Wednesday, October 01, 2014
Life is short
Thanks to Howard for the introduction and to him and all of the permaprawfs for letting me guest here this month. I had expected to thank Dan, of course, who asked in May if I would do another guest stint (my last one was a number of years ago), and so it was oddly comforting that the actual invitation from typepad to begin blogging had the subject line, "Dan Markel has invited you to join PrawfsBlawg." I have had similar messages before, automated from accounts connected with friends or family members who have passed away. I like these messages from the ether, like a friendly wave from the other side.
I didn't intend for my first post to be so sentimental, but night before last a woman in my circle of friends passed away, and her husband and other friends have been writing about her decision to end treatment that would not cure her so that she could live her remaining days as fully as possible with her family. It's a good reminder to work in the things that matter all of the time. And so, in her honor and as a reminder for all of us, here is a link to the poem that she asked her husband to read at her memorial service, On Living by Nazim Hikmet, which begins:
Living is no joke,
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel for example,
I mean expecting nothing except and beyond living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation. . . . .
Friday, September 26, 2014
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
The Washington Redskins, the Lanham Act, and Article III
As the Associated Press reported yesterday, the five Native Americans who prevailed earlier this year before the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) in their effort to have the Washington Redskins' trademarks cancelled have now moved to dismiss the lawsuit that the Redskins ("Pro-Football, Inc.") filed against them in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1071(b)(4). As I endeavor to explain in the post that follows, it certainly appears that their motion should be granted--and the Redskins' lawsuit dismissed either because the Lanham Act doesn't actually authorize such a suit, or, insofar as it does, it trascends Article III's case-or-controversy requirement in this case.
I. The Lanham Act's Cause of Action for "Adverse" Parties
In their Complaint in Pro-Football, Inc. v. Blackhorse, the Redskins explained that they were seeking:
an Order of this Court: (1) reversing the TTAB Order scheduling the cancellation ofthe Redskins Marks; (2) declaring that the word "Redskins" or derivations thereof contained in the Redskins Marks, as identifiers ofthe Washington, D.C. professional football team, do not consist of or comprise matter that may disparage Native Americans; (3) declaring that Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a),is unconstitutional, both on its face and as applied to Pro-Football by the TTAB, under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and is void for vagueness; (4) declaring that the TTAB Order violates Pro-Football's rights under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; and (5) declaring that Defendants' petition for cancellation in the TTAB challenging the Redskins Marks under Section 2(a) was barred at the time it was brought by the doctrine of laches.
But whereas the Redskins' Complaint routinely describes their lawsuit as an "appeal" of the decision by the TTAB (where it wouldn't be that weird to have the complaining party before the TTAB--the Blackhorse defendants--as the putative appellees), the Lanham Act actually authorizes something else altogether--a standalone, new civil action against an "adverse party" so long as that party was "the party in interest as shown by the records of the United States Patent and Trademark Office at the time of the decision complained of." The problem with application of that provision here, as the motion to dismiss quite persuasively explains, is that it's not at all clear how the defendants here are "the party in interest," at least in light of the specific nature of the Redskins' challenge:
Ordinarily, the adverse parties in an opposition or cancellation proceeding before the TTAB are two businesses claiming rights to the same or similar trademarks. Thus, when a party dissatisfied with a decision of the TTAB brings actions under 15 U.S.C. § 1071(b)(4), it is usually involved in a dispute with a business that uses a similar trademark, with the parties often joining claims for trademark infringement, unfair competition and other causes of action.
Here in contrast, there's no such relationship, and "PFI does not allege any wrongdoing on the part of the Blackhorse Defendants. PFI does not allege that they breached a contract, committed a tort, or violated any law. Instead, PFI’s allegations are directed solely against the USPTO and PFI seeks relief only against the USPTO." In effect, the Redskins' claim is that the TTAB wrongly cancelled their trademarks--which, for better or worse, has rather little to do at this point with the complainants who initiated the cancellation proceedings in the first place. Thus, it certainly appears as if 15 U.S.C. § 1071(b)(4) does not in fact provide the Redskins with a cause of action against the Blackhorse defendants--and that the suit should be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
II. The Case-or-Controversy Requirement
But imagine, for a moment, that the Lanham Act does so provide--and that § 1071(b)(4) actually authorizes this suit. The motion to dismiss argues that, so construed, the Lanham Act would violate Article III's case-or-controversy requirement, and that seems right to me--albeit for slightly different reasons than those offered by the Blackhorse defendants.
The motion argues that "The Blackhorse Defendants’ legal and economic interests are not affected by the registration cancellations and they will not be affected by this litigation." But I think the case-or-controversy defect here goes to the Redskins' Article III standing. After all, it's black-letter law that a plaintiff must allege (1) a personal injury [“injury in fact”]; (2) that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s allegedly wrongful conduct [“causation”]; and (3) that is likely to be redressed by the requested relief [“redressability”]. Although the Redskins were clearly injured, it's not at all clear to me how the Redskins satisfy either the causation or redressability prongs.
On causation, as should be clear from the above recitation of the Redskins' claims, none of them even as alleged in the Complaint run against the Blackhorse defendants--who were the complaining parties before the TTAB. After all, even though they initiated the proceeding that produced the TTAB order the Redskins seek to challenge, they did not themselves issue that order, nor are they a competing business somehow reaping financial or noneconomic advantage from the deregistration of the Redskins' trademark.
As for redressability, neither the TTAB nor the Director of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office are parties to the Redskins' suit, and so it is impossible to see how the relief the Redskins are seeking could be provided by the Blackhorse defendants. Again, one can imagine a different set of facts where the adverse party before the TTAB could have both (1) caused the plaintiff's injuries; and (2) be in a position to redress them, but I just don't see how either is true, here. It's certainly odd to think that the defect in this suit goes to the Redskins' standing--after all, if nothing else is clear, the Redskins are certainly injured by the TTAB's cancellation decision. But standing isn't just about the plaintiff being injured by a party nominally connected to the injury...
III. The Equities
Finally, although the motion to dismiss doesn't make this point, there's an equitable point here that I think deserves mention. Whatever the merits of the TTAB's underlying ruling, I have to think that the Lanham Act was not designed to disincentive individuals like the Blackhorse defendants from bringing non-frivolous claims seeking the cancellation of registered trademarks on the ground that they are disparaging. But if the Redskins are right, here, then any party that pursues such a proceeding before the TTAB is necessarily opening itself up to the (rather substantial) costs of a new federal civil action if it prevails, even when the subject-matter of the suit is simply an effort to relitigate the TTAB's underlying cancellation decision. (All the more so because the standard of review in the new lawsuit is de novo, with full discovery.)
Such a result strikes me not only as unwise, but as not possibly being what Congress could have intended when it enacted § 1071(b)(4). Indeed, in many ways, the Redskins' claims sure seem analogous to a SLAPP suit--all the more so when you consider that the Redskins could have, but did not, directly appeal the TTAB ruling to the Federal Circuit.
Posted by Steve Vladeck on September 23, 2014 at 08:47 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Corporate, Culture, Current Affairs, Intellectual Property, Steve Vladeck | Permalink | Comments (2)
Tuesday, July 08, 2014
Thoughts on Work-Life ImBalance from Those Left Behind
Friends, I suspect many of you recall the world's light dimmed in the aftermath of Andrew "Taz" Taslitz's untimely death earlier this year. Andy made the world brighter through his ebullient spirit, infectious laughter, and tireless work on behalf of improving the criminal justice system and the lawyers thrust into its maw.
Since it's summer time and many readers of the blog are just beginning their teaching careers, I thought I'd share a post of Taz's widow, Patty Sun. This is reproduced with her permission from Facebook:I'll post this on Andy's FB page because I'm not sure anyone reads mine anymore, and while this can apply to anyone, it's really addressed to law professors. In the past 4 months I have kept seeing accolades to Andy's amazing productivity - the 100+ articles, the zillions of case books, etc., and I have always told people that yes, he led a normal life, yes, he got plenty of sleep and yes, he even took plenty of naps.
But that's not really true. His life was not normal, at least not to me, and it certainly wasn't balanced. Yes, I know he genuinely loved his work and yes, I know he had a brilliant and unusual mind, and yes, I know he was cut down in his prime when he still had so much more to give.
But all of that came with a price. Not the teaching or the mentoring, but all that scholarship. A few years ago the chair of some symposium set an absolute deadline for everyone to get their drafts in, and by then, even I knew that academics never did that, so I told him to relax and finish it at a normal pace. So what did he do instead? He sacrificed an entire weekend and worked 12 hours both Saturday and Sunday, because damn it, HE was going to submit his draft in on time. So of course what happened? NO ONE else was even close to done by the deadline so the chair had to give everyone else a long extension. And did he mind? Not really, because it just freed up more time for him to do another encyclopedia entry or edit another friend's manuscript.
So what was the price in the end? In the entire time we were married we only took a two-week vacation once, and just about every vacation we did take was wrapped around one of his conferences or presentations. The furthest he went on each of his two sabbaticals was his front bedroom, because he spent every single day on his manuscripts. He turned down trips to China, to South Africa, to Japan, and most impressively to me, he twice turned down a chance to be an observer at Guantanamo. Of course he always had different reasons - S. Africa wasn't safe, the timing of the China trip was bad, etc., but I knew the real reason was he didn't want to take time away from work.
It was only the last vacation we took, to Vermont two years ago, that truly had no relation to his work, and then last year when we finally booked a 2 week cruise to Alaska we had to cancel it after they found his tumor a month before we were supposed to go.
So in the end how do I feel about his productivity? Yes, he enjoyed it, but he also killed himself trying not to disappoint people or to break deadlines.
And as I sit here with the dogs on July 4th, I think was it really that important to add one more book review to his CV or to do one more tenure letter as a favor for someone he never met? I'm glad his peers all loved him for the reliable genius that he was, and I don't know how he feels wherever he is now, but I am very, very bitter.
Yes, he was a great academic mentor and collaborator, but the price for all that frenzied output was me, and there's a part of me that will never forgive him for it, because he died right after he promised to slow down and enjoy life itself more.
So think about it, members of the "academy." All that talk about US News rankings and SSRN citations. Do you REALLY think stuff like that is life and death to your loved ones? I think most of them would sacrifice one more line on your resume for one more day of quality time with you. I know I would. But it's a bargain I can't make any more.
I know that pre-tenure and post-tenure are different worlds, but in Andy's case getting tenure didn't relax him a bit. It only spurred him on to work harder to prove, I think mostly to himself, that he really did deserve it. And it never stopped, because he could always find another reason to choose work over play, becoming active in the ABA, signing on to yet another new project where he could work with good friends or meet exciting new people, and of course lately, brainstorming ways to keep his law school competitive.
I'm not saying Freud was wrong when he said you need both love and work to be happy; in fact, my own work is one of the factors in keeping me sane now, but I believe equally strongly in the Golden Mean. I know that Mean differs for everyone, but Andy always found a reason to keep the needle tilted very far to the work end. I know that kept him happy, but love always involves other people, and anyone who cares about that other part of the equation would do well to remember that if you always decide to choose the work side of the balance you run the risk of having no balance at all.
Friday, June 27, 2014
From Posner's recent long and fascinating interview:
"I've changed my views a lot over the years. I'm much less reactionary than I used to be. I was opposed to homosexual marriage in my book Sex and Reason, published in 1992, which was still the dark ages regarding public opinion of homosexuality. Public opinion changed radically in the years since. My views have changed about a lot of things. I've become much more concerned with long prison sentences; softer on drugs; more concerned with consumer protection, the environment and economic inequality; less trustful of purely economic analysis—the last partly because of the crash of 2008 and the ensuing economic downturn. That shook some of my faith in economic analysis. And developments in psychology have required qualification of the "rational choice" model of economic behavior. So my views have changed a lot. You don't want a judge who takes a position and feels committed to it because he thinks it's terrible to change one's mind."
I remember Posner's Holmes' lectures at HLS a bazillion years ago, when he suggested that it's not likely that philosophers will be able to change the moral positions of many people who read their work. I'm wondering if in light of the identified changes above, he would change his mind about *that* and attribute any of the changes to having been persuaded by normative legal/political theory--maybe having Martha Nussbaum as his friend and colleague has had some effect too. Anyway, it's an interesting array of things to have changed one's mind about, and I guess the fact that Posner changes his mind publicly is a reason I quite like him. One of my intellectual heroes, Jeffrie Murphy, made a noble career out of changing his mind, seemingly every six months, about matters of punishment theory. Posner's public volte-face (or other admissions) strikes me as the self-laceration we academics should all be willing to inflict when the situation warrants.
P.S. In related Posner-watching, I couldn't help but notice his reaction in Slate to Orin and by extension to Riley v. California, which amounts basically to: "Pfft. What's the BFD? I wrote that opinion two years ago."
Update: I just came across this sharp response to the Posner piece in Slate by Will Baude.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
Marital Infidelity and the Public/Private Divide
I've just read this U.S. News editorial, suggesting that the American public has come full circle in its approach toward infidelity of public figures. It echoes some thoughts I had after watching a few episodes of Scandal, House of Cards, and The Good Wife. All three shows are deeply invested in exploring the public/private divide, and in particular, the connection between sexual infidelity and public political performance. But each of the shows does it a bit differently.
If the editorial is right, then we've seen the rise and fall of American concern with infidelity--from the indifference toward Kennedy's extramarital affairs to today's indifference to Vance McAllister's kiss. And during the heyday It seems that the combined message from the Clinton, Wiener, Spitzer, Petreaus et al. affairs is that evidence of marital infidelity has some bearing on one's function as a public citizen.
To try and understand why, let me borrow a seemingly-unrelated exaple: the Paul Ryan sub-3 marathon lie. While the fib itself was ridiculous--as an endurance athlete, the idea that Ryan wouldn't remember if he ran a 3-hour or a 4-hour marathon is utterly ludicrous to me; I remember my time in big races down to the seconds and so does everyone else I know--it did make me wonder what possible reason a vice-president-hopeful would have to brag, truthfully or falsely, about an athletic achievement. Presumably, the ability to effectively run the affairs of the state doesn't depend on one's physical endurance. Except for the following:
1) Our gendered perception of leadership means that a male politician's performance is a reflection of his masculine prowess, which includes impressive athleticism.
2) Running a marathon, especially in an impressive time, is a task that requires dedication, discipline, self-deprivation - all qualities that fit our somewhat Calvinist idea of good leadership.
3) We look for something admirable and cool in people we vote for - we want to like them as people. Therefore, any trivia about their personal life that makes them look good is acceptable and vice versa.
Similarly, it would seem that, if marriage infidelity is a problem for people holding public office, it's because it tells us something about their ability to lead. Let's see if the Paul Ryan rationales I thought about hold up:
1) How we treat infidelity is closely related to our construction of masculinity. Is a "real man" one who holds "decent family values", which include sexual fidelity, or one who possesses sexual prowess and is attractive? The media might've had something to do with the difference in which Kennedy and Clinton were treated for their respective indiscretions, but it's also about changing times and changing perceptions of masculinity.
2) As far as what we can learn from people's private behavior about their public performance, look at this interesting poll. Apparently, in the aftermath of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, "the American public has substantially changed its view of Clinton as an individual but barely readjusted its perception of President Clinton as a political leader." If public opinion changed later, it was because of the concerted top-down effort made by Ken Starr to blemish Clinton and push for an impeachment hearing.
Think, on the other hand, about Petreaus, whose professional capability and talent was never in question (he's doing fairly well in academia and consulting). There was some effort to argue that his infidelity reflects serious problems with the ability to keep secrets and confidentiality, which had direct bearing on his military position.
