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Habeas, Hail Mary, And the Hook and Ladder

Z. Payvand Ahdout, Direct Collateral Review, 121 Colum. L. Rev. 159 (2021).

Time ticks away. You have one shot downfield. If you don’t score a touchdown, the game’s over. Which play should you call? A Hail Mary pass into the end zone, reducing the game’s outcome to a lone, long-shot attempt? Or perhaps a trick play—a conceit from the back of the playbook with a colorful name like flea-flicker, fumblerooski, or Statue of Liberty—requiring you to avoid a series of tackles in an unlikely bid to run the ball to victory? In other words, would you rather face nearly impossible odds once or even odds a half dozen times?

Winning review of a state criminal conviction in federal court requires a higher-stakes and less fair version of the same choice among long shots. First, a criminal defendant can appeal directly to the highest civil authority by petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari. But these prayers for relief, like Hail Marys, most often go unanswered. Second, a defendant can petition a federal district court for a writ of habeas corpus. But like the flea-flicker or the hook-and-ladder, federal habeas involves avoiding many procedural obstacles. Finally, a defendant could choose a hybrid: file a habeas-like petition for postconviction review in state court, and hope that the Supreme Court will grant certiorari after state courts deny relief. At first blush, this hybrid approach seems to combine the challenges faced by its alternatives, because to succeed it must hurdle many procedural obstacles and then complete a desperate, Hail Mary pass. Yet in Direct Collateral Review, a dazzling tour through both postconviction doctrinal weeds and high habeas theory, Payvand Ahdout shows that this hybrid approach has promise for individual criminal defendants and the development of constitutional doctrine. There are even substantial benefits for judicial federalism, because the Supreme Court can supervise the application of federal rights in state courts without undermining the presumption of parity between federal and state trial courts.

Ambitious papers traverse pitched terrain; Ahdout’s is no exception. In arguing that direct collateral review is a viable vehicle on the rise, this paper takes on a formidable task. The conventional wisdom is that the Supreme Court reviews cases in this posture only infrequently. Justice Stevens once noted that the Court “rarely grants review at this stage … even when the application … is supported by arguably meritorious constitutional claims,” a point later endorsed by the full Court. This presumption reflects the Court’s traditional view that the intermediate posture of direct collateral review makes such cases poor vehicles for resolving contested questions of federal law.

The Court protests too much, Ahdout thinks. While it was once true that the Supreme Court disfavored direct collateral review—from 1986 until 2003, the Court took only nine such cases—that is changing. 2015 marked the break: the Court took five cases on direct collateral review that term, more than it had taken in the preceding six terms combined. The trend continued with another four cases in 2016, and three each in 2018 and 2019. So much for the presumption that the Court “rarely grants review” on this posture.

Ahdout traces this shift in the Supreme Court’s certiorari practice to developments in the two coordinate branches. Start with the legislature. Congress imposed a host of new procedural hurdles on habeas petitioners in 1996’s AEDPA. Under that law, habeas is limited to cases in which a state court has unreasonably applied clearly established federal law “as determined by the Supreme Court.” This bar has two effects, Ahdout argues. First, it robs lower federal courts of the chance to develop constitutional doctrine in habeas cases, since lower court precedent is not relevant for purposes of AEDPA. Second, and more subtly, it puts increased pressure on the Supreme Court to determine the content of clearly established federal law—because no one else may do so. In sum, federal habeas is a worse vehicle than it used to be.

The Department of Justice has played a role as well. Most cases the Supreme Court hears come from federal courts. By choosing not to contest broad applications of Supreme Court precedent in lower federal courts, DOJ and the Solicitor General can perversely insulate the Supreme Court from deciding important questions about federal rights—even as those same questions arise in state criminal proceedings. Because state criminal cases are both more numerous and comparatively poorly funded, the Supreme Court must get creative if it wants to keep setting the contours of federal rights.

Direct appeals have their own problems. Some kinds of claims—like the retroactivity of newly articulated rights under Teague v. Lane or the continuing competency of a defendant sentenced to death—can only arise on collateral review. Other critical issues, like ineffective assistance of counsel or the government’s failure to produce evidence as required by Brady v. Maryland, are more likely to arise on collateral rather than direct review, as Ahdout establishes. These developments have rendered both federal habeas review and direct appeals increasingly problematic vehicles for the Supreme Court to determine the scope of federal rights. So direct collateral review is on the rise.

Despite the doctrinal and institutional changes that have made direct collateral review a better posture for Supreme Court review, its downsides as a vehicle remain. Ahdout reviews this suite of problems—including such fundamental questions as what the standard of review should be and how generously to read summary orders issued by state courts—as a preview of issues to come. These problems, which the Court and Congress have struggled over for decades in the context of federal habeas, reflect the tensions of our system of judicial federalism.

Yet one key difference makes direct collateral review promising from the vantage point of judicial federalism. Like federal habeas, direct collateral review involves a federal court supervising the application of federal law in a state criminal proceeding. But with direct collateral review, it is the U.S. Supreme Court—not lower federal courts, which are theoretically coequal with their state counterparts—that does the supervising. There is thus no tension between deferring to state courts and ensuring the correct application of federal law.

This rich paper teaches lessons both internal and external to the criminal legal system. For those working inside the system, Ahdout offers practical advice. To improve the quality of postconviction adjudication, ensure that state habeas analogs include high-quality counsel who will preserve issues for an eventual petition for certiorari. For lawyers and defendants facing hard choices between alternative postconviction procedural paths, don’t overlook direct collateral review as a moment for meaningful federal review, but also beware of the procedural uncertainties that await. Like a football team mounting an unlikely comeback, litigants will be glad for that slim yet real hope, even as they rightly fight for much more.

From an external perspective, Ahdout describes a changing “ecosystem of collateral review.” In this ecosystem, the Supreme Court acts against constraints imposed by Congress and litigants (especially DOJ) to protect its review of state convictions. Direct collateral review offers the Supreme Court a solution to that problem because it is free of the statutory and institutional constraints that limit its alternatives. We should be glad, then, that direct collateral review is moving up in the playbook—and on the Supreme Court’s docket.

Cite as: Thomas Bennett, Habeas, Hail Mary, And the Hook and Ladder, JOTWELL (June 7, 2021) (reviewing Z. Payvand Ahdout, Direct Collateral Review, 121 Colum. L. Rev. 159 (2021)),

Securing Essential Work for Low Wage Workers

Deepa Das Acevedo, Essentializing Labor Before, During, and After the Coronavirus Epidemic, 52 Ariz. St. L.J. 1091 (2020).

The COVID crisis comes at a time of transition and peril for low wage workers, exposing and exacerbating their vulnerability under United States labor and employment law. The crisis also provides an opportunity for reimagining the state’s responsibility towards low wage workers. Even before the pandemic, in today’s gig economy an increasing number of workers lack any certainty about, and control over, their working lives. In Essentializing Labor Before, During, and After the Coronavirus Epidemic, Deepa Das Acevedo uses the COVID crisis to illustrate how the baseline at-will employment rules contribute to the precarity of the lives of low wage workers. Das Acevedo advocates rejecting the at-will doctrine to address that precarity.

In Essentializing Labor, Das Acevedo shows how the debate over who is an essential worker at the height of the COVID crisis revealed the failure of US labor law to protect the interests of low wage workers. Government measures to protect against COVID made it necessary to determine who is an “essential” worker. “Essential” workers such as medical workers, first responders, grocery store employees and food production workers were exempt from stay-at-home restrictions and could therefore keep their jobs even during the worst times of the COVID crisis.

However, being labeled an essential worker has been a double-edged sword – essential workers not only could go to work; they were often required to go to work, without sufficient measures to protect them from the disease, or risk losing their jobs. As a result, essential workers have been disproportionately likely to be infected with COVID and to die of the disease.

Arguably, essential workers (especially healthcare workers) have an obligation to society to continue to work in jobs that are essential to the health, safety, and welfare of the people. If so, however, our society has a reciprocal obligation to protect the health and safety of those workers. Yet the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected claims that the government is constitutionally obliged to protect people from external harm. Thus, workers are dependent on positive law to protect them from danger in the workplace, including the danger imposed by a pandemic. Yet, as Das Acevedo explains, positive law actually increases their vulnerability.

Although the term “essential worker” has only recently become widely used, Das Acevedo explains that the term “essential labor” has long been important to US labor and employment law. During the pandemic, a worker is essential if her labor is essential to society. Before the pandemic, the determination of whether a worker was essential depended on the perspective of the employer. But neither determination is made from the perspective of the worker herself, even though the job is essential to the workers’ well-being and survival.

