Category: Book Reviews

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FAN 71 (First Amendment News) Just Released: 2nd ed. of Cogan’s “The Complete Bill of Rights” — 30 New Pages on History of Press & Assembly Clauses

This book is an invaluable resource for constitutional scholars, teachers, litigators, and judges alike. It collects and collates the basic texts necessary for informed interpretation of the Bill of Rights and gives them to researchers in a compact, comprehensive, and reliable form that is wonderfully organized for both quick scanning and sustained critical analysis. It makes previously difficult research tasks easy and opens new lines of thinking at a glance.– Anthony G. Amsterdam (2015)

41lkMJ+mUtL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_The second edition of Professor Neil Cogan’s monumental The Complete Bill of Rights: The Drafts, Debates, Sources, & Origins (Oxford University Press) has just been released. Get out your wallet, for this book is well worth the $185.00 list price. Really!

Here is what Floyd Abrams said of the first edition: “For anyone interested in our Constitution, our history, or our political theory, this book is an intellectual treasure chest. It is more than legislative history. It is constitution-drafting in the raw — all the proposals and all the give-and-take (some of it disturbing) that resulted in the adoption of the Bill of Rights.” The historian Stanley Katz referred to it as “a major occasion in American publishing. . . . This is a triumph of careful and thoughtful scholarship. It is now one of the essential components of the the library of constitutionalism.” Though it is hard to imagine, Cogan’s second edition is even better and more triumphant!

 The second edition (1362 pp.) almost doubles the first edition (705 pp.) in length by adding, among other things, lengthy excerpts from the treatises and dictionaries familiar to judges and lawyers in the 1780s. (Note: the pages in the new edition are also longer and its margins are narrower.)

In the First Amendment section — other than in the religion clauses segments which total 146 pages — new materials were added to the Press Clause segment and to the Assembly Clause segment. The majority of the newly added materials in those areas appears in the Press Clause segment (five new entries: Bacon, Burn, Cunningham, Jacob, and Viner) and one new entry for the Assembly Clause segment (Burn). The new sources materials for those segments of second edition of The Complete Bill of Rights are listed below:

  1. Matthew Bacon, A New Abridgment of the Law (London (Savoy): E. & R. Nutt & R. Gosling, 1736) [NB: hyperlink is to a later edition]
  2. Richard Burn, Justice of the Peace & Parish Officer (London: Ho. Woodfall & W. Strahan, 10th ed., 1776) [NB: hyperlink is to a later edition]
  3. T. Cunningham, A New And Complete Law-Dictionary (London: Law Printers to the King, 1764, 1765) (Adams Library)
  4. Giles Jacob, The New-Law Dictionary (London (Savoy): Henry Lintot, 1743) (Adams Library) [NB: hyperlink is to an earlier edition]
  5. Charles Viner, A General Abridgment of Law and Equity (London, 1742) (Adams Library)

In the Press Clause segment, the 27 pages of new materials (pp.  182-208) consist of definitions and discussions of defamation:

  • What is it?
  • What amounts to a libel?
  • How much certainty is required?
  • Can statements made in court amount to defamation?
  • Who qualifies as a libeler?
  • What constitutes publishing?
  • What matters are for a judge or jury to decide?, and
  • What  punishment (civil and/or criminal), if any, is appropriate?

Beyond this, there is also an entry from Richard Burn’s treatise concerning religious and civil laws regulating swearing (pp. 206-208)

The new entry concerning the Assembly Clause (pp. 254-61) segment consists of seven pages (also from Richard Burn’s treatise). Those pages largely concern definitional and related questions, which are divided into the following six subcategories:

I.    “What is a riot, rout, or unlawful assembly”?

II.   “How the same may be restrained by a private person.” [re common law powers to suppress a riot]

III.  “How by a constable, or by other peace officer.” [re common law powers to suppress a riot]

IV.  “How by one justice.” [re statutory powers of a justice of the peace to restrain, arrest, chastise or punish.]

V.    “How by two justices.”  [re statutory powers of two or three justices of the peace to use “the power of the country” or that of the sheriff to enforce an order re a riot or unlawful assembly]

VI.  “How by a process out of chancery.” [re statutory powers of chancery court to inquire into the truth of any complaint brought by an aggrieved party].