3) Take a look at this anti-Harold Ford ad:
Yes, there's some effort to tie his sexual indiscretions to his political performance, but you know what? It's mostly about communicating the message that he's simply sketchy, unpleasant, unlikeable.
There seems to be a lot of top-down media messaging about this in an effort to either predict how "ordinary Americans" feel about infidelity or dictate their opinion. And in that respect, it may be that real media reports of infidelity are not all that different in their messaging agenda than fictional ones. And as in real life, the messaging in fiction is far from consistent. In three shows that make politician infidelity the focus of the plot, it's treated in three dramatically different ways:
The Good Wife plays a lot with, but does not fully problematize, the political double standard. It's fairly clear that the protagonist's husband, a politician caught in a prostitute scandal, has committed an original sin, and the show consistently portrays him in an unsympathetic light. By contrast, his separated-but-not-yet-divorced wife, who is clearly attracted to her boss but does not consummate this attraction, is portrayed very positively. Lots of gender double standard here, and lots of equating people's private behavior and public performance.
Scandal hammers a self-contradictory message in on each episode: Cheating is the ultimate original sin; nothing is worse; while murder, political corruption, and a million other pecadillos can be "fixed", sexual infidelity is the ultimate dealbreaker, understood implicitly as a valid and legitimate reason to end a marriage. At the same time, virtually every episode offers an example of sexual indiscretion, highlighting the message that this is prevalent, natural, and inevitable behavior. So, common and unavoidable, while simultaneously being condemned and unforgivable. This is a particularly interesting message in a show that attempts to portray a mild Republican presidency in a post-racist, post-homophobic world (the Chief of Staff is openly gay, married to his partner, and has adopted a baby; a powerful wheeler-and-dealer is a Black woman.) We've presumably done away with race and sexual orientation, but sexual hypocrisy is alive and well.
Finally, House of Cards has a Macbeth-like instrumental approach to politicians and sexual indiscretions: for the reigning couple, if they use their indiscretions wisely and adopt a "don't-ask-don't-tell" approach about them at home, it's all part of their general political ruthlessness. The extramarital sex in itself is not a moral failing; it's merely another expression of the corruption, selfishness, and ruthless ambition.
What to make of all this? Has television made us more indifferent to marital infidelity, or were we always pretty indifferent and just swayed by top-down smear campaigns? I'm not sure. I also haven't done a Democrat-vs-Republican scandal analysis, and I also don't know if the media's tendency to smear some people and to ignore others' infidelities has to do with other markers of class and charisma. You tell me. But I find this an interesting case study of how indicia of personality--if marital infidelity provides such indicia--are used in contradictory and complex ways to construct people's public image.
many thanks to Jonathan Korman for his interesting thoughts and contributions to this post.
Friday, June 13, 2014
The Two Newest Faces of the Problem with the Lack of the Rule of Law - a Newborn and a 20-month Old
As a tangential follow-up to my previous post concerning the use of a crime against humanity charge as a way to bolster the rule of law, another heart-wrenching story is gaining international attention.
Meet Maya, the first U.S. citizen to be born in a Sudanese prison while her mother was shackled to prison walls. Meet Martin, Maya's twenty-month old bother, who is probably the second youngest U.S. citizen to be sitting in a Sudanese prison. Their father is a U.S. citizen. Their mother is Meriam Ibrahim, a doctor and a Sudanese citizen, who has been sentenced by a Sudanese court to 100 lashes for adultery because she married a non-Muslim man and to death by hanging (once Maya is weaned) for apostasy for refusing to denounce her Christian faith. Ibrahim was found guilty of apostasy because it was determined that she was Muslim even though she testified she was Christian and raised by her Christian mother when her Muslim father abandoned the family. The trial raises due process issues since three of Ibrahim's witnesses were not allowed to testify.
There are clear human rights violations and violations of Sudanese law. Ibrahim's imprisonment violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which, since Sudan has ratified the treaty, guarantees that all Sudanese citizens "have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion" and due process of law. Sudan has also ratified the African Charter on Human and People's Rights which also guarantees freedom of religion and due process. Indeed, Sudan's own 2005 interim constitution specifically guarantees the "right and freedoms enshrined in international human rights treaties" ratified by Sudan. Ibrahim's case (and the impact on her children) graphically illustrates the rule of law problem - the laws are in place but not enforced.The pressure from the international community caused some movement, albeit ineffectual as it currently stands. A few weeks ago the Sudanese government pledged Ibrahim's release, but recanted a few days later. This probably is not surprising given the government is headed by Omar al-Bashir who has an outstanding ICC warrant for CAH for his actions in Darfur. What can be done? What should be done? Perhaps with continued and more world-wide pressure (which should be headed by the U.S. given that some of the youngest U.S. citizens - Maya and Martin - are sitting in deplorable conditions), there might be another small step forward even if it simply means more discussion about and attention given to the lack of the rule of law and the consequential human rights violations of women and children. More legal attention and monetary support should be put in place to uphold the rule of law.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
What teaching issues are you thinking about this summer?
Our faculty is having a lunch discussion this week about teaching. I simply love to teach. And, as a newly tenured professor who recently went through the tenure process, I have been reflecting a lot on my teaching. There are many areas where I could improve. In particular, this summer I have been thinking about the following three issues. While these matters have been previously discussed, I am interested in your current thoughts on each (and any other teaching issues on your mind this summer):
1. Unprepared Students: To this day, every time I call on a student, my heart skips a beat in hopes that the student is prepared. Sometimes I think I am as nervous as the students before I call out a name. I do feel that it is essential students learn that they must be prepared. I have heard of different ways to deal with unprepared students. Some professors wait for the student to read the case during class. Others assign reading panels for the week. Others call on students in alphabetical order. I am old school - I randomly cold call. If I do call on a student who is unprepared, I require them to call on another student to cover for them (like a life line). My hope is that the fear of being forced to put another student in the hot seat is scarier than coming to class unprepared. I have had moderate success with this approach. I have also toyed with counting unprepared students absent for the day. I would be interested to hear what others do.2. Internet Use During Class: I think I may have somewhat given up on this. I try to call on students who are obviously surfing the web during class discussion. But, to be honest, when I was a law student I attempted to multitask in class too - I just didn't have the internet, but I did have crossword puzzles, letters and notes to write, readings for other classes to catch up on, etc. So, sometimes I feel a little hypocritical when I make too big of a deal about surfing the web during class. In one small seminar class, I didn't allow computers, and for that small class it worked very well. I had the most engaging student discussions when laptops were closed. I haven't tried the no computer rule with a big class yet. I am hesitant to do so because I often use the web during class discussion to look up statutes and other materials. Also, students have case briefs and other prepared materials on their computers and need access to them. But, I have toyed with the idea of a "no computer week." Has anyone done this and was it successful?
3. Taking Too Many Notes: This point is somewhat tied to #2 above. Recently, there was an interesting study that determined that students do better when they handwrite lecture notes rather than typing them. Basically, the study pointed out that people tend to type faster than write, so they are less judicious in what they type than what they write. Until I read this study, I hadn't given this matter a lot of thought. Perhaps I should be encouraging students to handwrite class notes.
Tuesday, June 03, 2014
The Internet and Violence on Campus
I want to thank Dan Markel and everyone at PrawfsBlawg for the opportunity to guest blog this month. As a regular reader, I am honored to officially join the conversation.
Because of the recent tragedy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where Elliot Rodger murdered six students, I have been thinking a lot about violence in school. Although Rodger wasn't a current student and didn't use the internet to threaten one specific individual, his video messages posted on YouTube were clearly directed at students at the school. I have written about the intersection of the internet and school violence, but my focus was on K-12 public schools, not public universities. These cases raise complex First Amendment and due process challenges. When does a public school have the authority (or the requirement) to regulate off-campus speech that bullies or threatens other students or school officials? As for K-12 public schools, the courts are all over the board in their decisions and the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue. Because the pedagogical goals are different in college than in K-12 school, these issues become even more complex in the public university setting.
In a recent case, Tatro v. University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that a public university could discipline a student enrolled in a professional program for posting inappropriate comments on Facebook that violated her academic program rules without impinging on her free speech rights. The University disciplined Tatro, who was enrolled in the undergraduate mortuary science program, for posting off-colored remarks about a cadaver in an embalming lab. The Court only sided with the University because the University's rules were narrowly tailored and directly related to the professional conduct standards of the student's program. Although this case did not raise issues about violent comments created off-campus, it does bring to the forefront issues that desperately need resolution.
First, does the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District standard, which, in part, allows schools to regulate speech that substantially impinges upon the rights of others, apply to speech that students make off-campus and post on the internet? If so, does that same standard apply to college students? I have argued that the Tinker standard should apply to K-12 public schools, but the analysis seems different for public universities. Not only are most college students legally adults who should be afforded more speech protection than minors given their presumed cognitive development, but colleges themselves are supposed to be bastions for the free exchange of ideas. Thus, even if the Tinker standard applies to off-campus speech in the university setting, the bar should be much lower. But, even with a lower bar, college officials should be required to take action when there are threats or extreme bullying - of course, what constitutes "extreme bullying" (my phrase) raises a host of other issues.
Given this digital age and that social-networking sites pervade people's daily lives, students will undoubtedly continue to use the internet as the forum in which to air grievances, bully, make threats, and even post suicide notes. I would be interested to hear what others think about how schools should respond to these issues.
Saturday, May 31, 2014
How do we know that the version of any case, statute or regulation we read is an accurate one
The recent kurfuffle about Supreme Court Justices changing the text of already released opinions raises the larger question of how we can ever know whether the version of any statute or case or regulation we are reading is the “final one.” It also highlights the problem of of linkrot that is also affecting the reliability of judicial opinions.
Given how important a problem it can be if the text we rely on is wrong, its interesting that authenticating information places no role in the legal curriculum. I never gave it a thought until one of my dissertation advisors asked me to write a methodology section that explained to lay readers “where statues and opinions come from” and “how do we know they are reliable.” Here's a highly abbreviated version with some helpful links (reliable as of posting, May 31, 2014).
For statutes, all roads led to the National Archives and the Government Printing Office which operates the FDYS. The National Archives operates the Office of the Federal Register (OFR), which receives laws directly from the White House after they are signed by the U.S. President..” The accuracy of these texts is assured by “[t]he secure transfer of files to GPO from the AOUSC [that] maintains the chain of custody, allowing GPO to authenticate the files with digital signatures.”
The GPO assures us that it “uses a digital certificate to apply digital signatures to PDF documents. In order for users to validate the certificate that was used by GPO to apply a digital signature to document, a chain of certificates or a certification path between the certificate and an established point of trust must be established, and every certificate within that path must be checked." Good news.
The GPO has developed a system of “Validation Icons”--explained further on the Authentication FAQ page.
Editors at the OFR then prepare a document called a “slip law,” which “is an official publication of the law and is admissible as ‘legal evidence.’” It is the OFR that assigns the permanent law number and legal statutory citation of each law and prepares marginal notes, citations, and the legislative history (a brief description of the Congressional action taken on each public bill), which also contains dates of related Presidential remarks or statements.” Slip laws are made available to the public by the GPO online.
The system is more complicated when it comes to judicial opinions. Each of the Eleven Circuit Courts of Appeal issues its own opinions. For example, this is the website of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, The GPO has joined with the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC) “to provide public access to opinions from selected United States appellate, district, and bankruptcy United States Courts Opinions (USCOURTS). Currently the collection has cases only as far back as 2004As indicated by the term “selected,” this database only contains some of the federal courts.
The official source for the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States is the U.S. Supreme court itself. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 673(c), an employee of the U.S. Supreme Court is designated the “Reporter of Opinions” and he or she is responsible for working with the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) to publish official opinions “in a set of case books called the United States Reports.”
According to the Court, “[p]age proofs prepared by the Court’s Publications Unit are reproduced, printed, and bound by private firms under contract with the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO). The Court’s Publications Officer acts as liaison between the Court and the GPO.” Moreover, “the pagination of these reports is the official pagination of the case. There are four official publishers of the U.S. Reports but the court warns on its website that “[i]n the case of any variance between versions of opinions published in the official United States Reports and any other source, whether print or electronic, the United States Reports controls.”
To some exent this latest information suggesting that there may be different versions of opinions at different times fits in well with the history of the court. As most of us know, the Supreme Court did not have an official reporter until the mid-nineteenth century and did not produce a written opinion for every decision. Moreover, it has only been recording oral arguments since 1955 and although now issues same day transcripts this was hardly always the case. Also now available are the remarks that the Justices make when reading their opinions. But, and no link is missing, I don't have one, in hearing Nina Totenberg give a key note presentation at ALI in 2012 about her days at the court, she pointed out that when she began covering the Court this was not available. And that it was not unusual for notes to differ on exactly what the Justices said.
Friday, May 23, 2014
Report from ALI Annual Meeting--and What Justice Ginsberg is Reading
I’m just back from the 91st annual meeting of the American Law Institute in Washington, DC. So much happened in a three day period that it’s hard to do justice—I know that many others have blogged and tweeted. In keeping with the theme of what I’ve been blogging about, higher education, I will report that the current state of legal education was a palpable presence and a frequent topic of conversation. Whether it was ALI President Roberta Cooper Ramointroducing Associate Academic Dean Ellen Clayton of my neighbor institution, the University of North Texas, UNT Dallas College of Law, as someone doing a remarkable thing to open a new law school to Justice Breyer's charming refusal to be drawn into either a criticism of legal education or a comment on the current complaints being made against it.
It is also my honor to pass on that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg reported that she was reading Wings of Freedom: Addressing Challenges to the University while giving its author, former president of Stanford University Professor Gerhard Casper, the ALI’s Distinguished Service Medal. I have ordered but not yet received the book, so here is the blurb:
“From affirmative action and multiculturalism to free speech, politics, public service, and government regulation, Casper addresses the controversial issues currently debated on college campuses and in our highest courts. With insight and candor, each chapter explores the context of these challenges to higher education and provides Casper’s stirring orations delivered in response. In addressing these vital concerns, Casper outlines the freedoms that a university must encourage and defend in the ongoing pursuit of knowledge.”
ALI is always inspiring--like everyone I had no idea as a law student that the Restatements were actually the product of so much collective and collaborative work. It is also a "how to" of running an event at which every attendee is used to being in charge either as a Judge, a Professor, a General Counsel or a Partner.
Saturday, May 03, 2014
Sen Elizabeth Warren's New Memoir of Special Interest to Law Profs
There are a lot of reasons why law professors should read Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recently published memoir--“A Fighting Chance." The top two are that it's well-written and frequently very funny. (for full effect--I suggest the audio version that the Senator narrates herself).
Beyond that, not only is it a lucid explanation of the banking industry’s efforts to limit the ability of creditors to make a fresh start through declaring bankruptcy, it is an account of her extraordinary academic career--one that she achieved without any of the traditional criteria such as academic pedigree, powerful mentors, family connections, prestigious fellowships or judicial clerkships. For those unfamiliar with her as Bankruptcy Professor-here are some posts she has made on the Credit Slips blog.
She also closely documents her struggles to balance family, both her children and elderly parents (and pets). There is a lot for law professors to unpack here--including how her interest in the people behind the laws has shaped her career.
But more generally, I look forward to discussing how critical it is for the future of legal education that Senator Warren succeed in convincing her colleagues of the need to reform the way higher education is financed. Whether she herself has the best plan for fixing student loans—well different people have different views-including just eliminating them. But unless we can stop the ever increasing cycle of debt that is making our students’ lives so difficult, any of the important changes that need to be made in legal education risk being about as effective as bailing out a sinking boat with a bucket that itself has a hole in it.