Das Acevedo argues that, from the workers’ perspective, all jobs are essential, not only because work is necessary for economic survival, but also because work is central to human flourishing and to one’s identity. Moreover, in the United States a job is more essential than in other western democracies. Many benefits and legal protections in this country are linked to employee status, from health insurance to anti-discrimination laws. In the emerging gig economy, workers do not enjoy even the minimal benefits that adhere to the employee status. This distinguishes the United States from other western democracies, where the state provides health care and pensions, and where legal protections apply to all workers regardless of their technical status, providing a safety net for all workers, even if they are required to do essential jobs.

Notwithstanding the fact that being an employee is even more essential to workers in our country than in other countries, U.S workers have far less job security than workers in other western democracies. Under the employee-at-will system which underlies U.S. labor and employment law, workers can be fired at any time for just about any reason. Das Acevedo argues that doing away with the at-will doctrine is an essential step towards improving the lives of low wage workers. Replacing employee at will with just cause termination rules would give workers a baseline stability and certainty that they need for their essential jobs.

Recently, scholars have begun to explore the 13th Amendment’s protection against involuntary servitude as a source of positive rights for low wage workers. Other scholars have argued that the Court should refine its 14th Amendment state action doctrine. In this article, and in all of her work on low wage gig economy workers, Das Acevedo lays the groundwork for theorizing their rights, all for all of those interested in creating a responsive state to protect vulnerable workers.

Cite as: Rebecca Zietlow, Securing Essential Work for Low Wage Workers, JOTWELL (May 7, 2021) (reviewing Deepa Das Acevedo, Essentializing Labor Before, During, and After the Coronavirus Epidemic, 52 Ariz. St. L.J. 1091 (2020)),

A Democratic Solution to Social Media Election Warfare, and the First Amendment

David L. Sloss, Information Warfare and Democratic Decayin Tyrants on Twitter: Protecting Democracies from Chinese and Russian Information Warfare (forthcoming 2021), available on SSRN.

During the rise of big tech like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, there has been an increase in autocratic governments. Political leaders in Hungary and Poland have used democratic constitutions to curb democracy. They have ignored the European Union’s complaints about their actions. But perhaps the most dangerous development is the information warfare carried out by Russia, China, Iran, and others with the intention of interfering with democratic elections. Some experts argue that Russia’s “organized social media manipulation” was the reason for Trump’s victory over Clinton.1 These countries used U.S. First Amendment values against the U.S.

Professor David Sloss is authoring a book detailing how “Chinese and Russian cybertroops” accomplish their goals, as well as the weak efforts by the U.S. social media companies to respond. These platforms have profit incentives that conflict with the need to block information warfare or disinformation campaigns. This review briefly examines the newly released first chapter of the book. What makes the book significant is that Sloss proposes a multi-national alliance and registration identification system to deter this cyber-espionage and perhaps slow the corresponding democratic erosion. The solution, however, raises serious First Amendment issues even though it may promote democracy.

The initial chapter contains charts on recent democratic deterioration, including in the U.S.  Meanwhile nations like China are economically booming and increasing in power. Though Sloss declares himself a liberal internationalist, he explains that foreign agents have no part in U.S. self-government, and that they have fewer First Amendment rights. He also produces some nice turns of phrase. Whereas Clausewitz said war is politics by other means, Sloss writes that information warfare is war by political means.

Sloss therefore advocates an Alliance for Democracy—a transnational system of democratic states guaranteeing strong free speech for its members. But outsiders would have fewer speech rights.2 For example, their election-related messages would contain disclaimer warnings. Moreover, all social media users would have to register and identify themselves, declare their nationalities, and consent to verification. Sloss writes that this avoids content discrimination, replacing it with identity information concerning dangerous speakers.

He then addresses objections, especially privacy concerns. But he points out that the influence of fake accounts is huge anyway. Sloss is also aware that the disclaimers raise concerns. And he sees the large administrative costs. But he argues that the benefits to democracy far outweigh the horrifying costs, and that the First Amendment is not violated, though this is debatable. Certainly, Sloss should address this question in detail later in the book.

One criticism is that he does not show in these pages that social media causes less democracy. For example, social media fueled the “Arab Spring’s” democratic moments. Moreover, the 2020 U.S. Presidential election was quite safe. Yet the Sloss alliance and registration system could provide a fascinating opportunity to reduce or block the social media interference of autocracies in democratic elections. The proposal deserves examination, if the First Amendment problems can be overcome. Thus, his book could be very important.

  1. See e.g., Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Cyberwar: How Russian and Trolls Helped Elect a President: What We Don’t, Can’t and Do Know (Oxford 2018).
  2. Agency for Int’l Development v. Alliance for Open Society Int’l Inc., 140 S.Ct. 2082 (2020).
Cite as: Mark Kende, A Democratic Solution to Social Media Election Warfare, and the First Amendment, JOTWELL (March 18, 2021) (reviewing David L. Sloss, Information Warfare and Democratic Decayin Tyrants on Twitter: Protecting Democracies from Chinese and Russian Information Warfare (forthcoming 2021), available on SSRN),

Protecting Free Speech from Itself

Toni Massaro & Helen Norton, Free Speech and Democracy: A Primer for 21st Century Reformers (Dec. 15, 2020), available on SSRN.

There has been a long-standing belief that more speech produces more freedom, and that a governmental regime is democratic to the extent that governmental control of speech is minimized. Recent developments have called these beliefs into question, however. Justice Brandeis may have said that sunlight is the best of disinfectants, but Donald Trump has given disinfectants a bad name, and cast doubt as well on their metaphorical referents through his unceasing falsehoods and his flirtation with or embrace of Russian internet disinformation. He is out of office, but his shenanigans are in fact examples of much more extensive dilemma that remains with us today. In a recent article I like lots, Toni Massaro and Helen Norton confront this dilemma and offer possible responses.

The problem, as the authors note, is that speech has been weaponized by a toxic mixture of new technology and extreme partisanship. The internet in particular, as a source of information that people increasingly rely upon, is less a marketplace of ideas and more a means of inducing people to buy into defective reports and harmful attitudes, by overwhelming them with input or misleading them with subliminal messages. Instead of addressing this problem, a conservative Supreme Court has weaponized free speech doctrine by treating government efforts to regulate defective products and harmful substances as an intrusion on the free speech rights of those who sell these products and substances in the actual marketplace. By thus overlooking serious threats to speech and instituting counter-productive protections, the Court has created a serious mismatch between real dangers and existing doctrine.

Professors Massaro and Norton respond to this situation by recommending what they call “tweaks” rather than “topples” – delimited doctrinal adjustments as opposed to comprehensive revisions. Their choice is based on the incremental character of judicial reasoning and the widespread reverence for current free speech protections. In fact, I think the authors undersell their recommendations. These can certainly be implemented incrementally, but they are based on important conceptual considerations that point toward new understandings of the way speech functions in the context of our modern world.

One recommendation is to shift our speech-oriented solicitude from the rights of speakers to the rights of listeners. As Robert Post has pointed out, First Amendment doctrine depends on relationships; without listeners, speech is only noise. If one reads too much John Stuart Mill, the image of speech that one will have in mind is discussion or debate among relatively equal parties. In the modern world, however, there is an asymmetry between the two. In part, this is because speech – that is, the ability to reach listeners – costs money. In part, it is because the speech that reaches listeners makes money, either directly by influencing ordinary people in their capacity as consumers or indirectly by influencing them in their capacity as voters. The result is that the wealthy speak and ordinary people listen. Professors Massaro and Norton propose that free speech doctrine should be tweaked to provide more protection to listeners. Instead of being so solicitous of professionals’ right to speak – or not to speak on religious grounds – the doctrine should protect those who consult these professionals and want to obtain necessary, truthful information. Instead of freeing the expenditure of money from campaign finance regulation, the doctrine should recognize that the essential freedom is the ability of voters to hear each candidate’s position and reach informed judgments.

Two other recommendations that Professors Massaro and Norton advance are to rethink the scope of state action to which the Free Speech Clause applies, and to rethink the concept of neutrality that defines a good deal of its substance. Here again, the operation of the internet raises crucial questions. While the authors acknowledge the value of the autonomy that the state action doctrine provides, they question its dichotomous rigidity. Internet providers may be private for certain purposes, but their ubiquity and influence suggest that inclusiveness requirements might be imposed on them by courts. Similarly, Professors Massaro and Norton acknowledge the force of neutrality arguments, but recommend that content-sensitive regulation may be constitutionally permissible if it is designed to avoid misleading communications such as robot-generated messages that appear to come from individuals.