Professor Neil Cogan

Professor Neil Cogan

Whatever one thinks of textualism and/or historicism, Professor Cogan has performed a great public service in bringing into sharper focus the historical backdrop of the Bill of Rights. In a 1993 letter to Cogan, the late Gerald Gunther tagged the first edition as a “very valuable book” and a “marvelous collection” of historical documents. (Cynthia Cotts, “A Dean’s Book on Bill of Rights Scores with Supremes, Scholar,” National Law Journal, Nov. 24, 1997). For those who knew Gerry Gunther, he was not one to offer exaggerated or unmerited praise. That said, he was too modest in his assessment of The Complete Bill of Rights. Then again, perhaps he knew better than most that superlatives may sometimes devalue the true worth of a great work. In that spirit, nothing much need be added other than this: The second edition of The Complete Bill of Rights is even more “valuable” than the first.    

Cert Petition Filed in Occupational Speech Case Read More

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When Love’s Promises Are Fulfilled By the U.S. Supreme Court

Today, in a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme recognized the fundamental nature of love’s promises. In Obergefell et al. v. Hodges, the Court held,  “the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.”  Referring to marriage as a “keystone” of the U.S.’s “social order,” Justice Kennedy declared same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. Importantly, the case makes clear that forcing gay couples to go across state lines to marry only to deny them the franchise after returning home undermines fundamental principles of liberty.

It’s no surprise that Professor Martha Ertman’s powerful book: Love’s Promises: How Formal and Informal Contracts Shape All Kinds of Families on which she copiously and beautifully toiled while rearing her son debuts the summer that equality in marriage becomes a fundamental right for gay men and women. Nor should anyone be surprised if the book, along with the decision itself, becomes a central text at universities and beyond. In what David Corn calls a “love letter to marriage,” from the pen of Justice Kennedy, the Court reasoned:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.“

With that, the Supreme Court overruled the prior judgement of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and set in gear the reversal of centuries’ worth of stigma, shame and inequality, which may not erase overnight, but overtime will ease. Professor Ertman might also suggest that by the decision, the Court resituates contracts too. That is to say, if viewed from the lens of contracts, which serves as the core, theoretical foundation of Love’s Promises, this decision recognizes a fundamental right in contract for gay men and women. Further, the case expands the “contract” franchise to include gay women and men.

Some scholars approach gay marriage primarily from the constitutional liberties encapsulated in the 14th Amendment, upholding equal protection for U.S. citizens regardless of their status, others approach the issue as a matter of privacy. For Professor Ertman, contracts offer an additional lens and much to deliberate about on matters of marriage, parenting, and familial intimacy. Professor Ertman’s writings on contract (The Business of Intimacy,  What’s Wrong With a Parenthood Market?, and Reconstructing Marriage to name a few) precede the book, and presaged its birth.

Here for example, in a passage from Chapter Eight, she explains that “[i]t takes two more trips to the lawyer’s office to hammer out terms that satisfy Karen, Victor, the attorney, and me, from lawyerly technicalities to the emotional terms we call “mush.” From what started out as an addendum to Victor’s and my coparenting agreement has blossomed into a bouquet of wills and powers of attorney, alongside the amended parenting agreement.” She tells readers, “On the way downstairs, clutching documents still warm from the copying machine, Karen squeezes my hand, as if she too feels that signing all those dotted lines brought a family into being every bit as much as vows of forever that we plan to recite…” As she explains, “if you scratch the surface of marriage—straight or gay—you’ll find contracts there, too.”