As I will elaborate later, I’m very optimistic that we can all create a program about which students can say 5, 10, 15 years later that they are better off for having gone to our law school. But we’re probably not there now. Rather, we are in a situation similar to being attacked by a hive of bees. Every individual bee, lack of job opportunities, bimodal salary distributions, drop in state support for public institutions, lack of transparency about student outcomes, out dated curriculums, disconnect between the classroom and the practice of law, imposition of a value system that drives law students into disproportionate levels of depression that may well follow them throughout their careers, is capable of inflicting painful or even lethal stings. But the breach in the hive comes from a level of student loan debt that cannot be supported by any reasonably obtainable career path. It’s not a perfect metaphor—student loan reform is necessary but not sufficient to developing a legal education that better prepares our students for the important role they will play in society.
Thursday, May 01, 2014
UF Law's (and My) New MOOC: The Global Student's Introduction to US Law
I am now officially part of a MOOC, which went online today. It has been a learning experience (!!), with the biggest lesson being that it is nowhere as easy as you might think to put one of these courses together. I plan to blog about the experience at length when I get a chance. For now, though, you might be interested in viewing the University of Florida Law School's foray into the great MOOC experiment: The Global Student's Introduction to US Law.
The course description is as follows:
In this course, students will learn basic concepts and terminology about the U.S. legal system and about selected topics in the fields of constitutional law, criminal law, and contract law. A team of outstanding teachers and scholars from the University of Florida faculty introduces these subjects in an accessible and engaging format that incorporates examples from legal systems around the world, highlighting similarities to and differences from the U.S. system. Students seeking an advanced certificate study additional topics and complete assignments involving legal research that are optional for basic level students. The course may be of interest both to U.S. students contemplating law school and to global students considering further study of the U.S. legal system.
My Senior Associate Dean Alyson Flournoy spearheaded the project, and we had excellent technical assistance, which was crucial, by Billly Wildberger. My colleagues Pedro Malavet, Jeff Harrison, Claire Germain, Loren Turner, Jennifer Wondracek, and Sharon Rush all provided lectures, and our research assistant Christy Lopez is providing support with the discussion forums.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Of (Courtney) Love and Malice
Today Seattle Police released a note found on Kurt Cobain at his death excoriating wife Courtney Love. Based on her subsequent behavior, Love cannot have been an easy person to be married to. I've been researching Love lately for an article on social media libel that I'm writing with RonNell Andersen Jones. Love is not only the first person in the US to be sued for Twitter libel; she's also Twibel's only repeat player thus far. According to news reports, Love has been sued for Twitter libel twice , and recently she was sued for Pinterest libel as well.
Love's Twitter libel trial raises interesting issues, one of which is how courts and juries should determine the existence of "actual malice" in libel cases involving tweets or Facebook posts by "non-media" defendants. As you probably recall, the US Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment requires public figures and public officials to prove actual malice--i.e., knowledge or reckless disregard of falsity--before they can recover for defamation. And even private figure defamation plaintiffs involved in matters of public concern must prove actual malice if they wish to receive presumed or punitive damages. However, US Supreme Court jurisprudence elucidating the concept of actual malice predominantly involves “media defendants”—members of the institutional press—and the Court’s examples of actual malice reflect the investigative practices of the institutional press. Thus, the Court has stated that in order for a plaintiff to establish actual malice, “[t]here must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication." [St. Amant v. Thompson] Actual malice, for example, exists if a defendant invents a story, bases it on ‘an unverified anonymous telephone call,” publishes statements “so inherently improbable that only a reckless man would have put them in circulation,” or publishes despite “obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of [an] informant or the accuracy of his reports." Id.
These examples have little resonance for “publishers” in a social media context, many of whom, like Love, post information spontaneously with little verification other than perhaps a perusal of other social media sources. The typical social media libel defendant is less likely than her traditional media counterpart to rely on informants strategically placed within government or corporate hierarchies or to carefully analyze primary sources before publishing. Moreover, the typical social media defendants has no fact-checker, editor, or legal counsel and is less likely than institutional media publishers to have special training in gauging the credibility of sources or to profess to follow a code of ethics that prizes accuracy over speed.
The issue Courtney Love's libel trial appears to have raised is whether it constitutes reckless disregard of falsity if a defendant irrationally believes her defamatory accusation to be true. I say "appears," because one can only glean the issue from media accounts of Love's libel trial--the first full jury trial for Twitter libel in the US. The jury found that Love lacked actual malice when she tweeted in 2010 that her former attorney had been "bought off." Specifically, Love tweeted: “I was f—— devestated when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was bought off @FairNewsSpears perhaps you can get a quote[sic].” Holmes sued Love in California state court for $8 million, arguing that the tweet accused Holmes of bribery. Love contended that her tweet was merely hyperbole. News accounts of the jury verdict in Love’s favor, however, indicate that the jury found that Love did not post her tweet with “actual malice." The jury deliberated for three hours at the end of the seven-day trial before concluding that the plaintiff had not proved by clear and convincing evidence that Love knew her statements were false or doubted their truth.
The Love case doesn't set any precedents, but it raises interesting issues for future cases. According to court documents and news accounts, Love consulted a psychiatrist for an “addiction” to social media. Certainly Love’s actions in the series of defamation cases she has generated do not seem entirely rational, but there is no “insanity defense” to a libel claim. Yet the determination of whether a defendant had “actual malice” is a subjective one, meaning that it is relevant whether the defendant suffered from a mental illness that caused her to have irrational, or even delusional, beliefs about the truth of a statement she posted on social media. It seems problematic, however, for the law to give no recourse to the victims of mentally disordered defamers pursuing social media vendettas based on fantasies they have concocted. As a practical matter, this problem is likely to be solved by the skepticism of juries, who will rarely accept a defendant’s argument that she truly believed her delusional and defamatory statements. Or at least I hope so.
And in case you wondered . . . Love's first social media libel case involved her postings on Twitter, MySpace and Etsy calling a fashion designer known as the "Boudoir Queen" a "nasty lying hosebag thief" and alleging that the Queen dealt cocaine, lost custody of her child, and committed assault and burglary. Love apparently settled that case for $430,000. Love's third social media libel case involves further statements about the Queen that Love made on the Howard Stern show and posted on Pinterest. Some people, it seems, are slow learners.
Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on April 30, 2014 at 06:30 PM in Blogging, Constitutional thoughts, Culture, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Information and Technology, Lyrissa Lidsky, Torts, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
"Shadows" and "Innocence," copyright and performance
Earlier, I wrote about the Ninth Circuit’s recent Garcia decision, which is turning out to be the copyright Ishtar* of 2014. One take on what is so rank about the opinion is that it flouts a basic copyright principle that performances (separately from the works they are based on) are not copyrightable.
But earlier this month, just after Garcia was decided, the District of Nevada issued a far less remarked-on opinion entering summary judgment in favor of Teller (the silent, shorter member of the famed Penn & Teller duo), who argued that a YouTube video by Dutch magician Gerard Dogge infringed Teller’s copyright in his illusion “Shadows.”
At first glance, it’s hard to tell these cases apart. If Garcia was wrongly decided because (in large part) it erroneously held that performances are copyrightable, then shouldn’t Teller have lost as well? The answer is no, but it requires a closer look at the circumstances of these deceptively different cases. And the value of taking that closer look is to parse out more carefully what does, and does not, work about the “performance is not copyrightable” aphorism. More below the fold.
It’s worthwhile to give a quick sense of the infringement in Teller. Teller’s “Shadows” is a very elegant and affecting illusion that begins with a rose on a stand with a light in front of it causing a shadow of the rose to be projected onto a screen behind it. Teller then appears, and cuts away the petals of the rose’s shadow, and when he does so, each corresponding petal on the actual rose falls as well. In Dogge’s video, he performs a virtually identical illusion with nearly identical set dressing and materials (indeed, the name of his illusion is “The Rose and Her Shadow”), though there are some slight variations (Teller uses a rose in a vase, while Dogge’s is in a bottle; Teller’s and Dogge’s performances end with different performative flourishes).
That said, the way to reconcile Garcia’s wrongness with Teller’s (relative) okayness lies in the nature of the latter’s asserted copyright interest. Teller registered his work, “Shadows,” as a dramatic work (actually, "dramatic pantomime" in the registration certificate) with the Copyright Office in 1983 (though he had been performing the illusion since 1976). The registration comprises a detailed description of “Shadows” to the minutest detail. By contrast, Garcia’s purported copyright in “Innocence of Muslims” derived solely from whatever originality her performance added to the underlying words written by the screenwriter.
Moreover, Teller’s registration of “Shadows” also clarifies and simplifies his authorship status with respect to the work. He is solely listed as the dramatic work’s author, because he is—the entirety of “Shadows” is the product of his creative mind alone. Again by contrast, Garcia’s authorship status with respect to “Innocence” is a wreck. She is at best one of many joint authors of the work, though her relative contribution to the final product is vanishingly slim.
Still, these two cases raise a puzzle: Is performance copyrightable or isn’t it? I don’t think we need to get too Clintonian about this (i.e., no need to default to “it depends on what ‘performance’ means” hair-splitting). Teller didn’t hold that performances are generally copyrightable. It held that Dogge’s YouTube video amounted to an unauthorized public performance of Teller’s copyrighted dramatic work.
If you want to get really technical about it, Teller’s claim was not that Dogge’s video was substantially similar to Teller’s performance of “Shadows” (indeed, there are many different performances of “Shadows,” though they are all nearly identical), but rather that it was similar to the dramatic work “Shadows” that was embodied in the copy Teller filed with the Copyright Office back in ’83. A performance is something that you can do with a work, just as you can reproduce or adapt or distribute copies of it, it’s not the work itself, and only works are copyrightable.
Throughout this post, I’ve been saying that Teller seems basically right. The reason I’m equivocal lies in one part of the opinion that went largely unremarked. The court remarked that the defendant’s work was substantially similar to Teller’s in part because “both performances are based on the incredibly unique concept of a performer cutting parts of a rose’s shadow, thereby cutting the corresponding parts of a real rose.”
Putting aside the court’s problematic usage of “performance” and “performer”, what raises a red flag about this passage is the court’s suggestion that Teller’s copyright extends past his specific expression of the particular dramatic work articulated in the deposit copy he included with his copyright registration, and applies generally to the “concept” embodied in his dramatic work.
This phrasing seems to flout copyright’s good old idea/expression dichotomy, though as with all idea/expression issues, the distinction is a hard one to draw. I’m OK with the outcome in Teller because Dogge’s video mimicked Teller’s work down in detail with only a few exceptions. But one could imagine variation on “Shadows” that are not as slavish in their copying. Consider a variant where a garrulous magician cut the petals from the projected shadow of a sunflower, causing the real thing to fall. Or more abstractly, imagine a version where a talkative illusionist came out and cut the limbs off of the projected shadow of the human effigy of some great historical villain (Hitler, Stalin, Donald Sterling), causing the limbs on the actual figure to fall off. I think the latter two would be far enough from Teller’s work to be allowable, even though they are based on the “incredibly unique concept” that animates “Shadows.”
Finally, if Teller is (mostly) rightly decided, does that mean that magic tricks are copyrightable, contra the major premise of Jacob Loshin’s really cool article on informal means of protecting illusions in the magician community? No way. What Teller owned was the copyright in a dramatic work that happened to contain a magic trick. The underlying idea that animates the specific expression of the performance remains, in my opinion if not the D-Nev’s, fair game.
*This 1987 movie, featuring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman lost in the Sahara Desert, was generally considered unspeakably awful and became a legendary Hollywood bomb. This tends to be my go-to reference for Hollywood disasters because, unlike Waterworld or Cutthroat Island or Heaven’s Gate, I actually saw Ishtar in the theater when I was a kid. God knows why. Maybe it was some form of punishment.
Wednesday, April 09, 2014
A Typology of Authorship in Highly Collaborative Works
To paraphrase Anna Karenina for the kajillionth time, all copyright scholars think Garcia was wrongly decided,* but every copyright scholar thinks so in their own way. When the Ninth Circuit held a couple months back that an actress has a “copyright interest” in the film in which she briefly performed, the (understandably) apoplectic reaction was as entertaining as the decision was mysterious. I’m on board with the general reception that the Garcia opinion was the copyright equivalent of sitting on a whoopee cushion, so instead of beating that long-deceased equine, I will instead explore a related issue raised by the case.
Copyright’s notion of authorship works great when we’re dealing with the classic, solo Romantic author: Some genius artist sits alone in a room painting a masterpiece all of her own invention, and—boom—thanks to section 201(a), the copyright in that work vests in her, making her the author of the work for the duration of the copyright, and the owner of the work until she transfers her copyright.
But a much harder question arises when we complicate the story of authorship to include multiple collaborators on a project. The solo writer or painter is clearly the author of their work, but when we imagine a fashion photograph involving a photographer, model, makeup people, and numerous technicians, the notion of authorship becomes far murkier. This is, then, one of the major issues raised by Garcia: how do we allocate authorship when many people make expressive contributions to a final creative product?
So this post seeks neither to praise Garcia (obv.) or to bury it (that’s been done amply and adequately already). Instead, below the fold, I want to develop a typology of the different kinds of creative contributions people make to works, and how these different kinds of contributions might give rise to what we call copyright authorship. Importantly, this is not a normative claim that all of the contributors in these classes are or should be entitled to joint or freestanding copyrights, but merely to organize and make sense of the different kinds of contributions to works that could plausibly be understood to be the result of creative authorship.
First is what I will call visionaries. This is a grandiose term because I can’t at present think of a less pretentious one, but I mean it simply to refer to the person who is in charge of the overall vision of a highly collaborative work of authorship—the director of a film, the producer of a sound recording, and perhaps the photographer of a sophisticated, artistic photograph (hence there will be no rehashing of the Ellen’s-selfie debacle here).
The visionary comes closest to the person who fits the Romantic notion of authorship of a work. The director of a film, for example, typically has the initial vision of and the most creative control over the content of the entire film. Hence courts have tended to conclude that (presuming we are to regard works as unitary rather than comprised of many different subworks by many different artists, which Garcia surprisingly called into question) the person exercising this visionary function is the presumptive author of a highly collaborative work. E.g., Burrow-Giles v. Sarony (U.S. 1884) (holding that Napoleon Sarony was the author of a famous photograph of Oscar Wilde because Sarony determined the setting, lighting, subject placement, and other features of the work).
Second, consider performers—actors in films, models in photographs, singers and session musicians in sound recordings). It was the Garcia court’s willingness to consider performers as authors of works that was so jarring to settled understandings of copyright (and also to the Copyright Office, which had rejected Garcia’s application for a copyright in the same performance that the Ninth Circuit held was protected).
I share the intuition that something seems very wrong about extending Garcia a copyright in her performance. But what complicates this is that I don’t have that same intuition in the context of sound recordings.** It does not seem obviously wrong to me that singers and musicians should not be the owner of the sound recordings they create at a studio. Their performances vivify the otherwise highly abstracted musical works on which they are based, and comprise the substance of the recorded sounds themselves. The seeming plausibility that musical performers might have a copyright in their sound recordings makes it a little harder to reject out of hand the notion that dramatic performers can never have a copyright interest in the audiovisual works to which they contribute.
The third category is the technician. This is the person who actually causes sounds or images to be fixed in the tangible medium of expression that is required for federal copyrightability—the cinematographer in film, the sound engineer in a recording studio, or the person taking a photograph (modernly, this is usually the visionary as well, but this was not always the case—Napoleon Sarony, for example, never touched a camera in his life).