The example of racist speech at private universities provides a further illustration of the authors’ argument. This may be one context where the public-private dichotomy on which the state action doctrine is based breaks down, given universities’ essential role in our increasingly knowledge-based economy, the proportion of their research that is supported by government grants, and the extent to which higher education is provided by government in most Western nations. Their private status could be challenged through exceptions to state action doctrine such as entanglement or public function, but such doctrinal tweaks might well be grounded on a more basic re-evaluation of the doctrine as it applies in particular contexts such as racist speech. Regulation of racist speech is content-based, and thus not neutral, but the “Court’s sometimes platitudinous claims to neutrality are descriptively inaccurate” for many of its decisions. In this case, doctrinal tweaks allowing content-based regulation might be supported by the more general recognition that universities, by virtue of constitutional decisions and federal legislation, are communities that explicitly welcome students of different races, ethnicities and religions. In this sense, they embody particular commitments, and the speech that they allow might be regulated on the basis of those non-neutral commitments.

All of this, of course, is controversial. Professors Massaro and Norton certainly do not deny the importance of free speech or the dangers of allowing government to regulate it. They remind us, however, that legal doctrine, no matter how well-established and revered, does not justify itself but rather must be justified by the purpose that it serves. New circumstances can sunder a previously secure connection between a given doctrine and its purpose. Modern modes of communication and increasing political polarization constitute such circumstances. They demand that we rethink free speech doctrine to ensure that it continues to serve its underlying purposes.

Cite as: Edward Rubin, Protecting Free Speech from Itself, JOTWELL (March 3, 2021) (reviewing Toni Massaro & Helen Norton, Free Speech and Democracy: A Primer for 21st Century Reformers (Dec. 15, 2020), available on SSRN),

“I have seen the future…” “And it works?”

David E. Pozen, Eric L. Talley & Julian Nyarko, A Computational Analysis of Constitutional Polarization, 105 Cornell L. Rev. 1 (2019).

The moment is at hand. No longer self-consciously experimental, computational analysis now comes to constitutional law in an ambitious effort pursued by David Pozen, prominent in the field at Columbia; his Van Halen-like colleague Eric Talley, known especially perhaps for his law and economics theorizing and his corporate and contract law investigations – and Julian Nyarko, newly arrived at Stanford as a practicing computationalist interested first of all in contract law. Their project takes up the question of polarization and its pertinence constitutionally, an issue that has become more prominent in the past few years.

The effort at one level is straightforward. It turns out that all remarks made by members of Congress, on both the House and Senate side, dating from 1873 to 2016, now exist in a collected, computer analyzable form. What might we learn if we read all these speeches? We can’t, of course – too much to know, too much information to acquire and think through, even if we read quickly rather than carefully. Machines read too, assimilating many more documents much faster. But they read their way – sorting words, counting uses, noticing conjoint and disjoint patternings, and the like. We need to know what we know, therefore, when we read machine-reading results. Pozen, Talley, and Nyarko show us how they assembled their mechanism and the decisions they had to make in order to ready their computer for work. These decisions become a sort of pedigree.

Word frequency lists as such are not the main focus. Instead, the idea is first to check legislator vocabularies against constitutional dictionaries. These last are collections of words that count as “constitutional” terms. The word “constitution” itself and its immediate modifications like “unconstitutional” and “nonconstitutional” generate a first dictionary. Words included in the U.S. Constitution fill up a second collection. Words seemingly part of ordinary discussions of immediately constitutional terms become a third grouping. The computer is instructed to search out, accumulate, and report incidences of these constitutional usages in congressional talk.

Because the speakers’ party affiliations are known, the computer can determine within given periods whether members of one party or the other are more prone to constitutional usages, and whether given usages vary or not with party membership. Pozen, Talley, and Nyarko put together training lists of constitutional usages in recent periods in order to suggest versions of “right” and “left” groupings, tuning the lists to match very well with Republican and Democratic affiliations of speakers. These groupings are made available to the computer to predict the party affiliations of congressional members within the larger sets. This in turn allows the computer to assess degrees of orthodoxy among party members.

All this effort (and more – including comparisons with Wall Street Journal and New York Times editorial usages), all parts carefully designed, executed, and reported, allow the study to state findings concerning constitutional polarization. Especially provocatively, it appears, both Republicans and Democrats made frequent use of constitutional terms in the most recent period (not so in other ranges). But the terms differed considerably depending on party affiliation. This may be evidence, the authors suggest, of strong constitutional polarization. It is as though two ships “Peerless” pass in the night (as Professors Talley and Nyarko might have put it).

This is too terse. It is clear nonetheless that the work here is very good indeed. What should we make of it? Should we want to read exercises of this sort? Assemble them ourselves? “Might as well jump?” The great value, I think, is old-fashioned. Observing closely what this effort involves, we are driven quickly from initial skepticisms to thinking about helpful differentiations and elaborations.

First, we notice that constitutional usage is reduced to piles of words. Sorting words is good work for computers. But we “not-computers” tend to believe we proceed otherwise. Of course, “we” may not be a homogeneous set. Are members of Congress engaged in the same efforts as judges or lawyers or academics? Consider: Sometimes constitutional terms — words, sentences, passage, entire documents – are considered closely, as elements in efforts to think intensely and independently about seemingly difficult and important matters. On other occasions, constitutional terms are treated as “doctrine” – standard formulas framed as rules and exceptions or levels of scrutiny or test steps – in order maybe to achieve institutional uniformity or integrity. In other instances, terms are pretty much emoji. They communicate attitude or intensity, mark normative postures, stand up or stand down (we might say).

All three modes are sometimes apt. But in different settings each might be more or less salient. We might imagine members of Congress who think hard and originally about basic constitutional questions. Regrettably, John C. Calhoun comes to mind. Bruce Ackerman suggested that the remarks of Hubert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen in the course of congressional discussion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should rank high. Often, it is easy to suppose, legislators proceed within established doctrinal fences. Or—maybe even more frequently—they use constitutional references and resonances to signal stances, to evoke ideological allegiances and intensities – to cast “emojis” as though fly fishing. This last use is formally a kind of mirroring or borrowing, or maybe translation, of attitudes or commitments or aversions already in play in society at large. These captures may be politically sharply relevant – and if reused often enough may become constitutional content by association. Effective trademarking maybe, purposefully derivative, these constitutional cartoons are in themselves neither analyses nor close “doctrinal” maps. But none of these three modes are, in any general way, inappropriate.

Second, we also readily recognize that polarization might be pictured from a dramatically different angle. It is not surprising if political parties understand their own agendas in differing, sharply distinct terms. We remember 1800 and its very hard hardball. “Popular sovereignty” and “freedom national” were at bottom opposing constitutional notions in the 1850s, ultimately fiercely held. Cataclysm and constitutional re-grounding followed, we know, unresolved controversies were renewed within new terms, fought in new ways even now.

It is also plausible to think that some polarizations involve refusals to recognize new constitutional understandings as constitutional at all. The dramatic devices of the sit-in sparked civil rights movement often found only awkward constitutional protection, and opponents (notably, otherwise low-key Lewis Powell) denounced that movement as anti-legal and best forgotten. We remember John Lewis well as an individual, bravely hard-headed. But he is less often celebrated as one participant among many other animators of a remarkable democratic leviathan.

We know all this, of course. We worry whether we ought to be able to take steps – discover our inner Henry Clay, as it were – to manage constitutional crises in advance of full out collision. Pozen, Talley, and Nyarko offer us a diagnostic device. The groupings of constitutional dictionary entries they are able to discern are accumulations of instances. These gatherings might be useful preliminaries if we try to impute interior thematics. This is work on our part, not the computer’s. These thematics are the jurisprudential equivalents of literary criticism, plainly not themselves computational, but rather re-visioning computational heaps as harbingers, maybe pointing to Dworkin-like enterprises in the end.

Against this backdrop, we remember Eric Talley earlier on. Writing with Ian Ayres, Talley restated the notion of Solomonic bargains as a question of dividing entitlements, suggesting that such divisions ex ante — more precisely, our responses to them – sometimes worked later to facilitate improving rearrangements.1 The beginnings of bargaining begin in the disorganization of law. Arbitrageurs read jurisprudence. This article continues to reward close study (not just snap-shot sloganeering) – maybe especially as constitutional analysis one-step disguised. For present purposes: Sometimes as we judge congressional constitutional polarizations, we may search out possible cut constitutional or other legal entitlements as building blocks and begin to sketch bargaining paths as responses. Computational mechanics looks to be part of the beginning stuff of law itself, a first lens in recognizing structural breaks and bends and thus potential rapprochements. Sometimes, anyway. In other instances, the cut entitlement will look to be profound, its remedy not necessarily some sutured recombination.