Professor Ertman urges us to remember time and again that what builds relationships and sustains them are the formal and informal contracting that take place daily in marriage; they establish the foundation for marriage and what comes after. She works diligently in the book to demonstrate love too undergirds contracts. That is to say, she wants readers to reimagine contracts—not as the products of cold, calculated bargaining or business arrangements—though one must acknowledge contracts can be that too—even in marriage.  Often marriage is the product of love, intimacy, and warm innocence.  At other times, it is the product of business arrangements.  It was that too in the U.S. chattel system: contracts that gave legal sufficiency to the buying, selling, bartering, and even destroying of slaves, including children (among them the Black biological offspring of slave owners). In light of that history yet to be fully explored and appreciated in law, it is a formidable task to resituate or reintroduce contract in the space of families and intimacy. However, Professor Ertman rises to that challenge.

Like it or not, contracts pervade marriage and suffuse premarital agreements. Sometimes contracting in this regard attempts to resituate power and status expost marriage, providing the economically weaker spouse economic stability after the breakup. Martha highlights cases from that of Catherine Simeone who received a “raw deal,” to those of celebrities, including Michael Douglas and Beyonce. Who knew that Beyonce would receive $5 million for “each of their children,” if she and Shawn Carter (otherwise known as Jay-Z) divorced? Professor Ertman might argue that despite the businesslike nature of contracts, these legal arrangements and agreements make most matters clearer for everybody. Professor Ertman explains that contracts and even verbal agreements provide information, they can provide context, and they offer choice.

In Ertman’s life, it was a contract that bestowed her wife, Karen, parenthood of their child—not something biological, legislative, or derived from courts. And she offers multiple reasons for readers to consider the salience of contracts in intimacy, including voluntariness, reciprocal promises, and equal status. She offers an additional reason: love’s promises.

Privacy Security Novels 02
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5 Great Novels About Privacy and Security

I am a lover of literature (I teach a class in law and literature), and I also love privacy and security, so I thought I’d list some of my favorite novels about privacy and security.

I’m also trying to compile a more comprehensive list of literary works about privacy and security, and I welcome your suggestions.

Without further ado, my list:

Franz Kafka, The Trial

Kafka’s The Trial begins with a man being arrested but not told why. In typical Kafka fashion, the novel begins badly for the protagonist . . . and then it gets worse! A clandestine court system has compiled a dossier about him and officials are making decisions about him, but he is left in the dark. This is akin to how Big Data can operate today. The Trial captures the sense of helplessness, frustration, and powerlessness when large institutions with inscrutable purposes use personal data and deny people the right to participate. I wrote more extensively about how Kafka is an apt metaphor for privacy in our times in a book called The Digital Person about 10 years ago.

Franz Kafka The Trial

 

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Barbara Babcock reviews new book on Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Professor Barbara Babcock

Professor Barbara Babcock

Over at SCOTUSblog, Standford Law Professor Emerita Barbara Babcock has a book review of Scott Dodson’s new The Legacy of Ruth Bader GinsburgCambridge University Press, 2015 (336 pp., cloth, $29.99), which he edited.

Babcock’s review is titled “Law Professor, Feminist, and Jurist” and draws on some of her own history with RBG.

As you may recall, in an earlier post on this blog Danielle Citron also wrote about Justice Ginsburg and the collection of essays in the Dodson volume.

In case you missed it, take a look at Gail Collins’ recent column in the New York Times titled “The Unsinkable R.B.G.”

(In the interest of full disclosure, I also serve as the book editor for SCOTUSblog.)

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The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Edited by esteemed civil procedure scholar Scott Dodson, the newly released book “The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” is a significant contribution. The release is beautifully timed: the public is rightfully taken with Justice Ginsburg’s insights. Hopefully, I will have Professor Dodson back to the blog to talk about the book in detail but for now here is a description.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a legal icon. In more than fifty years as a lawyer, professor, appellate judge, and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Ginsburg has influenced the law and society in real and permanent ways. Her impact on the law cannot be overstated. Yet no book on Ginsburg’s legacy exists. This book fills that gaping void by chronicling and evaluating the remarkable achievements Ginsburg has made over the past half century. Including chapters written by prominent court watchers and leading scholars from law, political science, and history, it offers diverse perspectives on an array of doctrinal areas and on different time periods in Ginsburg’s career. Together, these perspectives document the impressive – and continuing – legacy of one of the most important figures in modern law.