A colleague once pointed out to me a formalist argument for why such technicians should have authorial status. The work in photographic works, audiovisual works, and sound recordings is pretty much indistinguishable from the fixation. So for a sound recording, the work is the actual sounds fixed in the studio’s digital audio tape. By this logic, then, the person who is actually creating the work is the person who is actually fixing the sounds (or in the case of other works, fixing the images).
This argument works well when the technician also makes crucial creative decisions about the work. The best example is the photographer. Eddie Adams or Manny Garcia (no relation to the “Innocence of Muslims” actress—as far as I know, anyway) are both the visionaries who imagine their photos (to the extent possible with photojournalism, which typically requires spontaneous creation) as well as the technicians who execute the fixation of their creative vision. Sound recordings are a harder case. Some sound engineers make creative contributions, while others act at the direction and discretion of producers. And the case where this makes the least sense is the cinematographer, who exercises great technical skill to operate the camera but who typically acts in the service of realizing the director’s creative vision (again, there are exceptions—Spielberg, for example, takes a relatively greater technical role in his films than most Hollywood directors).
The fourth and final category is the writer. This category will be populated only where the highly collaborative work is derivative of some other work—a screenplay, a musical work—so would exclude works like a painstakingly posed photograph. And it is beyond obvious that in order to create the film or sound recording at all, the creator of the derivative must get a license, either through bargaining (in the case of a film) or through section 115’s compulsory license provisions (in the case of a sound recording). But the fact of acquiring a license does not diminish the central role that the writer’s contribution plays in the creative impact of films or sound recordings. It just means that here, unlike with other categories, the copyright ownership issues are reasonably well demarcated and understood.
These categories—not meant to be exhaustive, but just illustrative—comprise four different ways that one might contribute to a highly collaborative work in a creative way that approaches copyright’s notion of authorship. One could contribute an overall guiding vision, or provide an original and electric performance, or supply the work’s underlying narrative structure, or contribute technical expertise in a thoughtful way that contributed to the aesthetic success of the final creative product.
The problem with acknowledging this multiplicity of forms of creative contribution for the purposes of law, though, is that copyright is ill-suited to manage the descriptive reality of authorship in highly collaborative works.*** This may suggest that Garcia is flawed pragmatically more than doctrinally. There may be some plausibility to the idea that a performance could be copyrighted, but the practical implications of going down that rabbit hole are just too messy to contemplate. So while the Romantic notion of locating authorship of all works in a single individual—visionary, technician, or whoever—may not square with the need to have a manageable notion of authorship (and, related, ownership). Hence this may be one rare instance in which Romanticism and pragmatism are on the same page.
*In all fairness, there were apparently a handful of Garcia supporters (other than members of industry groups benefited by the decision’s outcome).
**Based solely on casual empiricism, I think others share this intuition. I always ask my class (before we get into what law actually says about these things) who they think the author of a movie should be, and most people answer "director." But when I ask them who the author of a sound recording should be, the most common instinctive response is "the vocalist." No love for the producer, I guess.
***This may be a problem endemic to all property, actually. Real property law does ok with the idea of limited co-ownership, but once the owners of a given plot become too numerous, management problems and devaluation kick in. This is a particular problem for familial or tribal holdings over time.
Wednesday, April 02, 2014
A salience-bias defense of marginal law reforms
Hey y’all. It’s always good to be back guesting at Prawfs. I’m looking forward to sharing thoughts about property—physical, intellectual, and otherwise—over the course of the next month. I’ll kick it off with a news item that caught my eye today: The UK just announced a forthcoming reform to its copyright law. Among other things, British citizens and subjects are now free to—wait for it—make personal copies of legally acquired copies of digital media (e.g., eBooks, CDs) for format-shifting or backup purposes.
This aspect of the British copyright reform strikes me as a perfectly good and sensible idea (as did its other features, like broadening the UK notion of fair use), but response to it sounded more in the register of “meh” or “so what?” than “hallelujah.” After all, this part of the revision legalized conduct that most people assumed was already legal (and may indeed be legal in other countries with broader notions of users’ rights), was certainly widely underenforced (because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend resources breaking into people’s homes to see if they’ve made a nefarious illicit backup CD copy of, say, Fartbarf’s “Dirty Power”*), and was, in any event, largely a moot point thanks to the increasing marginality of the relevant technologies (because, as my students helpfully point out to me when I refer to this medium for experiencing music, who uses CDs anymore, Grandpa?).
And yet I think there is something interesting about the UK’s move, not so much for the substantive impact on copyright law or user practices, but about a strategy for how and why we may want to reform laws generally. I explore this notion below the fold.
The major justification for these reforms (which grew out of the very thoughtful Hargreaves Report, which, for what it’s worth, could be a model for US copyright reform, in the vanishingly unlikely event that any congressfolks are reading this) is simply that it makes sense to update law to reflect actual practices. By one estimate, 85% of people in the UK assumed that making personal use copies was already legal, and the practice is already widespread. On this explanation, the personal-use element of the UK's copyright reform is well-taken but inconsequential, like fixing a spelling error that didn’t really confuse anyone about the meaning of a sentence.
But there’s another, broader, reason why this reform might be good even—perhaps especially—for the kind of copyright industries who were likely to resist it. This kind of conspicuous gap between social norms and practices on one hand and regulation on the other can be an embarrassment to the law that exacts outsized costs in terms of credibility. The reason that law/norm disjunctures can be especially problematic is that non-specialists may generalize about the entire law based on one conspicuous silly or outdated provision. This is a species of salience bias or the availability heuristic. Observing one particularly notable example about a place or, say, a body of law can falsely lead us to believe we have a true sense of its overall character.
The UK group Consumer Focus made just such a leap in this setting, pointing out that the illegality of innocuous conduct like making personal backup copies had caused the credibility of all “UK copyright law to fall through the floor.” This move—deriving the character of an entire body of law from its worst provisions—is not limited to copyright. A roughly analogous phenomenon is the tendency of laypeople to assume that when one (purportedly) guilty man goes free, that the criminal law system is generally very lenient—despite the overwhelming rates of conviction for accused criminals.
This is sort of like synechdoche in law—using a part, and especially a flawed or discordant part—to represent the whole. And what it means for law reform, and in particular the reform of statues like the Copyright Act, is that law/norm disjunctures may be more problematic than is usually appreciated. We generally tend to think that these kind of disparities between law on the books and actual practices are bad because of the people they unwittingly regulate. Out of date laws could impose sanctions for conduct that has become widely, imposing outsized penalties on unsuspecting people for trivial violations. But the UK example reminds us that the law/norm gap may be a major problem for law itself, especially in light of the tendency of lay observers to infer from a single out-of-step provision that an entire regulatory structure is flawed.
*Yes I used the name of this band in this illustration for amusement (mainly my own). But also yes, there actually is a band called Fartbarf, and perhaps more surprisingly, they actually have appeal once the juvenile humor value of their name fades, assuming that you’re into 80s-inflected synth-pop performed by a bunch of guys in gorilla masks. And hey, isn’t everyone?
Sunday, February 09, 2014
Misusing and misunderstanding the language of law
I do not agree with everything in this Dahlia Lithwick piece on the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen mess. But she makes a couple of good points about the unfortunate things that happen when the language of law gets abused in the court of public opinion (or, as she calls it, "litigation by hashtag").
First, she has a good takedown of this incoherent nonsense that Allen is not the only one who enjoys a presumption of innocence; Farrow does, too--a presumption of innocence of making false allegations against Allen. As I tell my students, presumptions are about burdens of proof; a presumption of innocence means that those attempting to prove non-innocence bear the burden of offering evidence (burden of production) of non-innocence and the burden of convincing the factfinder (burden of persuasion) of non-innocence. To accord a similar presumption of innocence to the accuser is to shift the burden of proof to the accused to offer evidence and convince the factfinder to the accused party that the accuser is untruthful. But you can't have it both ways. The reason for the presumption (and thus the assignment of the burdens) is because the party proving non-innocence is asking a government body (the court) to formally deprive the accused of life, liberty, or property. It is that threat of official governmental sanction that properly places the burden on the accuser.Of course, those who defend Allen via the shibboleth of "presumption of innocence" similarly misunderstand the concept. Farrow's accusations are evidence, and one could read her account and the other reports of her accusations and conclude that Allen did what she accuses him of doing. One can disbelieve her story or insist it is not enough (especially by throwing around a second shibboleth--"beyond a reasonable doubt"). But one cannot claim that her story is not evidence and thus at least an attempt at the burden of production.
Second, Lithwick criticizes the very idea of the "court of public opinion," because it is a court unbounded by any rules--and a court is defined by its rules. Those who speak of that court never identify what evidence is admissible (e.g., internet trolls calling Farrow a "bitch"?) , what the standards and thesholds are, what to do about lost evidence, what role cross-examination plays, and even who bears the burden of proof. Lithwick's point is that the court of public opinion is often nothing more than opinions (often uninformed) dressed up in "fancy talk" of burdens of proof" and "presumptions of innocence," none of which is helpful. I suppose the court of public opinion could place the burden on the accused. But then own that this is what you're doing.
Finally, a third point that Lithwick does not mention, but that has bothered me through much of this conversation. Everything is clouded by confusion about standards of proof and when and how they apply. One refrain is that Allen has never been convicted of anything and that no one has ever offered proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Because of that absence of a judicial finding B/R/D, either we just do not know what happened and never will (from those who cannot decide) or clearly he did nothing wrong (from Allen's defenders).
But there is a difference between whether someone did something wrong and whether someone should be criminally sanctioned by the state for doing something. The beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard applies only to answer the latter question. But have other ways to determine whether someone did something wrong, notably civil proceedings, governed by a lower standard of proof, such as preponderance of evidence. Although we do not put people in jail when there is only a preponderance of evidence, we impose other sanctions that obviously are based in a conclusion that the accused did something wrong. And a civil judgment ordinarily is enough to conclude that someone did something wrong. (I wrote something similar following the jury verdict in the sexual harassment case against the Knicks and Isaiah Thomas in 2007).
In this case, there was a civil proceeding to determine custody of the minor children when Allen split with Farrow in 1993, a proceeding governed by the preponderance standard. In that proceeding, Allen was denied full custody and all visitation with Dylan (the court's order is here). There was no finding that Allen sexually abused Dylan, although the judge found that Allen's "behavior toward Dylan was grossly inappropriate and that measures must be taken to protect her." Thus, to the extent legal sanctions other than jail (e.g., custody and visitation) and non-legal sanctions (whether to ever watch a Woody Allen movie) can be imposed on a lesser standard of proof, it is at least arguable that we do have that. So to say Allen has never been found to have done anything wrong is incorrect--this becomes clear once we really understand what standards of proof are all about.
Tuesday, February 04, 2014
Judgment Calls and Reputation, Part One: Figure Skating
Thanks to Dan and the Prawfs gang for letting me hang out here again for February. Over the course of the month, I hope to explore how impressions of others influence judgments in a variety of litigation settings. With the Winter Olympics approaching, however, it seems appropriate to start outside the courtroom with a different group of high-profile decision-makers: figure skating judges.
Assessing a skater’s performance is a highly challenging cognitive activity. The judge must evaluate both the skater’s technical proficiency and artistic contribution in real time, and convert those assessments into a quantifiable score just minutes after the performance has ended. There is no video replay, no time for careful review and consideration of what was observed. Skating judges must act quickly and decisively. It seems natural that skating judges would therefore rely on mental shortcuts and other strategies to reduce their cognitive load. And indeed, one study out of the University of Ottawa found that one common and influential mental shortcut for judges was the skater’s reputation.
The Ottawa study (unfortunately, available by subscription only) concluded that when judges believed that a skater had made a positive name for him- or herself within the regional skating community, the skater received significantly higher scores than when the skater was unknown to the judges. The study concluded that a skater’s positive reputation set certain expectations for the judges about the skater’s ability, which in turn led to a more positive assessment of the skater’s performance.
Now, it is likely (though not guaranteed) that skaters with positive reputations were indeed excellent at their craft. But even if a skater’s reputation perfectly captured her average past performance, it cannot reliably capture the intricacies of any future performance. So although the judges’ reliance on reputation (consciously or not) was entirely natural, we might look to ways to reduce or eliminate the bias in the interest of obtaining the most accurate assessment possible.
One solution, proposed by the Ottawa researchers, is to ensure that judges in any given competition are unfamiliar with the individual skaters – thereby forcing them to assess the skaters on the current performance alone. This proposal might work if there was a large enough pool of qualified judges to assure that judges were always unfamiliar with the skaters before them. Still, as a long-term way of promoting better accuracy, “blind” figure skating judging seems unworkable. Sooner rather than later, the system would exhaust the number of qualified judges, or judges would share with each other what they had seen in earlier competitions. In either event, judges would eventually come into competitions with some reasonably well-defined expectation of each skater’s skill and artistic ability.
Figure skating provides a fairly straightforward introduction to the problem; the cognitive challenges that impressions and reputation pose to accurate judgments are compounded in the litigation setting. Whereas the effects of impressions in figure skating judging are essentially felt one way—even if the skaters know something about a particular judge’s reputation, there is not much they can do about it on the day of competition—the effects of impressions in litigation are multidirectional. Lawyers, judges, and parties must regularly make decisions based on their ongoing interactions and evolving perceptions of each of the other players. Other ways of promoting accurate judgments are needed and, as I will suggest in the next series of posts, the best approach may be the opposite of blind judging; that is, extensive, repeated interaction between the key players.
Monday, February 03, 2014
Diversity and Coke commercials
The "This is America, speak English" reaction to this commercial from yesterday's Super Bowl
is probably far more limited than would seem from the stories aggregating all the absurd Twitter comment. Although I will say that the comments and tweets complaining that the commercial defiled "God Bless America" or "the National Anthem" make me smile.
Still, I find even the limited outrage interesting, if only because Coca Cola previously gave us this, widely regarded as one of the best commercials of all time:
For its time, of course, this commercial displayed incredible diversity.
So what explains the different reactions, even if the negative reaction to yesterday's add is far less pervasive than it appears? Is it that the old commercial is about "the world," while the new one is defining (or in some views, redefining) America? Are people more comfortable with and accepting of the outward appearance of diversity, so long as everyone is doing the "American" thing of singing in English? In other words, apparent diversity is acceptable so long as one outward aspect of real diversity--language--is kept out of the picture?
Sunday, January 26, 2014
Six million Jews (or six million Jewish people)
Sunday's New York Times reports on a new book titled And Every Single One Was Somone, which consists of the word "Jew" repeated six million times in 5.5-point type. From normal distance, it is impossible to see each word, but only a patterned mass; you have to look more closely to see each "Jew." But even then, are you still seeing something de-humanized and reduced to that particular word? Is this a context in which the word is offensive, because we know how it was being thought of by the people (the Nazis) using it?
Monday, January 20, 2014
Recognizing Race on Martin Luther King Day
Over at Constitutional Law Prof Blog, Ruthann Robson has an interesting post about the way judges quote Martin Luther King, Jr. The claim -- relying on a fascinating article by Jeremiah Goulka -- is that when judges quote MLK, they are usually doing so in the course of reaching a result that MLK would not support.
This discussion brought to mind a topic that I've discussed during my previous visit to Prawfs. In my article Racial Capitalism, which came out last June, I defined racial capitalism as the process of deriving value from racial identity. My article focused, in particular, on white people and predominantly white institutions deriving value from non-white racial identity. An easy example is a school that photoshops a black student into its admissions brochure, or -- as a less extreme measure -- overrepresents the percentage of non-white students in its promotional materials.