Not only congressional remarks: constitutions, statutes, judicial opinions, all the rest – these are just words, aggregates and arrangements open to study. Computational analytics frame the window, plot paths into and around or through legal complexities we otherwise see as dense to the point of darkness. Pozen, Talley, and Nyarko touch down on law’s documentary substrate. This is law-at-first they are writing.

  1. Ian Ayres & Eric Talley, Solomonic Bargaining: Dividing a Legal Entitlement to Facilitate Coasean Trade, 104 Yale L. J. 1027 (1995).
Cite as: Pat Gudridge, “I have seen the future…” “And it works?”, JOTWELL (January 20, 2021) (reviewing David E. Pozen, Eric L. Talley & Julian Nyarko, A Computational Analysis of Constitutional Polarization, 105 Cornell L. Rev. 1 (2019)),

The Two-Body Problem

Daphna Renan, The President’s Two Bodies, 120 Columbia L. Rev. 1119 (2020).

For reasons that remain mysterious, the past four years or so have seen a distinct rise in interest among public law scholars in the concept of “office” and surrounding ideas. What is an office, precisely? Is its defining feature one of powers—or of duties? What is the relationship between the office and the person occupying it? Do the powers and duties connected to that office inhere in the office, the officer, or some mixture of both? Can an officer speak for him- or herself, or is that speech always “official?” What is the relationship between office, officer, and the oath of office? Does the idea of fiduciary duty illuminate such questions, or obscure them? Of course these questions have a long pedigree. But since roughly 2017, this broad topic has seen a distinct upturn in scholarly work. One hopes it is not temporary or expedient.

Scholarly work on the question of office can take different approaches—legal or political, practical or theoretical. It can attain a level of abstraction that may yield general insights but few prescriptions—this is my own preferred sin—or give very precise recommendations that are hard to tie firmly to the legal, historical, or philosophical materials. (This is one way, in my view, to read a recent critique of “fiduciary constitutionalism,” even if one thinks the concept is worth exploring.) If one wants to avoid one or the other extreme, one had better be willing to live with tension and ambivalence. That position makes many law professors uncomfortable, given their own normative inclinations and the political and professional incentives that drive them. But it can be achieved—and beautifully, at that. Such is the case with Professor Daphna Renan’s recent article, The President’s Two Bodies.

Renan’s subject is “a central paradox in the structure of American constitutional government.” That paradox relates to any officer, but the keystone example and the subject of this article is the chief executive. Although the Constitution “split the atom of sovereignty,” its roots lie in English legal and political history, and there we find a long concern, both political and metaphysical, with the nature of the king’s authority as sovereign and chief executive. The classic treatment is Ernst Kantorowicz’s book The King’s Two Bodies, which explored the dual nature of the king, in English law and politics, as both an individual monarch with a “body mortal” and an enduring “body politic”: king and kingship, one person with two distinct but indivisible aspects.

Renan traces the idea of the king’s two bodies in changed form through the American presidency along three dimensions, noting the different visions of the presidency that emerge, and the tensions that are produced, from the king/kingship model in each dimension. One is the “personal/impersonal” dimension, arising from the “interdependence of the person and the office of the presidency,” which “belies efforts to make the President’s personal and official character fully severable.” She offers as an example the debate between Justice Jackson and Chief Justice Vinson in the Steel Seizure Case. Here, Vinson stands for the view that “the president’s individual judgment is not an extraconstitutional impulse but a facet of constitutional leadership itself,” while Jackson concedes the charismatic element of the American presidency but sees “the role of constitutional law” as being “to offer a counterweight to presidential charisma in the form of the separation of powers.”

The second conceptual distinction is between the temporary and continuous nature of the presidency. On the one hand, the presidency is a continuing institution that exists and acts across particular administrations. On the other, each president is elected in substantial measure for his or her charismatic vision and is expected to “implement a particular policy and ideological” program. An example of this tension can be found in the law and practice around executive orders, which enable each entering president to put his or her stamp on the office but are constrained, in practice, by procedural norms and rules of “process and publicity” that strengthen the legitimacy and legality of an executive order but also entrench it against sudden changes of course by the next administration.

Finally, there is the “singular/composite dimension,” embracing the distinction between the executive as a particular individual in whom the Article II power is vested and as a corporate institution arising from the fact that “the execution of presidential power,” especially given the nature and reach of the modern executive branch, “requires a collective.” Thus, in Trump v. Hawaii, Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion “embraces an impersonal, thoroughly institutional presidency,” in which the president’s own tweets are less important than the evidence of some proper institutional process in coming up with later iterations of the “travel ban.” By contrast, in Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, what matters is “executive ‘unitariness,’” and “the person of the president cannot—as a legal matter—hide behind the façade of an orderly office.”

Along each of these dimensions and across many issues, Renan argues, the idea of “the President’s ‘two bodies’ has been at the crux of ongoing debates about presidential power,” and the duality of the presidency has been “the defining ambiguity, the central paradox of the constitutional office.” Even as particular decisions and elements of presidential power can be understood better from the standpoint of one vision or another, taken together the duality “plays a mystifying or obscuring role,” while also serving as a constitutive feature of the modern presidency. It “orients practice toward certain fundamental, though conflicting, ideas about what the exercise of presidential power should actually entail,” such as the fundamental—and conflicting—desires for both a charismatic leader to occupy the “body mortal” and a constrained and time-extended executive branch to fulfill our need for a stable “body politic.”

How to resolve this paradox? One of the most admirable and frankly refreshing aspects of Renan’s article is that she does not suggest it can be resolved. We can understand the paradox better, identifying it at work and tracing its complex effects. But we cannot eliminate it. She states forthrightly: “Public law theory cannot solve or somehow move beyond the two-bodies paradox. But it can get the nature of the problems right.”

This is no small thing. That’s certainly true stylistically. Any reader of law reviews gets used to articles that consist of, in effect, 40 pages of second-hand journalism recounting some “new” issue, combined with five or ten pages of a draft statute or judicial opinion; or, on a higher plane, articles with a substantial, nuanced, and fascinating discussion of a legal problem, combined with a cursory, un-nuanced, seemingly obligatory “solution” section. Anything that breaks out of that format is a pleasure to readers.

The approach exemplified by Renan’s article also has disciplinary benefits, and those benefits are of special (but not unique) importance to public law. It is a field that offers many opportunities for technical fixes, on the one hand, and big ideas on the other. Both have their value—and both are diminished by a tendency, reinforced by law review gatekeepers and then reproduced within the academy, to jam the two together. The combination produces less than the sum of its parts. A big idea that is not allowed to end with a question mark is deprived of its full creative potential and often results in the most interesting problems being waved aside, or cut so the cloth can be tailored to the (often politically over-determined) garment. A narrower, more technical fix is more likely to be treated as lacking in prestige if it is not tied to a largely unnecessary 50-page lead-in and gaseous pronouncements about its “broader implications.” We would be better off if leading law reviews were more eager to publish shorter and more “narrow” public law pieces that strip away the extraneities and work on solving one problem at a time—and if “big” pieces abandoned any felt need to wrap things up cleanly with one prescription or another.

This is Renan’s approach here. In examining “the relationship between the person of the president and the office or institution of the presidency,” she does not plump for one vision over the other, but recognizes that both have worked themselves into the fabric of the “presidency,” broadly understood. Just as important is the relationship between them, which makes the chief executive “an amalgamation of the individual president and the institutional presidency.” Unless we more clearly understand the uneasy coexistence of both visions and which vision is being invoked in a particular case, we can expect not only accidental “incoherence in our law,” but also “opportunism,” as officials (including executive branch lawyers) appeal to one or the other line of thought depending on their goals.

I do not mean to overstate the size of the question mark or the degree of abstraction in Renan’s article. It is certainly not abstract. The examples I cited above are only three among many concrete treatments of particular legal issues: executive privilege and immunity, the role of presidential intent and of executive branch institutional processes, the role of the White House Counsel, the extent to which the executive branch can bind future administrations through litigation settlements or consent decrees, and others. Nor is Renan silent on the question of how we might best “integrate” the competing visions of the presidency. Here, her conclusion is that “legal engagement with the two-bodies paradox must come at a more retail level, context by context.” Our answers should focus not on the duality itself, but on the substance of each particular issue. That may leave a good deal of open ground, but lack of a definitive resolution is not the same thing as being irresolute.