The book’s contributors include Nina Totenberg of NPR fame, Chief Judge Robert Katzmann (Second Circuit), Reva Siegel (Yale) and Neil Siegel (Duke), Lani Guinier (Harvard), Herma Hill Kay (Berkeley), Dahlia Lithwick (Slate), Aziz Huq (Chicago), Cary Franklin (Texas), and Tom Goldstein (SCOTUSblog), among others. Jacket reviews are by Trevor Morrison (NYU) and Ginsburg’s two biographers, Wendy Williams (Georgetown) and Jane De Hart (UCSB). Readers can download a free e-copy of the Preface, Table of Contents, and Coda from SSRN.

The book’s already gotten some good press. My co-blogger and First Amendment guru Ron Collins has a write up of the book on SCOTUSblog (along with some other recommended books). Civil rights scholar Nancy Leong of Denver University School of Law has a podcast interview of Scott Dodson on the book for her inaugural episode of RightsCast. Above the Law’s David Lat has been Tweeting about it. And Justice Ginsburg herself mentioned it to a huge crowd at the AALS Conference earlier this month and said that she would make sure it was available for purchase in the Supreme Court gift shop.

The Washington Independent Review of Books Annual Conference
The Washington Independent Review of Books Annual Conference
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OUP’s Niko Pfund to Speak @ Washington Independent Review of Books’ Annual Book Festival in April

Niko Pfund

Niko Pfund

Niko Pfund is the President of Oxford University Press. If truth is a defense, it is fair to describe him as savvy, knowledgeable, creative, open-minded, and entirely likable . . . and he knows a lot about the book business, too. So it was quite a coup when the Washington Independent Review of Books got Pfund to speak at its annual book festival. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of directors and have published a book with OUP.)

The Conference takes place on Saturday, April 25, 2015, at the Bethesda Marriott at Pook’s Hill in Bethesda, Maryland. It offers a full day of conversations and panels with professional writers, agents, and publishers, along with an opportunity for aspiring authors to present their projects to an agent during face-to-face, one-on-one pitch sessions.

Mr. Pfund will participate in a panel discussion entitled: “What Do Publishers Want?” The discussion will be moderated by Salley Shannon and will also feature Peter Osnos and Gregg Wilhelm.

→ Some 25 literary agents will be participating in the conference (see list here).

The schedule of events for the conference can be found here (click here to register for the conference).

Some of Oxford’s more recent law-related books include:

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Unto the Breach: An interview with the all too candid Dean Erwin Chemerinsky

We should realize that this is an emperor that truly has no clothes. For too long, we have treated the Court is if they are the high priests of the law, or at least as if they are the smartest and best lawyers in society. Erwin Chemerinsky (2014)

I am very pleased to interview Dean Erwin Chemerinsky in connection with his eighth book, The Case Against the Supreme Court (Viking, 2014) – this in addition to the 200-plus scholarly articles he has published. One of those articles was the foreword to the Harvard Law Review’s 1988 Supreme Court Term issue. His first scholarly article was published 36 years ago, this when he was associated with the D.C. firm of Dobrovir, Oakes, & Gebhardt. Today, Chemerinsky’s casebook, Constitutional Law, is one of the most widely read law textbooks in the country.

Dean Erwin Chemerinsky

Dean Erwin Chemerinsky

Unlike most academics, he also has a practitioner’s flare for the law, having argued five cases in the Supreme Court, among other courts. Last year, National Jurist magazine named Dean Chemerinsky as the most influential persons in legal education while the Anti Defamation League honored him for his commitment and contributions to freedom and education. And in 2007, Douglas Kmiec labeled him as “one of the finest constitutional scholars in the country.”

True to his reputation, Dean Chemerinsky’s new book invites us to think – and think hard – about some of our gospel “givens” about the Court, its members, its procedures, and its future.