In the article, I identify a judicial variant of racial capitalism, influenced by Justin Driver's work Recognizing Race. (In Racial Capitalism, I discuss this on pages 2197-98.) In a nutshell, Driver's work uncovers substantial variation in the circumstances when courts do and don't choose to explicitly identify the race of people discussed in their opinion. In Ricci v. DeStefano, for example, the Supreme Court held that the New Haven fire department's decision to ignore standardized test results that disparately affected racial minorities violated Title VII. Justice Kennedy's majority opinion discussed the testimony of three experts on standardized testing, yet only identified the race of one of the three -- the one whose testimony best supported the majority's result -- by stating that he "is black." This is particularly striking because one of the other experts was also black, and yet the majority did not identify her by race. As Professor Driver trenchantly explains: "This identification is striking because, in a decision that cautions against the dangers of racially disparate treatment, it treats Lewis disparately by race."
Judges identify -- or ignore -- racial signifiers all the time, in ways that subtly buttress the result they reach. In Whren v. United States, for example, the Court held stopping a motorist did not violate the Fourth Amendment so long as the officer had probable cause to believe that the the motorist violated traffic laws, even if an objectively reasonable officer would not have stopped the motorist in that situation. The holding also meant that it didn't matter whether the traffic stop was pretextual so long as there was probable cause to believe that a traffic violation of some sort had occurred. In the opinion, Justice Scalia identified the officer who arrested Whren as "Officer Ephraim Soto" and referred to him by name three times within the first two pages of the opinion. While I have not been able to discover Officer Soto's racial or ethnic identity -- or, perhaps more importantly, how others would have perceived his race or ethinicity -- it appears relatively uncontroversial that Soto is a Spanish surname. By emphasizing Officer Soto's surname, then, Justice Scalia implies that Soto might also be non-white, thereby distancing the events in Whren from the common pattern of white officers harassing black motorists that provoked outcry from civil rights advocates.
Of course, none of this is limited to judges. More generally, it's quite common for white people and predominantly white institutions using the words of deceased black leaders to gain legitimacy and shield themselves against claims of racism. Just today, Sarah Palin posted the following message on her Facebook page:
"Happy MLK, Jr. Day!
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card."
Although of course I can't be sure, my guess is that MLK probably would not want his words used by Sarah Palin to chastise our nation's first black president for "playing the race card" (whatever Palin means by that).
Of course, Palin is far from alone. Some conservatives have recently dubbed themselves "Frederick Douglass Republicans." As one forthrightly explained, if you invoke the name of a well-respected black family member like Frederick Douglass, "you can trump the race card."
These various examples are unified by the theme of white people and institutions invoking race -- whether that of a famous black person such as MLK, or that of a participant in a legal drama -- as a way of achieving moral legitimacy and shielding whatever argument they happen to be making from charges of racism. Whether this is effective is, of course, another story, although at least sometimes it appears to be. (When I last checked, Palin's post had over 32,000 "likes.") Whether sucessful or unsuccessful, however, this use of non-white identity by white people is worth evaluating critically. As Goulka says in the conclusion to his piece, "on this MLK Day and every other day, whenever a court invokes Dr. King," -- and I think this extends to invoking non-white people more generally -- "make sure to judge it by the content of their characterization."
Friday, November 22, 2013
Making Law Sex Positive
It has been a good decade for sexual freedom. The Supreme Court issued opinions protecting the rights of gay individuals to engage in sexual relationships and striking down a ban on the federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Two gay teen characters were portrayed as having a positive sexual relationship (leading to a marriage proposal) on network television. Sexual practices formerly viewed as perverse, such as role playing and sado-masochism, seem almost provincial now that there is a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey on every great-aunt’s bookshelf.
But, in an op-ed published in the Washington Post this weekend, I argue that even among this legal and pop culture sexual revolution, much of our law remains curiously silent, squeamish, or disapproving on the topic of sexual pleasure itself. Indeed, several areas of the law rely on the counterintuitive assumption that sexual pleasure has negligible or negative value and that we sacrifice nothing of importance when we curtail it. This phenomenon extends even to legal realms that regulate behaviors central to the experience of sexual pleasure.
The assumption that sexual pleasure has negligible or negative value is simply unfounded, and unfounded assumptions create bad laws and policies. Legal regulation generally sacrifices our freedom to engage in certain activities because the activities result in harm or because regulation generates benefits. Devaluing sexual pleasure distorts this calculus. In truth, sexual pleasure is actually a very good thing, simply because it is pleasurable.
Truly progressive legal reform would recognize the inherent value of sexual pleasure. This would have significant implications for several areas of law, ranging from obscenity to rape law. The op-ed out this weekend is part of a larger project challenging the sex-negativity of law and envisioning how simply valuing sexual pleasure in itself would require us to rethink different areas of law.
Obscenity law, for example, relies on the assumption that offensive speech that is intended merely to arouse is entitled to less constitutional protection than any other type of offensive speech. The Miller test allows states to freely ban any material that depicts sexual activity “in a patently offensive way” and “appeals to the prurient interests.” The First Amendment only protects this material if it has some serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value to redeem it. In contrast, states may not ban other types of offensive material unless they can show it is likely to cause some harm. If sexual pleasure in itself is valuable, then we can’t justify banning offensive prurient material more freely simply because its primary purpose is to arouse people. Instead, we have to think more carefully about how (and whether) states should be able to regulate any offensive materials.
Recognizing sexual pleasure would also require state courts and legislatures rethink the criminalization of sado-masochistic sexual activities (or “BDSM”). BDSM has become so prevalent in popular culture that it seems almost quaint. But even some consensual spanking can lead to an assault or battery charge in most states. In contrast, the law permits violent sports, cosmetic surgery, tattooing, and skin piercing, in large part because courts and legislatures accept their value. We can’t justify this distinction if we acknowledge that sexual pleasure has as much value as the pleasure derived from a boxing match or cheek implants.
Recognizing the value of sexual pleasure doesn’t mean we have to value it above everything else. We regulate the things that bring people pleasure all the time. We value the pleasure we experience from music, but I may not kidnap Beyoncé and force her to join me on a song-filled road trip, no matter how magical the experience would be for me. Sexual pleasure is no different—we can acknowledge it is important and still regulate it.
But valuing sexual pleasure does require us to regulate more honestly. It allows a more complete and well-reasoned discussion of what we choose to regulate, what we fail to regulate, and our justifications for those choices.
The op-ed “The Joyless Law of Sex,” is available here. “Sex-Positive Law” will appear in the 87th volume for the NYU Law Review in April.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
"Better Call Saul"I am sure it will get so much law wrong, but I am totally in the bag for Better Call Saul, a planned prequal to Breaking Bad that focuses on the show's hilariously sleazy criminal-defense/PI attorney.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Could FACs induce retirement of government officials? A "Corruption" Work-around?
Btw, a couple weeks ago on FB (where all my random mental burps occur), I proposed a possible variation of our crowdfunded FAC model in the gov't context. Specifically, I wondered aloud: could a cabal of Soros and Gates and Bloomberg create a FAC (Fan Action Committee) to throw money at Justice Ginsburg (or her favorite charity) to retire from SCOTUS (so POTUS could appoint someone new presumably) without violating any laws?
We just saw Sec. J. Napolitano step down from DHS to head the UC system. So if Soros et al. couldn't offer RBG 20 million to retire, could he give her 20 million to join as a board member of Open Society to have tea with him once a year? There you at least have a peppercorn of consideration for the contract. Is that enough to circumvent the corruption statutes or relevant ethics rules? Would you give the same deal to get Michelle Bachman to leave Congress? The interesting wrinkle here is that unlike general corruption statutes governing improper quid pro quo of "official action" for $, this FAC-y scenario just requires $ in exchange for no "official action", ie, retirement. A couple friends thought scenarios of this sort would still be illegal, but I'm not sure I'm persuaded yet; if it's illegal at the federal level under extant law, could it be used at the state level? If you disagree with me, please cite chapter and verse on why! And file this in the "devilish and probably misguided idea" drawer.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
A Not Quite Post-Script on Zimmerman, etc.
Interesting exchange I though I'd share. I just rec'd an email from a stranger (to me):
You write here - - that "I fear that if the races had been turned around, we might have a different verdict."
Why, given the evidence presented, the law, the jury instructions, etc., do you have this fear? Is there a scintilla of evidence that the jury, in its deliberations, was influenced by considerations of race in any way?
Thanks for writing (respectfully!).
My sense is that there likely were some subtle racial dynamics as to what prompted GZ's suspicions. I doubt that if TM had been white, GZ would have bothered to call. If GZ had been black and shot a TM who were white, I could see the possibility of conviction going up, even if the same evidence were there. I regret that's the world in which I harbor that concern.
Still, in this case, I think it would be a serious injustice to alter the verdict just because of the risk that injustice elsewhere could erupt. My point, modestly, was that one can't fix other injustices by doing an injustice in this case.
My correspondent wrote back:
Thanks for your quick -- and equally respectful -- response.
1) Re: GZ being suspicious if TM had been white: This is a bedrock assumption -- I don't think there's much evidence on the issue one way or the other -- which I don't share, but let's assume it anyway.
2) The jury seemed to be meticulous (14 hours of deliberation, etc.). According to the juror interviewed on CNN, at first, 3 jurors wanted to convict GZ "of something." But, based on the evidence presented and the "options we were given," acquittal was the only decision, in the end. I very much doubt that this jury would have acted any differently had TM been white/GZ been black. Also bear in mind that white guilt, as well as white racism, can play a role. But this is just my opinion.
At this point, it seems, we are in the realm of speculation and sociology, so I don't have much more to add than my first response. But I thought it was an interesting exchange, and I'm sure some of our readers would have more vigorous responses and reactions.
Update: I have since learned (h/t to Adler on FB and Bernstein below) that I may have been leaping to judgments re: my speculation about Zimmerman's reticence to call in suspicious non-blacks. He has a history of calling in a range of people, including fellow Hispanics, and he's also made calls, from what I understand, designed to ensure the wellbeing of young black children. I'm grateful for the information--obviously, I can't verify it myself, but if it's true, the information seems relevant about what kinds of speculations are warranted in race-switching scenarios.
Sunday, June 30, 2013
Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2 of 4): 3/256th Cherokee?
This case has been shadowed by concerns about Indian authenticity, equal protection, fatherhood and motherhood, dysfunctional child welfare systems, and “deserving” adoptive parents. The purpose of this series (part 1 is here), co-authored with Kim Pearson, a family law professor who writes about transracial adoption and non-normative families, is to clarify what the case did and didn’t do and to untangle the impact of some of these shadow concerns. While the Indian law analysis is largely mine and the family law analysis largely hers, the post is a product of our collective views. This post address race, tribal enrollment, and Indian authenticity.
Baby Veronica’s mother is “predominantly Hispanic” and her father has only a small fraction of Cherokee ancestry. Legally, his fraction of ancestry doesn’t matter; only his tribal enrollment does. But the very first sentence of Justice Alito’s opinion describes Veronica as “1.2% (3/256) Cherokee,” underscoring the anxiety about race that has pervaded the case. The father has only a distant Cherokee ancestor - isn’t he more white than Indian? Sure, he is enrolled in the tribe, but how can “one drop of blood . . . trigger all these extraordinary rights?” (asked Justice Roberts during the argument). Why should the child’s ties to her Cherokee heritage be privileged over her Hispanic heritage, especially if she is fractionally more Hispanic than Cherokee? It is these racial anxieties, rather than the law itself, that seem to drive the majority opinion as well as the media coverage of the case. As Will Baude points out, neither the majority nor the concurrence has much in the way of express discussion of equal protection concerns. But the briefs, the oral arguments, and the references to fractional ancestry that peppered the majority opinion suggest these kinds of questions lurked just below the surface.
The short answer is that Indianness, especially in the form of formal enrollment in a tribe, is a political classification, not just a designation of race, heritage, or culture. I have written elsewhere about how to make sense of the “racial v. political” dichotomy that that seems to trouble many people about Indian law. In my view, it makes no sense to claim that Indianness has nothing at all to do with race and racism, but it is equally a mistake to suggest that the specter of race renders it less of a political status in the sense that the term is used to denote a particular legal history in which the federal government has treated Indian tribes as separate nations and has assumed unique powers to legislate with respect to tribes and indigenous people. (Bethany Berger and Sarah Krakoff have also written about this interplay.) Indian tribes have a different relationship with the federal government than any other group, a relationship based largely on treaties and recognition of nationhood. That is why Veronica’s Cherokee-ness matters in a way that her Hispanic-ness does not.
The term “Indian” has various definitions in different areas of federal law. In general, though, legal Indianness requires indigenous ancestry (descent from a group indigenous to what is now the United States) and some kind of political recognition. There are certainly areas of Indian law that spur debates about what qualifies as political recognition, but this is not one of them. As noted above, the definition of Indian here is clear, and it is clearly tied to tribal enrollment. Of all the possible indicia of Indianness, formal enrollment in a tribe is the most clearly “political” because it refers to national citizenship. Yet even enrollment-based distinctions raise concerns because most tribal enrollment rules require a demonstration of ancestry. Ancestry in tribal enrollment rules serves a different function than simply being “a proxy for race,” though. It is a nod to the kinship relations that form the basis of most tribes, and it is an indicator of indigeneity. As Justice Sotomayor points out in her dissent, the majority’s frequent references to the tribe’s reliance on descent and its “second-guess[ing]” of the tribe’s membership requirements are ironic in light of the fact that federal regulations require that all members demonstrate “descent from a historical Indian tribe” as a condition for tribal acknowledgement.
But the anxiety runs even deeper. The Cherokee Nation is one of a handful of tribes that require only lineal descendancy to enroll. Many tribes require a certain degree of ancestry (called “blood quantum”), and some impose additional requirements (the most recent study of enrollment rules is here). Most often, tribes are criticized for this use of blood quantum in their enrollment criteria. The criticism is both external (by requiring that members possess a certain percentage of “Indian blood,” tribes are injecting race into their citizenship criteria) and internal (minimum blood quantum requirements are partly the product of federal influence and reflect a campaign to ensure that “real” Indians will eventually disappear). (For more about the history of blood quantum, I suggest starting with Paul Spruhan and J. Kehaulani Kauanui.) The Cherokee Nation does not require members to have any specific blood quantum; members must instead demonstrate descent from a person on the historical tribal rolls. Instead of being cheered for removing race from its enrollment criteria, however, it is chided for relying on nothing but race - and only an “insignificant” fraction at that. (Similar concerns surrounded the use of ancestry in Rice v. Cayetano. Ironically, Justice Roberts argued that case for the state - the party relying on ancestry - yet he may be the current Justice most concerned with the use of ancestry in Indian law.)
Tribes can’t win here. If they require a specific percentage of Indian blood, they are relying on race. If they require only descent, their members aren’t really Indians (see Alex Pearl’s recent post). If they do not require descent, they are no longer indigenous. At the oral argument, Justice Roberts was also concerned about the possibility that ICWA could apply based on only enrollment, but not ancestry. He asked about a “hypothetical tribe” with a “zero percent blood quantum” that is “open for, you know, people who want to apply, who think culturally they’re a Cherokee or - and number of fundamentally accepted conversions.” And if you are paying close attention, you know that the Cherokee Nation is the same tribe being sued for removing freedmen from its rolls because - according to the tribe - they lack indigenous ancestry. (Of course, it is far more complicated, but this isn’t a post about the Cherokee freedmen.) I chose the term “racial anxieties” carefully because that is exactly what plagues Indian law. The problem is that the Justices (and the public) don’t know how to think about race and Indian law. Is it too racial? Is it not racial at all? Is it not racial enough? And what is race anyway?