It is possible, I venture to add, that we might bring in some of the concepts that have arisen in the context of fiduciary constitutionalism and elsewhere, as in Philip Hamburger’s Law and Judicial Duty—or, still further back, in Cicero’s De Officiis—to think further about the ways in which we have attempted to marry individual and institutional conceptions of governance. The relationship between person and institution is not new, and we have long sought means of effecting a “constitutional marriage of personality and impersonality.” The concept of office itself is a way of doing so, by tying the power of an office to the duties that are fundamental to that office. “What are the highest places,” a judge of the English Court of Common Pleas once asked, “but obligations of the greatest dewties?” Such an approach is embodied in the oath of office itself, which personalizes in the office-holder those sense of duties. And it relies in turn on a “proper sense of honor,” as Washington called it, under which not power or charisma or satisfaction of particular wants, but integrity in the performance of office, are the keys to being held in high regard by others and by oneself.

I doubt any of this can be liquidated into a set of mechanical prescriptions. It is no more certain an answer to particular questions than Renan’s injunction to consider the individual constitutional commitments involved in each particular issue. And it certainly partakes of what may seem an archaic set of motivations and values. But “archaic,” in my view, is a description, not a criticism. It may be that more people now more fully appreciate the extent to which personal character and a sense of honor and promise-keeping are necessary qualities in even the most bureaucratized democratic state, and a necessary counterweight to the charisma that people of all stripes seem to want from our presidents. One hopes they will keep the lesson in mind.

In any event, the overall emphasis in Renan’s article is on what can be better understood but not finally answered. “Even as the two-bodies prism illuminates a crucial role for public law in constituting ‘the President,’” Renan concludes, “it also underscores the limits of law and legal methods in managing its defining ambiguity.” We can better understand the fundamental elements of the presidency and how they interact, but no alchemical formula exists that can transmute them into a single perfect substance. That is a more than satisfactory answer in a tremendously satisfying paper.

Cite as: Paul Horwitz, The Two-Body Problem, JOTWELL (December 16, 2020) (reviewing Daphna Renan, The President’s Two Bodies, 120 Columbia L. Rev. 1119 (2020)),

Reproductive Health Care Exceptionalism and the Pandemic

The term “reproductive health care” encompasses safe access to gynecologic and obstetric care, prenatal care, the prevention of sexually transmissible disease, contraception, and abortion. The term “reproductive health care exceptionalism” refers to the ways in which law and medicine frequently single out reproductive health care services, particularly contraception and abortion, for different and disadvantaged treatment. In Essentially Elective: The Law and Ideology of Restricting Abortion During the Covid-19 Pandemic, Jessie Hill builds on her thoughtful and important body of work on reproductive health care exceptionalism—and its impact on women’s lives.

Examples of reproductive health care exceptionalism include the special Due Process Clause rules that the Supreme Court applies to the government’s regulation of abortion. Normally, courts apply strict scrutiny to the government’s restriction of a fundamental right; this requires the government to show that its choice is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, a burden that the government rarely meets. But while Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey purported to reaffirm Roe v. Wade‘s holding that a woman’s decision about whether to have an abortion is a fundamental right protected by the Due Process Clause, the Casey Court nevertheless applied a new, more government-friendly, test to the government’s regulation of abortion. More specifically, Casey announced the “undue burden” test for assessing the government’s restrictions on abortion, a test that is much more forgiving of the government than strict scrutiny—and a test with contours and applications that remain deeply contested, as most recently illustrated by the Court’s fractured opinions in June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo.

For an earlier illustration of how reproductive health care exceptionalism discounts the medical importance of women’s ability to control whether and when they procreate, recall longstanding state laws barring the use and sale of contraceptives, laws eventually invalidated in Griswold v. Connecticut. As Reva Siegel and Neil Siegel have recounted, these laws frequently permitted the sale of condoms as medically necessary because they prevented the transmission of disease—but not contraception available only to women that “simply” prevented unwanted pregnancy. The Connecticut Supreme Court even declined to interpret its state’s statute to permit such contraception when pregnancy would put the woman’s life at risk; as Mary Dudziak has documented, the court instead suggested abstinence as the appropriate remedy. In so doing, these states treated women’s decisions about whether and when to procreate as distinct from decisions about medically necessary matters.

More recent examples of reproductive health care exceptionalism include the Department of Health and Human Services’s new rule that interprets the Affordable Care Act to require covered health insurers to send their insureds two separate bills each month: one singling out the portion of the policy’s premium allocated to abortion-related services (generally a dollar) and another for all other health care services covered by the premium. The rule also requires insurers to instruct policyholders to pay the two premiums separately, either by two separate checks or by two separate electronic transactions.

In earlier work, Professor Hill has explored in detail how reproductive health care services like contraception and abortion are isolated physically, legally, and doctrinally from health care more generally—and how this isolation, this exceptionalism, injures women. Writing in 2016, for instance, she examined how courts and policymakers increasingly treat contraception and abortion as political or ideological choices rather than as health care choices, and how this shapes law and policy in ways that disadvantage women. Among other things, she anticipated the Court’s 2018 ruling in National Institute of Family and Life v. Becerra that invalidated, on First Amendment grounds, California law that required “pregnancy service centers” to disclose two sets of objectively verifiable facts to the pregnant women they sought to persuade to continue their pregnancies to term. First, the law required unlicensed pregnancy service centers to inform women seeking reproductive health care services that the centers are in fact unlicensed because they employ no health care professionals. Second, the law required licensed facilities to inform women that the state offers free or low-cost reproductive health care, including prenatal care, contraception, and abortion. In preliminarily enjoining California’s law, the Court’s 5-4 majority said not a word about how pregnant women would find this information helpful to their health care decisions; instead, it focused only on the interests of the speakers who resisted truthful disclosures while seeking to influence those women’s decisions (I’ve discussed the Court’s exceptionalist Free Speech Clause approach to these issues in more detail here).

Hill suggests that if all reproductive health care decisions—including the decision to prevent unintended pregnancy—were seen as medical matters, policymakers and courts might be slower to single out contraception and abortion for disadvantageous treatment. To this end, she urges that we understand reproductive health care through a medical framework that recognizes these as medical decisions, as well as through an equality framework that understands them as key to women’s political, social, and economic equality.

Essentially Elective furthers this body of work by examining the problem of reproductive health care exceptionalism as illustrated by states’ regulation of abortion in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This past spring, government officials in several states interpreted their states’ executive orders that halted the delivery of “elective,” “non-essential,” or “non-urgent” medical treatment to stop or indefinitely delay many (if not most) surgical, and sometimes medical, abortions.

Yet, as a statement by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists quickly made clear, “a delay of several weeks, or in some cases days, may increase the risks or potentially make [abortion] completely inaccessible. The consequences of being unable to obtain an abortion profoundly impact a person’s life, health, and well-being.” Shortly thereafter, the American Medical Association issued its own statement emphasizing that “physicians—not politicians—should be the ones deciding which procedures are urgent-emergent and need to be performed, and which ones can wait, in partnership with our patients.”

The states’ actions prompted litigation seeking emergency relief to keep abortion clinics open—litigation unnecessary to protect any other medical procedure during this period. The results in the federal courts of appeal were mixed: the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits protected a relatively wide range of abortion procedures from the orders’ interference, while the Fifth and Eighth Circuits permitted a smaller number of procedures to continue.

In the medical community, Hill tells us, the term “elective” simply refers to those procedures scheduled ahead of time. But policymakers and the public often understand the term to mean procedures like cosmetic surgery that are not medically necessary. In the abortion context more specifically, policymakers often refer to the overwhelming majority of abortions in the United States—that is, those where the woman decides to have an abortion for “reasons related to [her] unreadiness or inability to parent a child (or an additional child)”—as “elective.” Anticipating the possibility that Casey may soon be overturned (since the various opinions in June Medical make it hard to identify a majority of the current Court willing to preserve it), she predicts that some, perhaps many, states may respond with laws that prohibit “elective abortions” while permitting those deemed “medically necessary.” As Hill observes, “[t]his problematic definition of ‘elective’ abortion is a form of abortion exceptionalism, as it uniquely stigmatizes the abortion decision and adopts a concept of electiveness that would not apply to other surgeries. The notion that abortions chosen for particular reasons are somehow optional or non-therapeutic implies that the natural and expected course for all women is motherhood and that terminating a pregnancy is a ‘choice,’ but continuing one is not.”

To address the problem of reproductive health care exceptionalism, Hill proposes that we “integrate abortion into the health care framework by viewing patients’ abortion decisions as analogous to other patients’ health-care decisions.” To this end, she suggests that scholars and advocates avoid the use of “elective” in this context, and instead recognize that avoiding unwanted pregnancy is a medical decision with a wide array of physical, financial, social, and other life-shaping consequences.

The more we understand decisions about contraception and abortion as medical decisions, Hill concludes, the better to resist efforts to restrict access to reproductive health care—by rendering illusory the distinction between “medically necessary” and “elective” reproductive health care services and by empowering individual women and their health care providers to make these medical decisions free from the government’s second-guessing.