Thank you Dean Chemerinsky for taking the time to answer my questions, and congratulations on the publication of your latest book.

* * * *

Question: For someone who argues cases before the Supreme Court and who writes on and teaches about the Court, yours is a rather provocative title. Why did you choose it?

Chemerinsky: The title captures the thesis of the book. As I reflect on it, I realize that the Supreme Court has often failed, often at the most important times and at its most important tasks. I think that this is a conclusion that both conservatives and liberals can agree to and need to realize. The Supreme Court’s decisions on race, its rulings in times of crisis, its decisions during the Lochner era are powerful examples where I think liberals and conservatives would agree that the Court did great harm to society. That is the foundation of the case against the Supreme Court. I want to see the Court made better and the impetus for thus must be recognizing that there is a need for reform.

Go here for Dean Chemerinsky’s oral argument in the Supreme Court in Tory v. Cochran (2005).

Question: You write: “I discovered in my own mind I have been making excuses for the Court. The Supreme Court is not the institution that I once revered.” What brought about this change of heart for you?

Carrie Buck

Carrie Buck

Chemerinsky: One semester I was teaching Buck v. Bell (1927), the Supreme Court decision that upheld Virginia’s eugenics law and where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously declared “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” After class, I realized that I had been making excuses for the Court in class. I did some research and realized that 60,000 people were involuntarily surgically sterilized as a result of the Court’s decision and the eugenics movement. As I thought about it, I realized that I often was making excuses for the Court in my teaching and writing.

Question: Like many others (both conservative and liberal), you fault Justice Holmes for his “offensive and insensitive” opinion in Buck v. Bell. Fair enough. What is often overlooked, however, is that Justice Louis Brandeis (one of the most humane defenders of civil rights and liberties) joined that opinion. Why? Does that give you any reflective pause? How do you explain that?

Chemerinsky: As always, the explanation must be complex rather than simple. It was at a time when progressives were defining themselves, in part, by urging deference to government as a way of criticizing the Lochner era decisions. It was at a time when the eugenics movement had great support in society. It was at a time when the Court had begun to protect non-textual rights concerning autonomy (e.g., Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)), but had not gone far in this direction.

Does this give me reflective pause? Buck v. Bell was tragically wrong when it was decided and it is inexcusable that the Court allowed states to surgically sterilize people who had done nothing wrong.

[Re Brandeis: For a critical take on his civil rights/civil liberties record, consider David Bernstein, “From Progressivism to Modern Liberalism: Louis D. Brandeis as a Transitional Figure in Constitutional Law,” Notre Dame Law Review (2014)]

Question: You maintain “the Supreme Court’s legitimacy is not fragile.” That cuts against the conventional wisdom, certainly the prudential wisdom. Please explain to us why you think this so.

UnknownChemerinsky: The Court’s legitimacy is the product of all that it has done over 200 years.   Over this time, it has firmly established its role.  I agree with what John Hart Ely wrote in Democracy and Distrust (1980) that the Court’s legitimacy is robust. Some such as Felix Frankfurter and Alexander Bickel argued that the Court must be restrained to preserve its fragile legitimacy. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) shows the fallacy of that position. Nothing the Court has done has been more controversial or done more to enhance its institutional legitimacy. There are virtually no instances in American history of people disobeying the Court and those that occurred, such as in defiance of desegregation orders, only enhanced the Court’s legitimacy.

No single decision (or group of decisions) will seriously affect the Court’s legitimacy. I remember after Bush v. Gore hearing people say that the decision would damage the Court’s legitimacy. I was skeptical of such claims and I was right. The Court’s approval rating was the same in June 2001, six months after the decision, as it had been in September 2000, three months before the ruling. It had gone down among Democrats and up among Republicans. It is why I strongly disagree with those who believe that Chief Justice John Roberts changed his vote to uphold the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act case so as to preserve the Court’s credibility. He knew that whatever the Court did would please about half the country and disappoint about half the country.

Go here for a 2014 video interview with Dean Chemerinsky discussing his new book.