That the law itself remains intact is no small victory. The brief for the guardian ad litem in this case advocated a reinterpretation of ICWA that would demand some additional “non-biological” demonstration of Indianness (presumably besides tribal enrollment), arguing that the law is unconstitutional otherwise (see here for a discussion of how this argument has surfaced in other ICWA cases). The attorney for the GAL, Paul Clement, recently attacked the constitutionality of Indian legislation in another area. Given Clement’s track record before the Court, tribes are rightly concerned that these lingering racial anxieties could damage tribal rights even more than they did here.
Posted by Addie Rolnick on June 30, 2013 at 03:17 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Culture, Current Affairs, Gender, Law and Politics, Things You Oughta Know if You Teach X | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Saturday, June 29, 2013
Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (1 of 4): Why the Court’s ICWA Ruling Matters
I’ve been a quiet guest this month, but this post (part 1 in a 4-part series) has been germinating a long time. Indian country issues get very little press (academic or otherwise), but when the occasional case is more widely followed, it can surface misunderstandings about Indian law and history and deep-seated anxieties about how Indian rights mesh with other areas of law. During my last guest stint here, I addressed this phenomenon in posts about the widely-debated Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez case and the Supreme Court’s 2012 holding in Ramah Navajo Chapter v. Salazar. I’m particularly concerned with how these crossover cases make their way into law school classes and legal scholarship not typically focused on Indian law, and I hope professors who incorporate these cases will find some of my observations and links useful.
Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, a major Indian law decision that has been nearly buried among the responses to Shelby, Fisher and Windsor, is one of those cases. It is a case about the language, history, and intent of the Indian Child Welfare Act, but the statutory issues have been shadowed by concerns about Indian authenticity, equal protection, fatherhood and motherhood, dysfunctional child welfare systems, and “deserving” adoptive parents. The purpose of this series, co-authored with Kim Pearson, a family law professor who writes about transracial adoption and non-normative families, is to clarify what the case did and didn’t do and to untangle the impact of some of these shadow concerns. While the Indian law analysis is largely mine and the family law analysis largely hers, the posts are a product of our collective views. Here, we address the holding and its immediate significance. In later posts, we will address the lurking issues.
What Exactly Is the Indian Child Welfare Act?
The Indian Child Welfare Act is a federal law that sets particular procedural rules that must be followed before parental rights can be terminated over a child who qualifies as “Indian.” The law was passed in 1978 to counter generations of forced removal of Indian children from their homes and communities, first via federally-sponsored assimilationist boarding schools and later via state child welfare systems, which removed Indian children from their homes at alarmingly high rates and placed them with white families, which were perceived to be better than their home communities. (This history is described in detail in an Indian law professor amicus brief filed by Stuart Banner and Angela Riley at UCLA.) The law does many things, but most important in this case are the procedures that state courts must follow if an Indian child (defined as as one who is “a member of an Indian tribe” or “is eligible for membership in an Indian tribe and is the biological child of a member of an Indian tribe”) comes before them in a foster care, parental termination, or adoption proceeding. These include notifying the parent and the child’s tribe, giving the tribe the opportunity to intervene or to assume jurisdiction over the case, setting a high evidentiary and procedural bar before parental rights can be terminated, and, in the event of removal, placing the child with a relative, a family from the same tribe, or another Indian family if at all possible.
In the only other ICWA case it has ever heard, the Court recognized that the law is primarily concerned with connecting tribes and children by strengthening tribal governments’ control over the placement of their children and by recognizing that the “best interests” of Indian children include maintenance of their tribal ties. (On the issue of what is “best” for adoptee children, read the amicus brief filed by pre-ICWA adoptees. The common complaint that the child’s best interests are “overridden” by the tribe or by federal law misses this aspect of ICWA; it recognizes that protecting the relationship between tribe and child is in line with, not antithetical to, the best interests analysis). That case, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, also involved a voluntary adoption in which the birth parents intentionally left the reservation in order to have their children adopted through state court to a white couple. The Court held that the statute required that the tribe have jurisdiction over the case, effectively refusing to allow individual Indian parents to circumvent the larger purposes of the law. Justice Scalia was in the majority in Holyfield, and he later described the decision to “turn that child over to the tribal council” as “very hard” but clearly mandated by the law. Justice Scalia’s characterization makes it sound as if the children were cruelly ripped from their adoptive home and returned to an opaque pit of corruption. What most people don’t know is that the Mississippi Choctaw tribe, after accepting jurisdiction and considering the best interests of the Holyfield children, eventually placed them with the adoptive family the parents had chosen, but required the parents to maintain contact with the children’s extended family and tribal culture. One lesson of that case, then, is that following federal law and respecting tribal jurisdiction doesn’t mean children won’t be properly placed in loving homes.
Baby Veronica, as she is known, is the child of a non-Indian mother and a Cherokee father, Dusten Brown. (Indian Country Today has a nice 4-part series on the family involved in the case. The first article is here and the last article, with links to the earlier ones, is here.) Her mother placed her up for adoption through a private agency and chose the Capiobiancos, a white couple with professional careers and advanced degrees, who have been referred to in most of the media coverage as “ideal” parents. As the court noted in the first footnote of its opinion, there was never any question that Veronica was an “Indian child” involved in a “child custody proceeding” - exactly the situation that would normally trigger ICWA’s requirements. The mother knew Brown was Cherokee, but she and/or her attorneys made several misstatements along the way (requesting information about enrollment using the wrong name and date of birth for Brown, listing the baby’s ethnicity as Hispanic on interstate transfer forms), and so the tribe was not involved. But the petitioners argued that because Brown failed to pay child support and did not have custody of Veronica, he had essentially abandoned her and therefore was no longer a “parent” under the law. With no Indian parent, they argued, there was no basis for applying ICWA.
This, of course, is precisely why ICWA matters: under state law in South Carolina, a father who has not actively parented (i.e., paid support, been actively involved in child’s life) has no right to object to an adoption, but ICWA superseded state laws to institute a uniform, more stringent standard in cases involving Indian children: parental rights cannot be terminated and Indian families cannot be broken up unless active efforts have been made to keep them intact and the parent has been deemed beyond a reasonable doubt to be unfit. (Voluntary relinquishment under ICWA requires a written order entered before a judge, which did not happen here.) Both the state family court and the supreme court denied the adoption, finding that ICWA’s standards for involuntary termination of parental rights (stricter than state law) had not been met. The question before the Court was whether ICWA should apply at all.
How the Court Narrowed ICWA
It is important to say here that the Court did not invalidate any part of the statute. It simply held that a non-custodial father cannot invoke ICWA’s protections. (Justice Thomas’ concurrence, on the other hand, inexplicably asserts that Congress has no power to supersede state law where Indian children are involved.) The majority (Alito, Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas and Breyer, whose concurrence is more limited) read the law as concerned primarily with involuntary termination proceedings in which state social workers come into Indian families and remove children. A non-custodial Indian father invoking the statute to counter the voluntary adoption initiated by a non-Indian mother seemed to the majority to be outside of the law’s scope. In the majority’s view, this case was not about “the breakup of the Indian family” because the only Indian parent was not actively parenting the child at the time. In other words, there was no Indian family to break up. The Court remanded the case to state court after holding that ICWA does not apply, but it did not order that Veronica be returned to the Capiobiancos. The state court must now decide, applying state law, where to place her.
(The majority also held that ICWA’s placement preferences did not apply because no other prospective adoptive parent was put forward by the tribe. This is disingenuous; no other placement was suggested because Brown’s extended family and the tribe supported Brown’s efforts to retain custody. The dissenting opinion points out - correctly, in my view - that the Court cannot rule on the placement question preference question before it has arisen, leaving room for the possibility that a relative could seek custody on remand. Justice Breyer, in his concurrence, suggested that Brown could be considered as a prospective adoptive placement if his rights were terminated.)
The blow struck by this case is significant. As the Court recognized in Holyfield, ICWA is about preserving the relationship between an Indian child and her tribe. The tribe has an interest in its children that may be separate from the interests of the Indian parents. The child’s interests are likewise served by maintaining a connection to her tribe and her extended family, even if she no longer has a relationship with her parents. In this case, the Cherokee Nation supported Dusten Brown’s effort to regain custody, but tribal intervention does not always (or even usually) mean returning the child to her Indian parent. By focusing so much on the father’s actions in the case, the Court has allowed tribal rights to be subsumed by an individual parent’s lack of responsibility. This is precisely the opposite of its holding in Holyfield, and it significantly undermines the spirit of the law.
For what it’s worth, I am a non-Indian mother of Indian children. Were we to consider giving our children up for adoption, or if they removed from our care, the ICWA’s procedures would come into play, possibly limiting our preferences about where we would want the children placed. I don’t consider ICWA’s recognition of a relationship between child and tribe to be an unfair burden or a barrier to pursuing my children’s best interests. As the Court recognized in Holyfield, but completely failed to acknowledge in Adoptive Couple, the two are closely linked.
Posted by Addie Rolnick on June 29, 2013 at 03:12 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Culture, Current Affairs, Gender, Law and Politics, Things You Oughta Know if You Teach X | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Thursday, June 13, 2013
Selling Made-To-Order Embryos and the Split on the Right
The New England Journal of Medicine will soon have in print an essay by Eli Adashi and I on the sale of "made-to-order" embryos. The article "Made-to-Order Embryos for Sale — A Brave New World?" has been online for a while already and concerns a recent development in the reproductive technology industry. As we put it:
The proliferation of commercial gamete sources (e.g., sperm and oocyte banks) has opened the door to a made-to-order embryo industry in which embryos are generated with a commercial transaction in mind. This prospect of a for-profit embryo bank is no longer theoretical. Indeed, as recently as November 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported on one such clinic that “sharply cuts costs by creating a single batch of embryos from one oocyte donor and one sperm donor, then divvying it up among several patients.” The report went on to state that “the clinic, not the customer, controls the embryos, typically making babies for three or four patients while paying just once for the donors and the laboratory work.”
Our essay reviews the legal regime that governs it (short answer, in most states it is not illegal or even regulated) and then considers the ethical premissibility of this practice. We examine objections to the practice premised on crowding out of embryo donors, the exploitation or undue inducement of donors, the corruption of reproduction (this is sometimes called "commodification" thought I think that term represents a broader set of arguments, so I use "corruption" in my work to capture the value-denigrating objection specifically in its intrinsic or consequentialist form), and the furthering of eugenic objectives. Throughout the short essay our argumentative strategy is to press on whether this new practice is all that different from existing practices, epsecially the sale of sperm and egg which individuals can themselves put together to create embryos for reproductive use or to destroy in the generation of embryonic stem cells as well as the practice known as 'embryo adoption' or 'embryo donation.' The thing we think is newest here is actually issues related to lack of guidance on the parentage and ownership of embryos in the event of clinic bankruptcy, changes in minds by the donors, or dispositional conflicts (though John Robertson has suggested the law may be more certain than we posit).
The article is short, limited to 1500 words, so obviously we couldn't tackle everyhting. What has been most interesting to me has been a split of opinion on the article in the righter wings of the blogosphere.
The American Enterprise Institute published commentary on our article "'Walking the Ethical Edge: Made to Order Embryos Address Genuine Needs'" beginning with a view that we own our own bodies and pressing on justifications for prohibiting voluntary transactions, concludes our article "offer[s] a thoughtful guidance through the ethical thicket of embryo donation," and that "arping about or in some cases ignoring the failures of the current IVF system, seems the preferred choice for those opposed to even debating the benefits and challenges of a for-profit embryo market. Unless we as a society are determined to reserve the right of reproduction by infertile couples to the wealthy, we should welcome options."
By contrast, the National Review Online has an article "Made To Order Commodities Market" with a more negative reaction. The author claims we've engaged in "sophistry [that] has always been the anything goes in biotech crowd’s primary tool"and concluding ominously "Make no mistake: This means human cloning is coming closer, as selling embryos for use in IVF is just the front for selling cloned embryos for use in research." The author seems to agree with us for the most part that the distinction between existing practices and this new one is thin[fn1] , but would have us reverse those other practices. That is fair enough. We employ an argument from symmetry here and it can be resolved either way, and we don't actually take a position as to whether these technologies should all be permitted or all prohibited just that they are hard to distinguish (that said, anyone who knows my own work can suspect where I would come out, I can't speak for my coauthor on this!)
Both commentaries are interesting and worth reading. What is more interesting to me is the way in which debates on reproductive technology usage, much more so than abortion, really does cleave the right into two. The libertarian wing wants a strong justification for limiting reproductive choices like other choices about what to do with our bodies and likens the debate to that on organ sale. The more socially conservative wing sees this the beginning of slouching towards gommorah. On abortion this fissure is easier to solve, since the claim of fetal personhood allows more libertarian oriented thinkers to adopt Harm Principle type justifications of preventing harm to fetuses as persons . As I noted in blogging about personhood on my last visit, embryonic personhood claims may be harder to sustain, and thus the consensus more easily shattered. I am part of a project looking at the intersection of abortion and reproductive technology advocacy and scholarship, so this room for schism is something I may write more about soon.
[fn1]: The author does suggests that sperm and egg sale are different because there is no "nascent human being." I think he means "person" not "human being" and I've blogged about why that distinction might matters in my last visit and also why one might support certain theories of when personhood begins over others. In any event the theory of personhood the author implictly champions would seem not to distinguish the existing possibility of preembryo destruction, indefinite freezing, stem cell derivation, etc.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
LSA Happy Hours and info on the CrimProf Shadow Conference.
Some announcements for folks attending Law and Society next week in Boston:
1) there's a crimprof happy hour on Thursday at 9pm at CityBar,
2) The general Prawfs and friends happy hour will be on Saturday from 9pm at the Sheraton SideBar.
Nunc est bibendum!
3) My co-organizer, Carissa Hessick, has, in her typical god-like ways, assembled the info for the Shadow CrimProf conference. This year's shadow conference will have a fantastic turnout.
Info appears after the jump (although not in exact chronological order).
2013 LSA Shadow Conference on Criminal Justice
Criminal Justice 01: Sentencing
Thurs. May 30, 10:15am-12noon
Christine Scott-Hayward – Shadow Sentencing
Carissa Hessick – Enforcing Procedural Rights at Sentencing
Moderator/Discussant: Gerry Leonard
Criminal Justice 02: Policing and Investigation
Thurs. May 30, 12:30pm-2:15pm
Lauryn Gouldin -- The Law of Investigative Detention
Amna Akbar -- The End of Community Policing?