Cite as: Helen Norton, Reproductive Health Care Exceptionalism and the Pandemic, JOTWELL (November 9, 2020) (reviewing B. Jessie Hill, Essentially Elective: The Law and Ideology of Restricting Abortion During the Covid-19 Pandemic, 106 Va. L. Rev. Online 99 (2020)),

To Delegate or Not to Delegate: Celebrating a Scholarly Exchange About Originalism and the Nondelegation Doctrine

Ilan Wurman, Nondelegation at the Founding, 130 Yale L.J. __ (forthcoming 2020), available at SSRN.

A riveting originalist debate over the nondelegation doctrine is currently playing out in the legal academy. The nondelegation principle suggests, in part, that “Congress cannot delegate its legislative power to the executive.” In their recent article Delegation at the Founding, Professors Julian Mortenson and Nicholas Bagley argue that the framers originally understood the Constitution to permit such delegation. In a forthcoming essay in the Yale Law Journal, aptly titled Nondelegation at the Founding, Professor Ilan Wurman takes the opposite position.

As a policy matter, the answer to the question whether Congress can delegate some legislative power to the executive branch could have a profound effect on the way our federal government regulates various aspects of American life. Justice Kagan has warned that a robust application of the doctrine could lead to the conclusion that “most of Government is unconstitutional,” including the promulgation and enforcement of many consequential environmental, labor, and other regulations. Some proponents of the nondelegation doctrine reply that these and other regulations involve difficult policy choices that—in the interest of democratic accountability and the preservation of liberty—Congress should not be able to pass off to the executive branch.

Professors Mortenson and Bagley, as well as Professor Wurman, bracket these normative issues and explore a different question: At the time it was ratified, was the Constitution understood as prohibiting the delegation of legislative power from Congress to the executive? The answer is important. Multiple Justices on the current Supreme Court are originalists, meaning they believe “the constitutional text ought to be given the original public meaning that it would have had at the time that it became law.” Even Justice Kagan stated during her Supreme Court confirmation that “[w]e are all originalists.” While some would prefer a more outcome-based method, Justice Gorsuch explains that “[o]riginalism is a theory focused on process, not on substance.” And if that process yields a result that one dislikes? In the words of Justice Gorsuch: “So what?” If the evidence shows that nondelegation was indeed the rule at the founding, it follows that at least some members of the Court would seek to apply that restrictive rule to the modern administrative state.

To support their originalist pro-delegation claim, Professors Mortenson and Bagley cite numerous open-ended statutes passed after the ratification of the Constitution, and they discuss hundreds of years of pre-ratification history as well. They also offer other evidence to bolster their contention. Professor Wurman—the author of a book on originalism—counters their approach in part with a methodological critique, illustrating that originalism is not merely an exercise in throwing everything against the wall and hoping something sticks.

Professor Wurman frowns upon Professors Mortenson and Bagley’s “draw[ing of] one clean line between 1539, the British practices of the seventeenth century, the American practices under the states and the confederation government in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, and the constitutional moment of 1787–88.” He also lodges a more substantive set of specific critiques. He addresses all of the positive evidence that Professors Mortenson and Bagley cite, while reframing these examples as reflective of the existence of a bar on delegation at the founding. Professor Wurman not only provides needed context for a number of Professors Mortenson and Bagley’s examples, but also turns the tables on the professors. Professor Wurman makes the point that Delegation at the Founding “discount[s]” both “significant implicit evidence” and “overwhelming affirmative and explicit evidence of a widespread [founding-era] belief in a nondelegation doctrine.” Professor Wurman finds that, in the end, Professors Mortenson and Bagley hang their hats on a “paucity of affirmative and explicit evidence to the contrary.”

What is so remarkable about the Mortenson-Bagley/Wurman debate is the turf on which it is carried out. In both articles, the authors do a fine job of keeping the focus on distilling the original public meaning of nondelegation. Certainly, citizens can disagree about originalism’s results, but as Professor Wurman points out, Professors Mortenson and Bagley’s paper refreshingly “reflects a candid recognition that originalist work is possible.” In other words, the productive and illuminating back-and-forth here is a promising sign of things to come for those who are simply interested in the prospect of finding the correct answer as a matter of originalism when engaging in constitutional interpretation.

Professor Wurman’s work augments the originalist understanding of nondelegation in a significant way. Perhaps the essay’s most useful addition to the nondelegation debate is the more complete portrait it paints of James Madison as a true believer in the doctrine (and as someone whose views on the matter commanded support among his contemporaries). Professor Wurman cites a 1789 amendment that Madison proposed to the Constitution, arguments that Madison made with respect to early statutes (including nondelegation concerns that Madison raised during the Alien and Sedition Acts controversy), and other Madisonian writings and statements. Here, Professor Wurman takes on Professors Mortenson and Bagley directly, disputing their presentation of Madison as someone who argued against delegation mostly for convenience and held a minority view on the principle. To the contrary, he argues, the thread of Madison’s belief in the nondelegation principle runs through the early examples that the two essays discuss.

In a precursor to his essay, Professor Wurman concedes that Professors Mortenson and Bagley’s research may prove “that originalists . . . need to think more about the limitations of their current ‘private conduct’ theory of nondelegation,” which is a belief that all rules impacting private rights are legislative and Congress therefore cannot delegate the power to make any such rules. The correct understanding of the nondelegation doctrine, Professor Wurman posits, could turn out to be Chief Justice Marshall’s theory in the 1825 case of Wayman v. Southard that “there is a category of exclusively legislative power over ‘important subjects,’ but also a nonexclusive [and delegable] power to ‘fill up the details.’” Such a reading of the early evidence may well allow for some delegation, giving “more leeway to delegate on matters of official conduct than private conduct, . . . more leeway to delegate authority over public rights than over private rights, and . . . more leeway to delegate authority over means than over, say, jurisdictional or purpose questions.” Yet, Professor Wurman asserts, Professors Mortenson and Bagley’s statutory examples still do not necessarily disprove the prevailing private conduct theory. To be sure, Professors Mortenson and Bagley also make a meaningful contribution, adding nuance to the nondelegation debate and compiling an impressive set of historical evidence.

It remains to be seen whether and how this debate will influence nondelegation jurisprudence. Professor Wurman notes that in addition to early practice, other “scholarly defenses of nondelegation on originalist grounds have focused on constitutional structure, political theory and the likely understanding of what ‘the legislative power’ was thought to entail, and British constitutional struggles.” Moreover, practical considerations about administrability—even if merely as a background constraint—are sure to figure into judicial application of the nondelegation doctrine to an expansive, technocratic regulatory state that none of the framers would have recognized. At bottom, these essays are new pieces of a larger nondelegation puzzle. It appears that the Supreme Court is still working on putting together the loops and sockets of this consequential jigsaw.

The key line of Justice Gorsuch’s ringing dissent in the recent case of Gundy v. United States cited the words of nondelegation scholar Professor Gary Lawson: “If Congress could pass off its legislative power to the executive branch, the ‘[v]esting [c]lauses, and indeed the entire structure of the Constitution,’ would ‘make no sense.’” Professor Wurman’s thoughtful historical analysis suggests that the framers generally thought so, too. “Whatever readers decide about this conclusion, Professor Wurman’s article—alongside that of Professors Mortenson and Bagley—shows the depths of evidence and argument that are available in answering these and other questions through originalist methods.

Cite as: Eli Nachmany, To Delegate or Not to Delegate: Celebrating a Scholarly Exchange About Originalism and the Nondelegation Doctrine, JOTWELL (October 7, 2020) (reviewing Ilan Wurman, Nondelegation at the Founding, 130 Yale L.J. __ (forthcoming 2020), available at SSRN),

Zombie Sovereignty: Dead Idea, Eternal Life?

Don Herzog, Sovereignty, RIP (2020).

Don Herzog‘s new book exhorts its readers to face up to tough facts about the doctrine, purpose, and practice of sovereignty—and the irrelevance of that concept to legal argument. For anyone whose calling is to teach and develop the primary constitutional precepts aimed at taming state power—limiting it, dividing it, and making it accountable—Herzog’s book is a hair-raiser of a read, especially in light of the last four years of headlines. It is also a good text for anyone interested in political theory or constitutional doctrine.

In simple terms, sovereignty posits unitary, total command as a requirement to give us order. There must be one unaccountable source of law and of rules. Devised as a means of stopping bloody religious wars in Europe, and perhaps useful today where internal wars rage among sects, the idea has seen its time pass in liberal democracies. Sovereignty as an idea is no longer a means to resolve religious hatred without gore, but a problem of remnants here to make trouble. Unlike Mark Twain’s misreported departure, sovereignty’s death has been grossly underreported. Pronouncements of its obsolescence by the likes of St. George Tucker, Harold Laski, John Dewey, Hannah Arendt, and H.L. A. Hart (Pp. 265-68) have not had the clout to head off furtive moments of reliance on the classic theory. (P. xii.)

