I’d bet that a large minority of all law professors, and a majority of law professors hired since 1990, haven’t sat for the Bar in the jurisdiction hosting their law school. It would be surprising if teaching behind this veil of ignorance could significantly improve test scores for marginal students. You can’t teach to a test you haven’t seen.

But if that’s true, two questions come to mind. The first has been addressed by some commentators already, and boils down to: if not bar courses, what courses should law students take? Josh Wright responds: antitrust! Sam Kamin disagrees: professors you like! As for me, I offered the following comments in a package of diverse suggestions on this topic from my colleagues distributed to our first year students at the end of the Spring term:

I recommend that you select courses that are challenging and intrinsically interesting. This means tailoring course selection to your abilities (take a tax course, especially if you are afraid of math); and interests (recall what made you excited about the Law before coming here). The data I have seen do not correlate Bar passage with any particular package of courses, but rather with your overall performance and work ethic. Certain employers may expect to see foundational courses like corporations and evidence on your transcript, but I believe those expectations are the exception rather than the rule. The bottom line: take classes that will make you want to come to school in the morning.

Maybe such advice is helpful, maybe not. But regardless, it doesn’t answer the big (second) question, which is this: is there a point to law school beyond sorting students?

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11

Shunning Duke’s Faculty

listening_statement_p.jpgA little while back, former Judge, and law school Dean, Joseph Bellacosa (St. John’s) proposed that members of the public shun the 88 Duke faculty members who sponsored an advertisement in the early days of the Nifong investigation implicitly condemning the accused lacrosse players. Bellacosa argued that

[A]lthough the group [of faculty members] can’t technically be charged with crimes – though abandoning your young and endangering youth sure do come close to real definable crimes – there are ways these professors can be held accountable. The identities of the 88 professors should be posted in significant ways and places, including in the media and on the Internet, so that they may be known for what they have done.

The likely howls of protest from the tenure police, university guild apologists and free-speech absolutists notwithstanding, the professoriat should not be shielded from appropriate public condemnation for their misconduct. Their dormant consciences and sensibilities should be reawakened to the abhorrent nature of the actions they inflicted on their own students.

I am regrettably late commenting on Judge Bellacosa’s article, and so this post may be stale. But still. What the heck is going on here?

Finding the original ad put up in 2006 isn’t so easy. A follow-up statement by Concerned Duke Faculty member has dead links, and Duke’s African-American studies department has removed the page from its server. Fortunately, this blog post pdf’d the ad, which I’ve copied to the right. Unfortunately, Bellacosa doesn’t say, and I don’t understand, exactly what was so wrong about this statement. There are some rumors that the students whose voices are being spotlighted are composites. That would be bad, but not a deadly sin. And the heart of the ad – the statement by the professors themselves – seems to me to consist of a set of vague generalities that verge on truisms, and aren’t objectionable:

“Regardless of the results of the police investigation, what is apparent everyday now is the anger and fear of many students who know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism, who see illuminated in this moment’s extraordinary spotlight what they live with everyday.”

Regardless, we’re supposed to shame and shun the signatories to the ad. Why?

9

Should You Buy Divorce Insurance?

brokenheart1.jpgDivorce is catastrophic: it increases the rates of suicide and heart disease; can decrease overall well-being for both parents and children; and it significantly hurts the financial position of the parties, especially women.

But unlike almost all other catastrophic risks that we face, the costs of divorce can not be fully insured. Because of statutory requirements that limit insurance coverage to “fortuitous events”, and the perception that divorce is elected (at least by one of the parties to the marriage), you can’t buy a policy that will pay you for breach of the marriage contract. Such is the law.

I’m interested in this topic, and so I was quite intrigued to read about a new product being developed by an entrepreneur named John Logan, of the SafeGuard Guaranty Corporation: divorce insurance.

There has been significant enthusiasm for the concept. As some noted, you could imagine such insurance having a collateral-benefit: “risk matching” your perspective spouse (or even a first date) based on their premiums. But when you think about the concept a little bit, obvious objections present themselves:

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5

Why Do Lawyers Blog?

In response to my posts on the “flatness” and the “stagnation” of the legal blogosphere, I’ve received a number of helpful comments and feedback from practicing laywers who blog. See, e.g., Anne Reed, Eric Turkewitz and Scott Greenfield. One relatively constant response has been a rejection of the idea that all lawyer blogs “exist primarily to market the firm’s services.” Eric writes, in response:

Most blawgers, I think, do it simply for enjoyment, or to network with other attorneys for possible referrals, or perhaps hope a future client stumbles on the blog while looking for counsel. Trying to place a financial figure on such an indirect form of networking is not only impossible, but would completely miss any real benefits that might accrue based on new contacts and clients.

And Scott writes:

I’m just here to write and add my thoughts, for whatever their worth, to the body of thought that floats around the internet. It gives me purpose beyond making a buck.

These authors (and others who emailed me directly) suggest that I’ve gotten it all wrong. There is a “new wave” of small blogs, run largely by solo-practitioners. Unlike, say, practice-group blogs, these small shops are writing largely to express themselves. They are excited by the medium, and think that the potential untapped audience for their musings is pretty large. [Update: See Mark Bennett's post on the Practical Blogosphere for a good taste of the commentary.]