Seth Stoughton – Policing the Constitution
Sandra Thompson -- Defining "Independence" in Forensic Science Labs
Moderator/Discussant: Carissa Hessick
Criminal Justice 03: Crim Theory
Sat. June 1, 2:30pm-4:15pm
Vincent Chiao -- Criminalization and Liberalism
Michael Rich -- Flipping the Murder Switch: Limits on the Perfect Preventive State
Youngjae Lee -- Moral Uncertainty and Reasonable Doubt
Moderator/Discussant: Michael Cahill
Criminal Justice 04: Substantive Crimes and Defenses
Fri. May 31, 2:30pm-4:15pm
Avlana Eisenberg -- Criminal Infliction of Emotional Distress
Jonathan Witmer-Rich -- The Heat of Passion Defense: Tolerable Reasons to be Angry
Michal Buchhandler-Raphael -- Drugs, Dignity and Danger: Human Dignity as a Constitutional Constraint to Limit Overcriminalization
Steven Morrison -- The System of Modern Criminal Conspiracy
Moderator/Discussant: Eric Blumenson
Criminal Justice 05: Kids, Crime and Punishment
Thurs. May 30, 8:15am-10am
Arnold Loewy -- Juveniles and the Constitution
Mary Graw Leary -- The Role of Technology in Child Sex Trafficking
Deborah Ahrens -- Parenting Behind Bars
Elaine Chiu -- The Movement Against Male Circumcision
Moderator/Discussant: Richard McAdams
Criminal Justice 06: Punishment and the Constitution
Fri. May 31, 10:15am-12noon
Will Berry -- When Dangerousness is Different
Meghan Ryan -- Juries and the Criminal Constitution
Beth Colgan -- Reinvigorating the Excessive Fines Clause
Todd Haugh – The Critical Mess Theory of Federal Sentencing
Moderator: Rick Bierschbach
Criminal Justice 07: Criminal Justice, Discretion, and Policy Challenges
Thurs. May 30, 2:30pm-4:15pm
Jennifer Laurin: Discretion, Pretrial Procedure, and Forensic Science
Cecilia Klingele: Revocation and Law Reform
Ion Meyn: Discovery and Darkness
Criminal Justice 08: Frontiers of Criminal Justice
Thurs. May 30, 4:30pm-6:15pm
Audrey Rogers: Cyber bullying and Suicide
Alex Kreit: Drug Truce
Michael Mannheimer: The Contingent 4th Amendment
Kenworthy Bilz: Punishment and social standing of victims and offenders
Criminal Justice 09: 4th Amendment
Fri. May 31, 4:30pm-6:15pm
Shima Baradaran: Reconsidering Fourth Amendment Balancing
Caren Myers Morrison -- The Drone Wars: Will Technology Outstrip the 4th Amendment?
Laurent Sacharoff -- Constitutional Trespass
David Gray -- A Technology-Centered Approach to Quantitative Privacy (co-author Danielle Citron)
Moderator/Discussant: Andrew Taslitz
Criminal Justice 10: Socio-Legal Panels on Defense Counsel & Prosecutors
Fri. May 31, 8:15am-10am
Ron Wright – Prosecutor Experience and the Culture of Self-Restraint (co-author K. Levine)
Jenia Iontcheva Turner – Effective Remedies for Ineffective Assistance of Counsel: A New Look After Lafler v. Cooper Cynthia Alkon -- Does your lawyer make a difference? Plea bargaining drug cases for indigent defendants (co-author J. Marshall)
Nirej Sekhon --- Prosecutors and politics
Moderator/Discussant: Don Dripps
Criminal Justice 11: Roundtable on Criminal Justice in 2020 book
Fri. May 31, 4:30pm-6:15pm
Song Richardson (Chair)
Criminal Justice 12: Juries
Sat. June 1, 8:15am-10am
Giovanna Shay -- In Open Court
Jenny Carroll – A Jury for All of Us
Catherine Grosso -- Information Seeking in Voir Dire: Could Modifying Juror Questioning Reduce Jury Selection Racial Disparities? (Co-Author Barbara O'Brien)
Moderator/Discussant: Luis Chiesa
Criminal Justice 13: Difference, Crime, and Punishment
Fri. May 31, 12:30pm-2:15pm
Barbara O'Brien -- Discrimination and the Death Penalty: Empirical Findings, Limitations, and Directions for Future Research (co-Author Catherine Grosso)
Kay Levine --- Romance, Education or Abuse? Media Narratives about Female on Male Statutory Rape (co-authors Emily Danker-Feldman, Brenda Smith, and Andrea Smith)
Moderator/Discussant: Frank Cooper
Criminal Justice 14 and CRN Feminist Legal Theory group: Vulnerability and Criminal Law
Fri. May 31, 8:15am-10am
Mary Anne Franks -- The Vulnerability Tax
Cynthia Godsoe -- Punishing to Protect
Aya Gruber -- Discriminatory Leniency in Criminal Law
Moderator/Discussant: Cyra Choudhury
Criminal Justice 15: Adjudication
Thurs. May 30, 12:30pm-2:15pm
Darryl Brown – Free Market Ideology in the Law of Bargaining and Trials
Brian Gallini -- Bringing Down a Legend: How Pennsylvania’s Investigating Grand Jury Ended Joe Paterno’s Career
Greg Gilchrist – Trial Bargaining
Melissa Hamilton – Sentencing: Politics or Empiricism
Moderator/Discussant: Brooks Holland
Criminal Justice 16: Roundtable on Future of Gideon at 50
Sunday June 2, 8:15am-10am
Darryl Brown (Chair)
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Sperm Donation, Anonymity, and Compensation: An Empirical Legal Study
In the United States, most sperm donations* are anonymous. By contrast, many developed nations require sperm donors to be identified, typically requiring new sperm (and egg) donors to put identifying information into a registry that is made available to a donor-conceived child once they reach the age of 18. Recently, advocates have pressed U.S. states to adopt these registries as well, and state legislatures have indicated openness to the idea.
In a series of prior papers I have explained why I believe the arguments offered by advocates of these registries fail. Nevertheless, I like to think of myself as somewhat open-minded, so in another set of projects I have undertaken to empirically test what might happen if the U.S. adopted such a system. In particular, I wanted to look at the intersection of anonymity and compensation, something that cannot be done in many of these other countries where compensation for sperm and egg donors is prohibited.
Today I posted online (downloadable here) the first published paper from this project,Can You Buy Sperm Donor Identification? An Experiment, co-authored with Travis Coan, and forthcoming in December 2013 in Vol. 10, Issue 4, of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies.
This study relies on a self-selected convenience sample to experimentally examine the economic implications of adopting a mandatory sperm donor identification regime in the U.S. Our results support the hypothesis that subjects in the treatment (non-anonymity) condition need to be paid significantly more, on average, to donate their sperm. When restricting our attention to only those subjects that would ever actually consider donating sperm, we find that individuals in the control condition are willing-to-accept an average of $$43 to donate, while individuals in the treatment group are willing-to-accept an aver-age of $74. These estimates suggest that it would cost roughly $31 per sperm donation, at least in our sample, to require donors to be identified. This price differential roughly corresponds to that of a major U.S. sperm bank that operates both an anonymous and identify release programs in terms of what they pay donors.
We are currently running a companion study on actual U.S. sperm donors and hope soon to expand our research to egg donors, so comments and ideas are very welcome online or offline.
* I will follow the common parlance of using the term "donation" here, while recognizing that the fact that compensation is offered in most cases gives a good reason to think the term is a misnomer.
- I. Glenn Cohen
Thursday, May 02, 2013
Great to be back and greetings from Washington!
It's great to be back at Prawfs for another guest-blogging stint. I'm looking forward to spending the month talking a bit about some of my favorite topics such as co-religionist commerce, religious arbitration, and non-state law.
My growing interest in non-state law largely traces to my sense that conversations in both international law, transnational law, and religious law share much in common (e.g. discussions of what is law, can there be law without enforcement, how should the state treat competing legal norms etc.). To further this interest, I'm running a symposium in Washington, D.C. today sponsored by Pepperdine Law School and the American Society for International Law titled "The Rise of Non-State Law." The symposium is part of a series run by ASIL's International Legal Theory Interest Group and the papers from today's symposium will eventually become part of a volume published by Cambridge University Press.
I must say the papers submitted (and being presented) by the participants are truly fantastic and have led today to some great conversation and debate. For those who share the interest, here's the full schedule for the day:
8:30 a.m. Breakfast (Tillar House)
9:00 Panel 1—Global Legal Pluralism: Trends and Challenges
- Moderator: John Linarelli (Swansea)
11:00 Panel 2—Non-State Law and Non-State Institutions
- Moderator: Donald Earl Childress III (Pepperdine)
1:00 p.m. Lunch
2:00 Panel 3—The Role of Religion and Culture in Non-State Law
- Moderator: Mortimer Sellers (Baltimore)
4:00 Open Forum
5:00 Closing Comments
Monday, April 29, 2013
Why I Decided to Construct a Free Online Casebook Available to Anyone for Civ Pro Using the H20 Platform
One of the nice things about tenure is that it frees you up to to do things you know are good for the world but may not be adequately valued in the tenure process. This summer I will embark on one such project, building a free online casebook for Civ Pro. I will be using the Harvard Berkman Center H20 "hack the casebook" platform. This great platform allows you to create "playlists" of cases and other materials that can be "remixed" by others, added to, etc. The initial goal of the project is to create a completely free H20 platform casebook for each of the firsy year classes, and I have stepped up to do Civ Pro.
Let me tell you a little bit about why I chose to do this because it may encourage others to join this great project or ones like it.
First, like others, I am shocked at how expensive textbooks have become for doctrinal 1L course. I realized that together my casebook and supplement (including the FRCP, major statutesm, etc) would cost my students $243 a piece and thus providing them with free materials would save at least $19,000 among my own students for next year. When multiplied over several years, as well as the possibility that other faculty would adopt this textbook and save their students money, this just seemed like a value creating proposition.In a time when students across the U.S. are struggling with the high price of legal education, I felt I should do what I could here.
Second, most of the materials I teach in my Civ Pro class are major Supreme Court cases (with a few Circuit and state court cases) that could be easily found and edited in public domain format, which the H20 platform makes easy. Just because of the way I teach my own course and the textbook I was using, I was already not assigning many of the notes that followed the cases and I was supplementing the book with additional materials (some written up by myself) so that the value the casebook was offering to my course that could not be found in the public domain was lessened. To be sure, I will still have to replace introductory sections of various parts of the book with my own write-ups as well as do editing of all the versions of the cases I will still use -- no small amount of effort -- but I might have felt differently about undertaking this if my casebook was doing more original work for me in the way I taught my course.
Third (and here I am purposefully not being specific and naming the casebook in question because, for all I know, all Casebooks in the field are similar in this regard): my casebook is more than 1200 pages long. I estimate that I use only about 300-450 of those pages in a 4 credit introductory course. It does have a compact addition for shorter courses, but unfortunately what it chooses to keep versus discard is not a good fit for what I use from the book. Before I decided to do the H20 version myself, I called the publisher of my casebook to see if I could "buy by the page" for the pages I actually use, a practice that some textbooks allow you to do. I was told I could not. Given that they have gone to the trouble of creating a "condensed" version I do not blame the authors/publishers, but this was the last straw for me in deciding to go it on my own.
This summer, along with my RAs, will be spent doing a beta version of the free H20 Casebook for Civ Pro that I will test out with my incoming 1Ls in the fall. I am incredibly grateful to Harvard Law School for allowing me to use my time (and RA time) for this project whose value will hopefully be externalized. I am particularly grateful to my dean, Martha Minow, since she is herself the co-author of a Civ Pro textbook (not the one I had been using), so she is basically authorizing the law school to fund a project that may cut into her own sales. She's just that kind of classy person! The beta version will be kept internal to my students for the fall, but if all goes well I hope to share it with the world in 2014 and perhaps others will want to adopt it.
- I. Glenn Cohen
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Some Must Reads from the Mich LR Books Issue
I spent a decent bit of time with the recent books issue of the Michigan Law Review. Whenever I read review essays of books, I watch for the degree to which the author performs the script identified and lampooned by David Schleicher. The latest issue of the MLR has no shortage of review essays in which the upshot by the reviewer is: this book would be better and its problems would be cured if it were more interested in the things that I also am interested in and had cited and addressed my work more.
Still, I'm delighted to say that in the area of criminal justice, there are 2 pieces that are absolutely vital for every prof in that area to read.
The first is Steve Schulhofer's polite but fearless and fierce critique of Bill Stuntz's book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice. As some of you know, this book, and more generally, its late author, have received a cascade of encomia from distinguished and usually shrewd reviewers. The circle of love around Stuntz is understandable and obviously warranted. He was a gem of a human being and a superb colleague. I had Stuntz as a teacher when he arrived at Harvard, and ever since, was grateful for his generosity of spirit and example as a teacher and scholar. But as Nietzsche said, one repays a teacher badly by always remaining a pupil.
And so, on the merits of the work, I have long been a skeptic, though as someone who doesn't specialize in criminal procedure as such, I had refrained from investing the necessary time to ground the skepticism and make it intellectually tidy. Thanks to Steve Schulhofer's piece, however, that task is now substantially underway. With some luck it will do the work of bringing a generation of criminal procedure scholars back on course. For notwithstanding the many deservedly kind things that could be said about Stuntz, my fear is that his seductive writing and bold and innovative claims took too many people off course from truth and justice. Schulhofer's review, which I'm sure was enormously difficult to write, will provide adequate grounds for others to revisit and soberly re-assess the significance of the Stuntzian corpus of scholarship.
Elsewhere in the issue is John Pfaff's review of Ernest Drucker's book on the epidemiology of mass incarceration. John is guesting here at Prawfs over the next while and so I won't steal his thunder and say too much of his review essay other than it artfully and carefully outlines the empirical basis to wholly undermine much of the conventional wisdom found among lots of criminal law academics and some of the prominent journalists who have been clobbered by their Zombie memes.
In short, if you're at all interested in being better informed about the American criminal justice system and the pathologies of its scholarship, read Steve and John's pieces.
Finally, I can't forbear from also highlighting our own Paul Horwitz's contribution to that MLR issue. Paul's critique of Tamanaha and Olson's books on legal education is typically Horwitzian: fair-minded, pointed, and subtle (and thus, Canadian?). Enjoy!
Thursday, April 04, 2013
Roger EbertRoger Ebert has died. I was a big fan. I wrote a brief post about his writing in 2008. He will be sorely missed.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Random pop culture momentWe watched "The Wizard of Oz" over the weekend--first time our daughter had seen it. Now I can't get Dark Side of the Moon out of my head.
Monday, December 17, 2012
Build a better mousetrap . . .How is it that in the approximately 2200 years since the Maccabee Rebellion, no one has invented a good doohickey for getting remnant wax out of a Chanukah Menorah? And what should such a thingamabob be called?
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Breaking Bad, Wire-Style
I've written before that "The Wire" had the best opening title sequence/theme song in TV history. I also am a big fan of "Breaking Bad," although its title sequence is not quite as memorable (although I still like it, especially in its use of Periodic Table boxes--for Bromine and Boron Barium--for the first letters in the title). Fortunately, someone decided to show what would happen if the latter used the former's title sequence.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
My daughter is well past Sesame Street age, although she spent a year (from 20 months to 32 months) carrying a stuffed Elmo everywhere. But given the news that the man who created Elmo, Kevin Clash, has resigned from the show in the wake of two separate allegations of child sexual abuse, a question:
Can Elmo survive as a character? Sesame Street producers insist he can, that other puppeteers are trained to do the character and that "Elmo is bigger than any one person." But can parents separate Elmo the character from the person who played him, given how much attention Clash himself has received? And there are two aspects to this question. First, will parents allow their kids to like, watch, and play with Elmo? Second, what do the show and parents do with the fact that most of the 2013-14 season (the show's 44th) has been taped, meaning Clash will be playing Elmo well into 2014?
Sunday, November 11, 2012
Catalyzing Sports Fans (and the Rest of Us)--early draft now available
I'm happy to say that my co-authors Howard Wasserman, Michael McCann, and I have a short shitty first draft to read -- Catalyzing Sports Fans (and the Rest of Us) -- if anyone's interested. The paper is *not* about retributive justice in any dimension. It's about sports, free speech, contracts, taxes, crowds, opera, charity, and jurisdictional competition, etc. In short, it's about nothing I know anything about. So I hope you'll see fit to set me straight. Let me know via email if you'd like to read an early version please. I've pasted our working abstract below.
In most major professional sports, the desires of fans are of secondary significance. We think this could be different, and we offer two variations on a theme in which fans can be more influential stakeholders, particularly with respect to player trades or retention deals. We propose the development of Fan Action Committees (FACs).