Although he wants, as have others done, to pronounce last rites over the idea, Herzog finds that sovereignty has a certain zombie-like persistence. His achievement is to demonstrate its vacuous, even nonsensical nature as an idea while demonstrating its pernicious continuing appeal. In his preface, he shows that any use of the term that omits the dangerous or vacuous parts leaves us with a capacious label that can describe anyone or anything at all. For me, that’s the scary part. The term is useless in argument or analysis, but like the undead, it persists.

Herzog helpfully draws the reader’s attention to the commitments—abstract in theory, terrifying in application—necessary to effectuate the big idea. Sovereignty as an idea with considerable staying power is simple enough, and, in these days of American carnage, it is an idea with a degree of popular appeal. First, sovereignty means we need control, and lots of it. Though who “we” are may not be always clear, Herzog proceeds to lay out the nature of the presumed need that we have. If you want social order, and we know many do, you need “a political actor (whether corporate or individual) whose authority is unlimited, undivided, and unaccountable.”

Expositors of sovereignty in the life of nations have adopted and advanced similar ideas and offered nominees to fill the role. Charles I of England considered the person of the king to be well suited to the job. Parliament differed, and applied new ideas about limits, sharing, and accountability. The English Civil War provided an early draft for Herzog of the discussions that might arise between practitioners of unlimited authority and adherents of something roughly constitutional in conception. Charles lost the debate—and the English Civil War—and died a martyr king. The Restoration (bringing in Charles II and countless paramours) continued the debate. While arguments raged, the importance to sovereignty of a well-provisioned army asserted itself once more.

Among the merits of the book are a nice account, in Herzog’s inimitably striking prose, of Charles’s efforts to effectuate his vision and the sad ending for Charles to the enterprise. One gains an appreciation of the phrase “heads will roll,” coming and going. Herzog treats us to a vivid description of the expressions of sovereignty inflicted by Charles II upon the restoration of the Stuart vision of sovereignty, in preference to the Cromwellian version that found a taste for military rule. Torture seemed well suited to making clear once more the prerogative of the monarchy, along with a son’s thirst for revenge. It also is a good demonstration of raw power.

Therein lies a bit of a puzzle about the book: why worry about the term, if raw power is all one needs? The irrelevance of the concept of sovereignty is made vivid in Herzog’s imaginary summary of the back and forth about ultimate, unlimited power between Charles and his prosecutors in his trial in the Rump Parliament. “A cartoonist could have drawn them sticking out their tongues at one another. ‘We are satisfied with our own Authority,’ said the lord president. ‘You have shown no lawful authority to satisfy any reasonable man,’ shot back the king.” In this example of a school-yard standoff between the King and “the people,” Herzog shows that sovereignty can do no work. He then shows with examples from claims by Presidents to immunity that they don’t quite have it either. Who has the guillotine has power, but is that a debate?

I pause here to note that Herzog spends most of his time in the territory of nation states and international law, what a nation can do to its citizens and claim immunity from restraint or redress, and whom it can torture. One reader, Jack Goldsmith, has argued, in effect, that Herzog does a fine job in that domain of demolishing the idea of sovereignty, but that the demolition seems not entirely needed. The bad things Herzog sees sovereignty as doing are accomplished quite nicely using other legal doctrines and applying the logic of power, which goes where it wishes. Goldsmith doubts that the doctrine does any additional harm, really, in legal cases or in what power does. Goldsmith is all ideas. Herzog likes examples that show us fruitless argument and inevitable power moving under sovereignty’s banner. He also explains that if the banners of sovereign rule, by a king or “the people,” can be finally furled and put away, we have ourselves, told to us in his story of “the efforts of actual people to solve actual problems.”

Where does the residual presence of a dead idea leave us? A couple of places. First, there is the social behavior connected to our continuing instinct to bow to power. President Charles Eliot of Harvard described its command over the human response to position well enough in the nineteenth century, without a needful mention of the idea of command over territory that Herzog describes as an element of the sovereign pretense. On becoming president, Eliot wrote: “Official station is a curious power. There is a lot of human nature in the saying à tout seigneur tout honneur; even when the signeur is a mean or inadequate person, the station is still sacred.”

Second, legal and other arguments are infected by both the idea and the behavior. Herzog gives us examples aplenty. He helps the reader link the debaters’ standoff in the trial of Charles I in seventeenth-century England to the idea that captured the imagination of Southerners claiming their rights as sovereign states and Northerners claiming a larger domain of sovereign right.

Despite all the blood, as Herzog narrates in his wonderfully but grimly memorable way, the affection for sovereignty theory and practice has retained believers. Herzog explains how the belief in the United States persists in the face of contradictory commitments to constitutions such as ours here. Two ancillary commitments in sovereignty theory makes plain its appeal to rulers. They are that, as noticed by president Eliot, “sovereignty is immensely dignified,” and that, as Southern theorists and enough Northerners to make a war maintained, “law is the command of the sovereign.” While the masses crave law and order, any person or entity (monarch, university board of governors, Pope) is apt to be drawn to the gratifications of dignity as immense and to the possession of command made law. (Can anyone say pardon power?)

This thought broadens the appeal of the book from persons whose primary concern is political theory, international law, and constitutional law to common readers. Herzog, with a little help I borrow from Eliot, lays a marker for a broader reflection on the claims to dignity and command. “It’s natural to read the classic theory of sovereignty as applying to monarchs. But I’ll take the theory as leaving open, as Hobbes explicitly does, just who holds sovereignty: the king, king-in-Parliament, or whatever else.” Herzog’s primary big game is government. As noted, “Sovereignty, as I’m treating it, is supposed to be a feature of part or all of the government.” “Whatever else” is the dangerously open term. Without needing the zombie itself as the big idea, the lingering life in these subcomponents may just be as pernicious as Herzog tells us it is.

As We the People have learned lately, the sovereignty feature at the executive level in the United States is enjoying a vogue, at the executive level. The principle of dignity, with immunity playing a supporting role, takes its expression in the expulsion of persons from various spots in government, e.g., the White House grounds (Col. Vindman), the F.B.I. (James Comey), and the embassy in Ukraine (Marie Yovanavitch).

To recognize that presidential immunity in the United States is not that of a sovereign, Herzog provides a guide to various parlor games that insulate the role somewhat, but not enough to make our president a sovereign. Simply explained, the man (yes, so far!) can be removed from office by a process having some connection to consent (albeit not quite the sovereignty of The People—nope, they are not sovereign either). But Herzog shows us some prosecutorial behavior that seems to demonstrate the staying power of sacred respect for the role: Nixon’s final prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, in the end, after Nixon’s resignation, had less fellow feeling for the jury of peers who sought to indict Nixon than he had remnants of deference to the man, however “mean or inadequate.” He vetoed the will of the grand jury, which was to indict Nixon.

So even as Herzog explains that sovereignty is not part of the legal armor of the President, the bit of life in it seems to do more work than constitutional contradictions of sovereignty promise. The book then is a bit of a brain-teaser. Herzog demolishes the concept as an idea and demonstrates how it is stymied in doctrine and in human argumentation, where either power or a less grandiose idea will prevail. The winner is either force or a form of reason that is not a sovereignty claim. Why murder a zombie? I think for Herzog, it is to give us back to ourselves. Forget high flown discourse of “metaphysics or ontology,” (P. xiii), first brought to us by Hobbes and embraced by thinkers who spelled out the need of subjection and, in the bargain, “awe of reverence” for a Royal Sovereign (Pp. 21-23) and come to earth where actual people solve actual problems.

Let Herzog show you why, as he devotes the book to scary stories of the harm sovereignty, dead or alive, has done and could do again. Since brain-teasers are worthwhile, and the book is a great read, providing little primers on history and bloodshed along with plenty of pedagogical oomph, it is a gift to readers. It is just the book for anyone in possession of broad interests or an immersion in nooks in scholarship of one kind or another, a love of learning, and a tolerance for gore.

Cite as: Mae Kuykendall, Zombie Sovereignty: Dead Idea, Eternal Life?, JOTWELL (September 11, 2020) (reviewing Don Herzog, Sovereignty, RIP (2020)),

Judicial Review and Emergency Powers

Lindsay Wiley and Stephen I. Vladeck, Coronavirus, Civil Liberties, and the Courts: The Case Against “Suspending” Judicial Review, 133 Harv. L. Rev. Forum __ (forthcoming, 2020), available at SSRN.

