Monday, April 6, 2015
Is it possible to be in favor of a constitutional vote and against amending the Constitution to add it? Yes. This paper argues that the amendment game is not worth the candle. There are two stages for ensuring a robust right to vote: amending the Constitution, and enforcing that amendment. As to the first stage, if an amendment enshrining the right to vote looks anything like its cognates in the Constitution, it will be thinly described, maddeningly vague, and pushed forward by self-interested politicians. If the amendment takes this form, the benefits reformers and academics assert we’ll reap are anything but automatic. Once a vague guarantee is embedded in the Constitution (Stage 1), reformers will still have to turn to legislators and courts to get something done (Stage 2).
Making the text more concrete may make Stage 2 easier, but it will complicate efforts to pass the amendment in the first place. After all, if it were easy to enfranchise former felons or block voter ID rules or guarantee a well-administered election system or end partisan gerrymandering, we would presumably have done it already. It’s possible, of course, that reformers could aim for something more than vague language, either by writing their aims explicitly into the text or creating an amendment history so robust that everyone understands what the right embodies. On this view, reformers would build a big tent of supporters by linking the amendment to lots of different reforms. The problem with this strategy is that it will also generate a big tent on the other side. Push for felon enfranchisement, and you’ll run up against the tough-on-crime lobby. Tempt progressives with a ban on voter ID and lose the support of many Republicans. Promise to end gerrymandering and lose the support of most incumbents. That’s why a vague textual guarantee is so tempting an option in Stage 1, even if it creates more work for Stage 2. For these reasons, it makes more sense to pour political resources into more discrete reform projects going forward.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
This essay grapples with a previously unexamined feature of the death penalty: temporal arbitrariness. How does the circumstance of time affect capital defendants? What might this mean for the stability of our notions of justice? I explore these questions using a 25-year-old death penalty trial as a case study, examining the procedural and factual highlights of the case and situating it in its temporal milieu. I then explore how the roles of doctrine, policy, and cultural attitudes would dramatically alter the nature and probable outcome of the case today, illustrating how temporal arbitrariness further exposes the death penalty’s unsteady administration and indeed, its crumbling legitimacy.
Yesterday, Utah governor Gary Herbert signed into law a bill providing for state executions by firing squad. As AP reports:
Utah lawmakers say they took a pragmatic approach in approving the firing squad as a form of execution if lethal-injection drugs aren't available.
Their thinking: Develop a backup plan in case a nationwide lethal-drug shortage persists.
But critics say bringing back the firing squad in Utah - the only state to use the method in the past 40 years - could tarnish the state's image with visitors.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
"Civil Disobedience, State Action, and Lawmaking Outside the Courts: Robert Bell's Encounter with American Law"
This article uses the well-known case of Robert Bell, who was convicted of trespass in one of the important sit-in cases of the 1960s and ended his career as Chief Justice of the Maryland Court of Appeals, to offer some thoughts about the state action doctrine, conflicts between law and morality, and outsider claims on the legal system. It critiques three conventional readings of Bell’s case, and his seemingly unlikely subsequent career.
Employing a historical analysis of the state action doctrine, which was the central issue when Bell’s case reached the Supreme Court, it argues that the case that supposedly originated the doctrine – the Civil Rights Cases decision of 1883 – did no such thing.
In addition, this article questions the view of cases like Bell’s as presenting a sharp conflict between law and morality, arguing that it is not even clear that Bell was violating Maryland’s trespass law.
Finally, the article questions a now-common way of making sense of the arc of Bell’s career – one which would see his rise to the Chief Justiceship as an example of “agency,” in which outsider views of law become, over time, accepted by the legal system. Bell’s case, it will be argued here, has a far more complicated set of lessons to teach, if we discard some conventional ways of reading it.