If true, this would be pretty exciting. Of course, it is hard to generalize from a few comments, however informed and heartfelt. I also think that lurking in the background of the “we’re not about marketing” is the Bar’s onerous marketing rules, which complicate and restrict lawyer blogging. However, I thought it would be useful to inform this discussion with another informal survey. Please take it only if you are a practicing lawyer who blogs.

Why Do You Blog?
Primarily to market my firm to clients
Primarily to market myself to clients
Primarily to serve as an expressive outlet
Predominantly marketing, some expression
Predominantly expression, some marketing
Purely for fun (or, because I’m bored)
Primarily to generate referrals
Predominantly referrals, some expression.
Predominantly expression, some referrals.
Other
  
Free polls from Pollhost.com

3

Outsourcing Law

economicalservices.jpgI recently received an email from an Indian firm advertising certain legal services. It raised a number of issues I hadn’t thought about before, so I’ll publish it after the jump and then offer a few comments.

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17

Law Clerks and Book Proposals

There’s a fairly disturbing (at least to me) book proposal making its way around the e-mail universe, disturbing not because of the subject (the current debate over habeas and the war on terrorism), but because of the occupation of the authors/editors — two current D.C. Circuit law clerks. Indeed, the proposal itself harps on this fact, suggesting that the two clerks “are uniquely suited to moderate this debate,” having “spent a year in the legal trenches, as it were; each serving as law clerks on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit during a year that saw several landmark detention decisions likely to end up before the Supreme Court.”

My initial reaction is that this rubs me totally the wrong way. Wholly separate from the prospect of law clerks speaking to reporters about their jobs after their clerkships are over is clerks using their position as a ground for a book deal. If I remember right, the relevant provision of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees is Canon 3D, which provides:

A judicial employee should avoid making public comment on the merits of a pending or impending action and should require similar restraint by personnel subject to the judicial employee’s direction and control. . . . A judicial employee should never disclose any confidential information received in the course of official duties except as required in the performance of such duties, nor should a judicial employee employ such information for personal gain. A former judicial employee should observe the same restrictions on disclosure of confidential information that apply to a current judicial employee, except as modified by the appointing authority.

So I guess there are three questions here: First, is using your current position as a law clerk to promote a book deal in effect (if not actually) employing “confidential information received in the course of official duties . . . for personal gain”? Second, even if not, aren’t we opening a can of worms if clerks start using their position to hawk book deals? Third, although we’ll probably have no sense of the answer, does their judge know, and if not, shouldn’t s/he?

UPDATE: I should be clear, as some have noted in the comments, that the proposal is for a volume of essays from multiple contributors, and that the clerks do not appear to be planning to write anything themselves. There also does not appear to be an actual book deal; the e-mail referenced in the post is effectively gauging interest for possible contributors. I’m not sure that changes the issue, but wanted to clarify the original content.

22

The Death of Fact-finding and the Birth of Truth

magnififying.jpgToday’s Supreme Court decision in Scott v. Harris is likely to have profound long-term jurisprudential consequences. At stake: whether trial courts, or appellate courts, are to have the last say on what the record means. Or, more grandly, does litigation make findings of fact, or truth?

The story itself is pretty simple. Victor Harris was speeding on a Georgia highway. Timothy Scott, a state deputy, attempted to pull him over, along with other officers. Six minutes later, after a high-speed chase captured on a camcorder on Scott’s car, Scott spun Harris’ car off the road, leading to an accident. Harris is now a quadriplegic. He sued Scott for using excessive force in his arrest. On summary judgment, the District Court denied Scott’s qualified immunity defense; the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, noted that the “first step is . . . to determine the relevant facts.” Normally, of course, courts take the non-moving party’s version of the facts as given. [Or, to be more precise, the district court resolves factual disputes in favor of the non-moving party.] But here, the videotape “quite clearly contradicts the version of the story told by respondent and adopted by the Court of Appeals.” Notwithstanding a disagreement with Justice Stevens on what whether that statement was accurate (“We are happy to allow the videotape to speak for itself.” Slip Op. at 5), the Court proceeded to reject the nonmoving party’s version of the facts. To do so, it relied on the ordinary rule that the dispute of facts must be “genuine”: the Respondent’s version of the facts is “so utterly discredited by the record that no reasonable jury could have believed him.” (Slip Op. at 8).

Let’s get a bias out of the way. At the Court’s suggestion, I watched the video. I lean toward Justice Stevens’ view: “This is hardly the stuff of Hollywood. To the contrary, the video does not reveal any incidents that could even be remotely characterized as ‘close calls.'” Such a dispute over a common story immediately highlights the most serious problem with the Court’s opinion: we all see what we want to see; behavioral biases like attribution and availability lead to individualized view of events. Where the majority sees explosions, Justice Stevens sees “headlights of vehicles zooming by in the opposite lane.” (Dissent at 2, n.1 – and check out the rest of the sentence for a casual swipe against the younger members of the court.) It brings to mind the Kahan/Slovic/Braman/Gastil/Cohen work on the perceptions of risk: each Justice saw the risk of speeding through his or her own cultural prism.

But even if I agreed with the majority on what the videotape shows, the Court’s opinion is disruptive to fundamental principles of American Law. Justice Stevens suggests that the majority is acting like a jury, reaching a “verdict that differs from the views of the judges on both the District court and the Court of Appeals who are surely more familiar with the hazards of driving on Georgia roads than we are.” (Dissent at 1). There are several problems with such appellate fact finding based on videotape that the Court ignores.

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