The coronavirus epidemic has raised urgent questions of constitutional rights and judicial review. In response to the pandemic, which has taken over 100,000 lives in the US and many more abroad, governments at all levels have enacted a host of policies that potentially threaten constitutional rights or butt against structural limits on government power. Numerous cases have been filed challenging some of these policies, arguing that they violate the Free Exercise of Religion and Free Speech clauses of First Amendment, the Second Amendment, constitutional protection for abortion rights, the Takings Clause, separation of powers principles, and other provisions of federal and state constitutions.How should we treat these claims? In particular, how should courts treat them?

In light of these questions, it’s hard to imagine a more timely and relevant constitutional law article than Lindsay Wiley and Steve Vladeck’s forthcoming article. In it, Wiley and Vladeck ask whether normal judicial review should be “suspended” during the ongoing pandemic.

In reviewing such challenges, should courts opt for “normal,” relatively non-deferential judicial review? Or should they give the government broad deference, so long as there is a minimally plausible emergency rationale for the challenged policy? Wiley and Vladeck call the latter approach the “suspension model,” and offer three powerful considerations that count against it.

First, they emphasize that the suspension idea implicitly assumes that the crisis will be temporary, with civil liberties and limitations on government power soon to be restored. But in reality, the crisis may go on for a long time, especially if no effective vaccine or treatment is developed for the disease. The seemingly “temporary” suspension could easily become a “new normal.” The authors note that this is a special danger with the coronavirus crisis because it could easily last for a long time, and because restrictions on civil liberties—in the form of mandatory closure and “social distancing” measures—are “central” to the policy response to the crisis.  Mass lockdowns that force millions of people to “shelter in place” and abjure most normal commercial and social interactions go far beyond anything seen in previous public health emergencies. The scale of restrictions on liberty makes it especially important to use judicial review to ensure they go no farther than necessary.

As the coronavirus crisis has developed over time, it has become clear that it might potentially involve multiple cycles of lockdowns and other restrictions on civil liberties. Even if initial emergency measures are loosened or lifted, they can potentially be reinstated later. That makes it all the more important to avoid assuming that the crisis is temporary and will end quickly. At this point, it is difficult or impossible to tell how long it might last.

Second, the suspension model is based on what they call “the oft-unsubstantiated assertion that ‘ordinary’ judicial review will be too harsh on government actions in a crisis—and could therefore undermine the efficacy of the government’s response.” Wiley and Vladeck contend that this assertion is unwarranted, and that most legitimate emergency measures can and do survive “ordinary” judicial scrutiny. The first wave of judicial decisions in the coronavirus cases suggests that Wiley and Vladeck are right. Courts that have applied “normal” judicial review have either upheld the challenged measures, struck down only limited aspects of them (as with decisions protecting gun rights or requiring the government to permit “drive-in” church services if they permit similar secular services), or invalidated the measures on separation-of-powers grounds that allow the state to reenact them if the legislature chooses to do so. Maintaining normal judicial review reduces the risk of pretextual policies and helps ensure that even well-intentioned ones do not overreach.

Finally—and in the authors’ view most importantly—the suspension model entirely fails to account for the importance of an independent judiciary in a crisis. The judiciary, they write, is “perhaps the only institution that is in any structural position to push back against potential overreaching by the local, state, or federal political branches.” Emergency situations are precisely when government power is often most likely to be abused. Rigorous judicial review can help prevent constitutional rights against assertions of emergency powers whose necessity is dubious, and whose claimed rationales often pretextual.

As Wiley and Vladeck emphasize, there is a long history of abuses of emergency powers, often legitimized by an over-deferential judiciary. The 1944 Korematsu case, in which the Supreme Court upheld the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is a particularly notorious example, long seen as “overruled in the court of history,” that the Supreme Court finally repudiated in 2018 as “gravely wrong the day it was decided.”

In many countries around the world, authoritarian leaders are using the pandemic as an excuse to expand their power and crush dissent. Liberal democracy is more firmly entrenched in the US than in countries like Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has exploited the crisis to consolidate authoritarian rule. But it would be naive to imagine we are immune from the tendency of governments to exploit crises for their benefit. To the contrary, we too have a long history of crises being used to undermine constitutional rights, subvert limits on government power, and target unpopular minorities. Those who fear (often with good reason) that Donald Trump and the GOP have significant authoritarian tendencies should be especially wary of assuming that coronavirus emergency measures should be exempt from normal judicial scrutiny.

But such concerns cut across party lines.  Recent events have raised serious concerns about the extent to which some public officials—including liberal Democrats—will go easy on enforcing rules against mass gatherings or protests when they agree with the cause they espouse, while condemning others. In some areas, officials who were quick to enforce restrictions against anti-lockdown protestors and religious gatherings have been unwilling to do so when it comes to recent protests against police brutality and racism – sometimes even openly supporting the latter. While the latter protests address a worthy cause, it is dangerous for the government’s reactions to mass gatherings to be dictated by the viewpoints those gatherings support.

Indeed, the genuinely severe nature of the current health crisis may actually make the threat of exploitation even greater, as the severity of the danger makes Americans more willing to sacrifice constitutional rights to address it, and less likely to closely scrutinize government actions enacted in response.

One standard critique of non-deferential judicial review in such situations is that judges may lack the specialized expertise needed to assess emergency policy. Few if any judges have expertise in epidemiology or public health. But anti-coronavirus policies are, in most cases, enacted by politicians who themselves are not experts. They can, of course, rely on advice provided by such experts. But the same is true of judges exercising the power of judicial review, who routinely consider testimony and other evidence submitted by scientists and other experts of various kinds.

If the government’s policies really are based on strong scientific evidence, then they should be able to prove that in court, without any special judicial deference. Wiley and Vladeck rightly point out that robust judicial review can actually incentivize the government to improve the quality of the evidence it relies on, to provide greater specificity in its explanations of the purposes restrictions on civil liberties are intended to achieve, and to take greater care to ensure that those restrictions do not go too far.

If lack of technical expertise were a justification for suspending normal judicial review, it would apply to a vast range of cases, not just challenges to public health policies. The same rationale can be (and often is) used to justify broad deference in the fields of immigration, national security policy, and almost any other government action that addresses a complex issue. In many of these fields too, the government can and does claim that its constitutionally questionable policies are necessary to save lives, and that those policies are based on specialized expertise that courts are not qualified to assess. (I explain in greater detail why such arguments for special deference should be rejected here.)

The emergency argument for judicial deference should be distinguished from claims that some constitutional rights claims are just generally wrong, or that the right in question generally deserves little judicial protection. Many conservatives, for example, take that view of abortion rights, and many on the left have a similar view when it comes to gun rights. If you believe that gun rights claims or abortion rights claims are wrong irrespective of whether there is a public health emergency going on, then by all means make that argument. But we should resist the temptation to argue that rights claims we dislike should be excluded from normal judicial review because of the need to defer to the government’s judgment in emergency situations. The same rationale can easily be used to gut judicial protection for rights you do care about, especially in a society where judges and government officials have diverse views. Those who live by the sword of special deference in emergency situations can all too easily die by it.

One notable issue that Wiley and Vladeck do not consider is the changing ideological valence of arguments for the “suspension” model they criticize. During the Cold War and the War on Terror, it was primarily conservatives who argued for special deference based on the existence of an emergency situation and the government’s supposed possession of specialized expertise. Liberals viewed such claims with great skepticism. With a few exceptions (such as challenges to restrictions on abortion), left and right have almost completely changed places when it comes to legal challenges to coronavirus emergency measures. In this context, much of the left accepts arguments for judicial deference that they vehemently rejected when it comes to national security threats; the right has gone in the opposite direction. Wiley and Vladeck are unusual in maintaining a consistent stance on judicial review during both sets of emergencies. Future research should consider why such consistency is rare.

Wiley and Vladeck’s analysis does not by itself tell us how any particular legal challenge to coronavirus emergency measures should be resolved. But they do explain why courts should not abjure normal judicial review in favor of the suspension model. That insight is essential for as long as this crisis lasts—and will be valuable for future emergencies, as well. Sadly, this one is unlikely to be the last.

Parts of this piece are adapted from a post at the Volokh Conspiracy law and politics blog, affiliated with Reason.

Cite as: Ilya Somin, Judicial Review and Emergency Powers, JOTWELL (June 29, 2020) (reviewing Lindsay Wiley and Stephen I. Vladeck, Coronavirus, Civil Liberties, and the Courts: The Case Against “Suspending” Judicial Review, 133 Harv. L. Rev. Forum __ (forthcoming, 2020), available at SSRN),