Author: Gerard Magliocca


What Bill Clinton and Donald Trump Have in Common

One of the worst Supreme Court decisions in the past two decades was Clinton v. Jones, in which a unanimous Court held that the sexual harassment suit against President Clinton could proceed while he was in office.  This was a terrible decision in the short-run, as it led to the colossal waste of time that was the Clinton impeachment. Consider, though, it’s lousy longer-run ramifications.

If, God forbid, Donald Trump is elected, he will have to spend a lot of time in office dealing with civil litigation filed against him for his business activities.  The Trump University case is pending, but there are probably other cases that will be filed before the election and after with the goal of deposing Trump for one reason or another. How much time do we want our President spending on litigation over things that happened before he or she was President?


Clay v. United States

192px-Muhammad_Ali_NYWTSIn honor of today’s funeral for Muhammed Ali, I thought I’d post about the Supreme Court’s opinion reversing Ali’s conviction for refusing induction into the draft.  The Court held that the Draft Board’s refusal to grant Ali conscientious objector status as a believer in Islam was not explained and thus must be reversed because at least one of the reasons why that denial could have occurred was invalid. Justice Douglas wrote one of his quirky concurring opinions that discussed the concept of jihad at some length.  Basically, Justice Douglas’s point was that Islam was not pacifist, but that only a “just” war against non-believers was valid under the Qu’ran. Douglas then added a footnote that shows you how much things have changed since 1971:

“The last attempt to use jihad as a significant force was made in 1914 by the Ottoman Sultan; but it failed and the jihad has fallen into disuse.”


What is the Appropriate Standard for Judicial Recall?

I want to weigh in on an issue that involves my alma mater, Stanford University.  As I’m sure many of you know, a former student there, Brock Allen Turner, was convicted of three felony sexual assault counts against a woman who was visiting campus.  The judge in the case, Aaron Persky, then sentenced Turner to six months in jail and three years of probation.  Lots of people are outraged by this lenient sentence and have initiated a recall campaign against Judge Persky.

From what I know about the case, the sentence is preposterous. Here, though, is what troubles me.  Is it appropriate for a judge to be recalled or denied reelection for one decision, no matter how stupid it is?  I have not heard anything else about the judge’s tenure.  Now maybe folks in the Bay Area think that he’s a dimwit and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Or maybe he is excellent in some cases but unfair to women in rape cases or just generally.  I have no idea.

Let’s say, though, that he’s a good judge who made a terrible decision in this case. Recalling someone on that basis strikes me as rather dangerous.  It means that any judge who makes a decision lots of people hate could justify a recall based on that single fact.  (This, of course, happened in Iowa some years ago to State Supreme Court Justices who ruled in favor of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.)  Is that really the standard that we want?  (Granted, maybe this is just an argument against having elected judges, but within that system I certainly think unprofessional or abusive judges should be booted out.)

If any of the Stanford faculty who are involved with the recall effort would like to write a guest post here offering their thoughts, I invite them to do so.


Remedies for Violating the Religious Test Oath Ban

Article Six of the Constitution provides: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” A federal statute that imposed such a requirement would, of course, be struck down as unconstitutional.

Suppose, though, that President X were to announce in the Rose Garden:  “My Administration will not appoint any Muslims to any office or public Trust under the United States.”  Other than impeachment, would there be any remedy for the Muslims in that case, some of whom would certainly have standing?  The President would enjoy absolute immunity from a tort damage suit under Supreme Court precedent.  In theory a court could reinstate a federal official fired because of his or her faith, but someone who was simply not considered could not obtain any equitable relief (I would think), although again in theory a court could order some sort of remedial hiring.  What is the right answer here?


Can Art Change the Law?

This is one question posed in Richard Primus’ new piece in the Atlantic on the musical “Hamilton.” (In the interests of full disclosure, Richard is my friend and was my c0-clerk). Part of his point is that the popularity of “Hamilton” and its casting could make originalist arguments more accessible to minorities that may have previously dismissed those views as the product of white slaveholders.  Another possibility is that a jump in Hamilton’s profile could give his arguments in the Federalist or elsewhere greater weight as compared to, say, someone like Jefferson.