Whether through enriching players directly, or through contributions to a player’s foundation or favorite charitable cause (our preferred approach), we examine the uneasy case for FACs. After anticipating objections and obstacles under current rules to their development, we offer some reflections about how the FAC model can transform, well, just about all other realms of human endeavor where third parties are benefited or harmed by agreements between two other parties.
Friday, November 09, 2012
Making and Taking
David Brooks is not my favorite New York Times columnist, though he’s certainly not the worst (I’m looking at you, Gail). And sometimes he says things that are both right and really important. He said something like that today, when he advised Republicans to start thinking about ethnic groups (in my own experience, Latinos) in ways that transcend this foolish and disgusting makers-takers/"they want stuff" theme that is oozing into the post-election discussion.
What he points out is that many ethnic groups (again, I’m thinking personally about Latinos) have immense respect for hard work, but also immense appreciation for the good government can do. Without spilling too much of my unabridged biography here I’ll just say that I have a lot of personal experience with people working exceptionally hard. And valuing it. My father used to tell me that his father, a barber, would say “If I don’t cut hair, we don’t eat.” My father got that lesson. My other grandfather started as a dishwasher in a hotel restaurant and eventually bought a Mexican restaurant: he used his wife and his daughter (my mother) as waitresses and cashiers, and he did all the cooking and purchasing himself. The only outside person who did any work there was a bookkeeper he used at tax time.
But a lot of whatever success we achieved as a family could not have happened without government programs. I’ll start with the biggest program of them all: the military, which, while nearly killing my father more than once, nevertheless ended up providing us housing, discounted groceries, education (from first grade to, in the case of my father, vocational education), and yes, the biggest evil of all, government-run health care (which was excellent, by the way). We also benefitted from food stamps, Pell Grants and guaranteed student loans, state universities, Medicare, and Medicaid. I’m sure I’m leaving something out.
Anyway, enough detail. As a matter of setting the record straight I’m glad David Brooks explained all this to the blowhards and self-righteous titans of white American industriousness who think that a vote for Obama was a vote for government cheese and a chance to sit around and keep sucking on the government teat. Although personally I don’t really care if they get the message: if they keep talking like they talked this time around (and are still talking) at least I won’t have to spend two months every four years refreshing 538.com rather than, well, working. Because I won’t have to worry about how the election will turn out.
Saturday, November 03, 2012
"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Hello all and a tremendous thank you to Dan and the PrawfsBlawg crew for having me this month! I'm usually thinking about patent law, but today I've got a short note on other IP...
Last week, the estate of William Faulkner filed two lawsuits over quotes from Faulkner works – one against Sony for the movie, Midnight in Paris, featuring a misquote of the above quotation from Faulkner's novel, Requiem for a Nun, the other against the Washington Post and Northrop Grumman for an ad featuring a quote from a Harper’s piece on civil rights. The complaints can be found here and here. Both suits allege three causes of action: copyright infringement, trademark infringement and misappropriation for commercial advantage of Faulkner’s likeness and image. I’m guessing that the suits spark a little surprise and outrage in most folks, folks who feel like this shouldn’t be actionable copyright or trademark infringement because the use seems like a fair (and quite common) one. And I believe these mildly outraged folks would be right—both copyright and trademark fair use doctrines appear to protect this sort of use. We might give Faulkner his due on the misappropriation count, however—after all, the movie and ad are clearly commercial endeavors. Yet without delving too deeply into right of publicity torts, it seems reasonable that an incidental use in works of entertainment like a movie does not trigger liability. The ad may be a more difficult case because it’s not an entertaining work of fiction.
This is really interesting to Faulkner (and Woody Allen) fans. But an IP fan might have a couple more questions.If everyone but the Faulkner estate thinks this case is a slam-dunk loser, why file it? And why pick these as your first suits ever in defending the estate’s intellectual property? One hypothesis: These suits are a shot across the bow to moviemakers, ad men and other creative types who want to quote (or misquote) Faulkner (a suggestion made by BU's BC's Dave Olson here) without getting the estate's permission.
Another hypothesis: Assume the misappropriation claim with respect to the Northrop Grumman ad has a chance (however slim) of winning for the estate. Perhaps buttressing the state tort claim with two federal infringement claims frames the case as one of intellectual property rights and, in doing so, legitimizes and strengthens the state claim. Having a conversation about the quotes as protected expression or as protected marks (however weak those claims may be) may set up the misappropriation conversation more favorably for Faulkner than if it stood alone. The movie case (and others in the future) have to be filed to keep the momentum going—building a case for respect for their IP rights, whatever they may be.
As an aside, the estate appears recently to have licensed a quote to the television show, Modern Family. This is a question I usually ask my students. Should the fact that some people get and pay for permission inform our decision on whether those who do not seek permission and/or do not pay for similar uses are using fairly? For example, Weird Al usually gets permission for his songs even though they seem like fair uses after Campbell v. Acuff-Rose and when Lady Gaga would not grant permission, he created a parody of her song anyway, relying on fair use.
Looking forward to a great month here!
Thursday, November 01, 2012
Mrs. Coach speaks
Still more on the dust-up over Mitt Romney using Clear Eyes, Full Hearts in his campaign and speeches: Actress Connie Britton (who played Tami Taylor, a/k/a Mrs. Coach) and Sarah Aubrey (an executive producer on the show) wrote an op-ed in USA Today criticizing Romney for using the slogan, insisting that the women of Dillon, Texas would not approve. The piece particularly focuses on issues of health care and women's rights--ACA, equal pay, the future viability of Planned Parenthood (they point out that the single mother of star running back "Smash" Williams worked there, a detail I did not know or remember).
Anyway, draw your own conclusions.
Thursday, October 25, 2012
More on electoral politics and "Friday Night Lights"
Dan Hopkins (political science at Georgetown), writing at The Monkey Cage, applies a model to predict how the major characters would have voted in 2008. He concludes that pretty much everyone would have voted for McCain, including Mrs. Coach (not sure I agree with that one). He does not discuss Julie Taylor (Coachette, if you will), whose "get-me-out-of-this-small-town" attitude likely makes her a Democrat. Definitely worth a read.
Sunday, October 14, 2012
Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose (the election)
A mini controversy has sprung up over Mitt Romney adopting the slogan "clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" from the tv show Friday Night Lights as a campaign rally slogan. Peter Berg, the show's creator, wrote a letter to Romney telling him that his "politics and campaign are clearly not aligned with the themes we portrayed in our series" and asking him to "[p]lease come up with your own campaign slogan." No word, at this point, whether the campaign is going to acquiesce.
This is just the latest in a repeated story--GOP candidate uses some pop culture theme (song, show, slogan, character, etc.) and its creator complains and asks him to stop. And to the extent Berg is correct that Romney's politics are contrary to the show's message, that, too, is par for the course. Politicians (and others) have long been using Mellencamp's Pink Houses and Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. as "rah-rah, America is great" songs, completely missing the songs' obvious theme that America has ignored and abandoned segments of society--the working class, Viet Nam vets, working-class Viet Nam vets.
Several media critics have argued that it is not clear whether the show's political message is consistent or aligned with the campaign's message, because the show's politics are not clear. The show, they suggest, was both liberal and conservative--"bi-partisan," as one critic writes. Slate's David Plotz argued last year that the show's politics are "communitarian;" it values the communities that we create of whatever form--families, friends, schools, small towns, teams, team boosters, churches, etc. It's an interesting insight, although I would counter that the central institutions depicted--the school, the football booster club, and the town that loved its team--all were corrupt and influenced by wealthy individuals with questionable motives and all screwed over Coach and Mrs. Coach at just about every turn. Anyway, the argument now seems to be that a show with political universality should not be coopted by one side or the other.
The question is whether it matters. Putting to one side any intellectual property issues and whether a political campaign can claim fair use of the song/slogan/show, what difference does it make whether the candidate's use of the song/slogan/character is consistent with its original or intended message? In fact, isn't the "fair use" argument stronger if the candidate can argue that he is giving new or altered meaning to the culture referent? Plus, whatever the message of FNL itself, the "clear eyes" slogan has little or nothing to do with any of that.
Friday, October 12, 2012
Negative Commercial Advertising
At this time of year, there are always complaints about politicians' negative ads. I never bought into these complaints; it seemed to me that negative ads tended to be more useful than positive ones. An ad claiming that a candidate was soft on crime or was in the pocket of big business was at least likely to convey some information about ideology. An ad claiming that a candidate had good character, however, tended to be worthless to me because anyone can claim to have good personal qualities.
But whatever the merits of negative political ads, I am intrigued by the negative commercial ads that I have seen lately. Take, for example, Samsung's ad that's critical of the iPhone. One of the messages of the ad is that young people shouldn't want the iPhone -- simply because middle-aged people do want it. Similarly, the "not for women" softdrink campaign and the Miller Lite "man up" ads appeal to men to buy the products strictly because women (or effeminate men) aren't supposed to like them.
This is different from products that are meant to appeal to certain groups. Dove's Men + Care, for example, might appeal to men because it lacks the flowery perfume that marks some other soaps. These newer products, by contrast, are being promoted strictly by denigrating other groups of potential purchasers.
Am I right in thinking that this represents a new development? I don't recall ad campaigns exactly like these, though it might be simply a variation on the don't-trust-anyone-over-30 mantra from the 60s. Does it say something about modern culture that commercial companies now think they can make more money with divisive ads than by appealing to all demographics?
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Law on TV
It is not breaking new ground to say that television is fascinated by law and lawyers, even if the portrayal is never quite right. It does give us some exam or discussion ideas or at least something to blog about. To wit:
On Parenthood, the lawyer character got into trouble at work because she missed the deadline for submitting her responses to Request for Admissions (that phrase was repeated multiple times, probably because it sounds fancy--I don't think I mention Requests to Admit that many times in my entire semester-long class). As a result, the case was going to be dismissed, her client was going to be out millions of dollars, and the firm was going to be sued for malpractice. Opposing counsel declined to accept the late responses because doing so would hurt her client.
This seems really far-fetched to me. Courts don't dismiss cases for a single inadvertent discovery mistake; it would have taken a whole lot of prior discovery problems for the court to get to that point; would the court really have not forgiven a one-day delay (to the extent the court is even involved in discovery at that point).? I also would expect opposing counsel to agree to the after-the-fact extension, since there probably was no prejudice. The show obviously was trying to set-up work problems so the character can face a work-family balance crisis. And maybe discovery sounded fancier and more lawyerly than a problem (like failing to file a lawsuit on time) that might actually get a case dismissed.
And, hey, anytime you can make drama out of discovery, you have to go there, right?
More questions, with SPOILERS, after the jump.I also am right in the middle of the most-recent episode of Elementary (Sherlock Holmes in New York), which does not feel that much different than any other CBS police procedural. Holmes suspects the neighbor of the murder victim of having stolen something from the victim's apartment, so he kicks in the door to reveal the stolen item; as he is doing this and the neighbor is screaming about him having to get a warrant, Holmes says "it's a good thing I'm not the police." That is just flat-out wrong; Holmes acts under color of state law under at least two (maybe three) tests. Can anyone come up with a conceivable argument that he doesn't?
Finally, here is the one I genuinely need help on, because I know nothing about wills. In that same episode, Sherlock discovers that the two murder victims both had been fathered by the philandering father of a prime suspect. The wealthy man had recently died, with a will leaving the estate to his marital daughters (the suspect and her twin sister). But, Sherlock says, the two victims are "pretermitted heirs" who would be able to come back and make a claim on the estate, thus giving the suspect motive to kill them.
This seems really, really wrong. If the father made out a will, assuming it is valid, he can disinherit or devise to anyone he wants, can't he? That there might be heirs entitled to a claim in the absence of a will does not mean they can make any sort of claim on an estate that has been probated pursuant to a valid will. In other words, they only would be entitled to millions of dollars (the basis for the motive) if they could show the willis invalid; they could not show entitlement to recover simply because they are descendants. Am I wrong about this? Am I missing something?
Friday, September 21, 2012
The Simpsons "love" Mitt Romney
Take a quick look at this obviously fantastic election-related clip from "The Simpsons":
Romney's horse may have totally "choked in the Olympics," but at least Homer gets outsourced to China with "a steady job." Too bad "Stupid" Flanders is there next to him. Romney "has a house in your state" and the "government paid him taxes the last five years." But, it's ok. After all, Romney "did invent Obamacare."
Homer didn't have an ID when he arrived to vote, so the Rich Texan (a Republican stooge in most episodes) wanted to stop him from voting, that is, until he learned that Homer was white, middle aged, relatively uneducated, and gets his news from TV screens at gas stations. The Rich Texan, though, gives us the best line: "Stopping all Americans from voting is for the protection of all Americans."
Governor Romney may think 47% of us are "takers" and dependent on the government and not worth caring about, but although all that is great fodder for politics and the media, the real tragedies of this election are those brazen attempts to suppress voter turnout in traditionally Democratic locations and among traditional Democratic constituencies. In Ohio, the Republican state leadership tried to end early voting in just the Democratic counties; in Indiana, the state is taking away voting locations in urban areas and adding them in rural ones. On the other hand, states like New York and California are allowing people to register to vote online and making it easier for people to find their voting centers and get to them.
Homer was lucky. Too many voters may not be.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Sorkin better in PSAs?
Fresh off my post decrying how bad Aaron Sorkin shows have become (or, in retrospect, always were), comes this story about using The West Wing to teach about democracy. Hillary Clinton told a story about the speaker of the lower house of Burma's parliament telling her that, in an effort to learn how to be a democratic body, they had taken to watching old segments of the show (Clinton did not agree that was the best way to do it).
Cast members also have taken to doing political PSAs and educational spots, in character and in full Sorkin Mode. The most recent one is for Bridget Mary McCormack, a law professor at Michigan (and the sister of a former castmember) who is running for the Michigan Supreme Court; the spot also tries to educate voters about the non-partisan sections of the ballots, including judicial elections. The earlier one is by Funny or Die and is a mock PSA (sorry, unable to embed) about the benefits of walking and looking for a way to inform people about the benefits of walking.
It's all prettty funny (especially in its self-awareness: "Hey, how about a TV show showing people walking?" "Nah") and quite enjoyable, at least in short bursts. Maybe politics are different.
Thursday, September 06, 2012
Has Aaron Sorkin always been unwatchable?
I have always been an Aaron Sorkin fan. Like every law professor, I can recite A Few Good Men from memory; like every Democrat of a certain age, I loved The West Wing; and like not many people (since no one watched the show), I enjoyed Sports Night.
But we stopped watching The Newsroom after about three episodes. And it was not about his political leanings, which I largely share. And I like the idea of a press that actually does ask the tough questions in a sort of prosecutorial manner.
The problem is the stories and characters. The women were all written as totally incompetent personally or professionally or, usually, both (Sorkin has taken a lot of criticism for this). Just about every character seems thoroughly unlikeable as a human being, particularly the men who draw out the incompetence of the women. And the Sorkinesque speechifying, meant to be soaring, often comes across as bullying or humiliating. Sorkin paints a world in which it would be great if we all had the ability to call someone out and cut them to the quick in an articulate way; but often, that just looks obnoxious. Plus, his characters are basically the same; you can link a character on The Newsroom to one on WW to one on SN.
The thing is, I'm not sure it is only this show. I recently went back to Season 1 of Sports Night and found it just as unwatchable for many of the same reasons. The characters were slightly better and more enjoyable, but the blatant sexism and retrograde sexual politics remained, as did the speechifying that just came across as obnoxious or unbelievable.
Am I wrong? Am I being too harsh? Trust me, I can handle the truth.