It is hard to think of a work of popular culture with a greater impact on popular views of our history than “Hamilton.”  The closest comparison is “Birth of a Nation,” the racist celebration of the Ku Klux Klan that is considered one of the classics of silent cinema (in terms of its technique). Some think that “Birth of a Nation,” which came out in 1916, played a significant role in the revival of the KKK in the 1920s, which led to some substantial legal and political changes.  I’ve never seen “Birth of a Nation,” but now I’m thinking that I should to probe this comparison further.



Is Fraud an Impeachable Offense?

The fraud litigation currently pending against Donald Trump poses this question:  Is a civil judgment of fraud for private conduct a high crime and misdemeanor under the Constitution?  My tentative answer is yes, if the fraud were especially egregious.

One thought is that the answer is no because only official misconduct should lead to impeachment.  But this cannot be correct.  Consider the example of Dennis Hastert.  Suppose he had become President.  (He was third-in-line to the succession after all.)  If after that the news of his sexual abuse of students came out, then I would think that he could have been impeached for that alone.

Perhaps the only private conduct that can lead to impeachment is a crime. But I think not. Civil liability for something like wrongful death could be impeachable–consider something like what Ted Kennedy did at Chappaquiddick (if that were unknown to the voters). Fraud is an intentional tort that requires proof by clear and convincing evidence.  If the damages from that fraud were substantial (including punitive damages), then I don’t see why that couldn’t rise to such a level that would warrant impeachment.   What do you think?


FOIA Requests for Tax Returns

Donald Trump’s refusal thus far to release his tax returns raises an interesting issue.  Tax returns are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I can’t just ask the IRS to give me his returns and get them. While this makes sense as a general matter given the privacy concerns involved, I wonder whether the custom of having high public officials release their returns should be codified by making their returns subject to FOIA.

For an ordinary citizen, tax returns should be private unless they are required for a criminal investigation or are subject to a valid subpoena in a civil case.  Presidential candidates (at least the two major party nominees) have voluntarily released their returns for a long time, though I don’t know for how long.  It seems to me that the public’s right to know in this instance overrides a candidate’s privacy interest. We might find out, for instance, that Trump did not pay any federal income tax last year.  I’d like to know if he did, and I think that I have a right to know.  Political pressure may compel him to act, but should that be the only way of obtaining that information?


The Tenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights

When I’m not grading exams, I’m working on the new book about the Bill of Rights.  (On Chapter 4 at the moment.)  One issue that I’m still working through is when the issue of whether the Bill of Rights was the first eight, the first nine, or the first ten amendments was settled in favor of ten.  I have yet to identify a magic moment where ten emerged victorious, though I did find the following passage interesting.  It was a dissenting report by segregationists to the Democratic National Platform in 1960:

The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is a part of the Bill of Rights equal in force and dignity to the First Amendment and all of the other amendments which comprise the Bill of Rights. When a court or a legislative group or an executive disregards or violates the rights of a state under the Tenth Amendment, thereby the rights of the people under the First Amendment to worship, to read, to speak, to print are jeopardized. A mere majority which can today ignore the Tenth Amendment can tomorrow ignore the First Amendment and all the others.

Of course, this was a dissenting position, but it was the clearest effort made up to that time to prop up the Tenth Amendment through the Bill of Rights.  I have yet to find the critical source that made it into the majority position.  You would think it would be from something President Reagan said, but I’m not finding anything.  Nor does there seem to be a Supreme Court case on point.


Copyright on a Useful Article

I want to discuss a major copyright case that the Court added to its docket for the Fall.  The question presented in Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. is “What is the appropriate test to determine when a feature of a useful article is protectable under section 101 of the Copyright Act?” This is an issue that has long vexed the circuit courts and is exactly the type of case that the Court should be taking while it’s a man down.

Here is the problem.  Copyright law says that functional/useful items generally cannot get protection. This makes sense because they are only supposed to get patents given the costs that exclusive rights in those sorts of products impose. But what if something has both functional and aesthetic features? Take a belt buckle.  It is functional in the sense that it holds up your pants.  But a jeweled belt buckle might well be an adornment that is more properly considered artistic and thus copyrightable.  How do you know?

Courts have put forward several possible tests.  One says that the issue is whether the item is primarily aesthetic or functional.  Another looks to the intent of the designer.  A third simply considers the totality of the circumstances. A fourth suggests that the aesthetic aspect must be “conceptually separable” from the functional one and able to stand on its own as a work.  And so on.

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