Question: You are critical of the Court’s unanimous ruling in Hui v. Castaneda (2010). There the Court, per Justice Sonia Sotomayor, held that public health service officers and employees could not be sued for Bivens actions for violating citizens’ constitutional rights if the violation was committed in the course of their government duties. The plaintiff can only sue the federal government, not the employees. There were no separate opinions in the case. Given the vote, how do you explain your claim that the Court got it wrong? Bias? Poorly argued? The law clerks’ fault? Or what?

Francisco Castaneda testifying before Congress

Francisco Castaneda testifying before Congress, 2007

Chemerinsky: In Hui v. Castañeda, a prisoner had a lesion on his penis. Francisco Castañeda was suffering enormously and the symptoms got worse and worse. But still the public health service workers refused to let him see a doctor. By the time they let him see a doctor the cancer had spread all over his body. His penis was amputated, but he died a short time later. It was egregious deliberate indifference. But the Court unanimously ruled that the existence of a statute protecting public health workers from suit barred a constitutional claim. This seems wrong: a statute should not bar a constitutional claim.

Why did the Court come to this conclusion? I think this case reflects a much larger trend of the Supreme Court favoring the immunity of government and government officers over remedies for injured individuals. It is reflected in the expansion of sovereign immunity, the growth of absolute and qualified immunity, and the evisceration of Bivens suits.

Go here to read Francisco Castañeda’s testimony before Congress, Oct. 4, 2007; see also Gabriel Eber, “Remembering Francisco Castañeda,” ACLU website, May 5, 2010

Question: You write of the need for scholars to look “cumulatively at the Court’s decisions” re race, civil liberties, economic regulations, school desegregation, effective counsel, labor law, consumer protection, and governmental immunity. Is it really possible to look at the Court through such a broad lens? And if so, what might it tell us that we already do not know?

Chemerinsky: My concern is that the narrower the focus, the easier it is to make excuses for the Court. Any institution will make decisions that we later regard as mistakes. Virtually everyone today believes that Dred Scott (1856) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Korematsu v. United States (1944) were tragically wrong. But focusing on each creates the view that they are isolated errors. If they are seen as part of a larger pattern, it becomes clearer that there is a strong case against the Supreme Court. It then becomes clear that there is a need for reforms.

Absent extraordinary circumstances, the docket for October Term 2014 is now complete, and it has the potential to be one of the most momentous in history. – Erwin Chemerinsky (Jan. 27, 2015)

Question: You find merit in Texas Governor Rick Perry’s idea for a proposed constitutional amendment limiting each Justice to an 18-year term. Think of it, had such a rule been in place, Holmes could not have written his is dissent in Gitlow v. New York (1925), Brennan would not have authored his majority opinion in Texas v. Johnson (1989), and we would never have read Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014). Two questions: (1) Does that concern you? And (2) Isn’t it always an iffy matter to push for constitutional amendments concerning the Court? Read More

The Second Machine Age & the System of Professions

Why do we have professions? Many economists give a public choice story: guilds of doctors, social workers, etc., monopolize a field by bribing legislators to keep everyone else out of the guild.* Some scholars of legal ethics buy into that story for our field, too.

But there is another, older explanation, based on the need for independent judgment and professional autonomy. Who knows whether a doctor employed by a drug company could resist the firm’s requirement that she prescribe its products off-label as often as possible. With independent doctors, there is at least some chance of pushback. Similarly, I’d be much more confident in the conclusions of a letter written by attorneys assessing the legality of a client’s course of action if that client generated, say, 1%, rather than 100%, of their business.

Andrew Abbott’s book The System of Professions makes those, and many other, critical points about the development of professions. Genuine expertise and independent judgment depend on certain economic arrangements. For Abbott, the professions exist, in part, to shield certain groups from the full force of economic demands that can be made by those with the most money or power. As inequality in the developed world skyrockets, and the superrich at the very top of the economy accumulate vastly more wealth than the vast majority of even the best-paid professionals, such protections become even more urgent.

I was reminded of Abbott’s views while reading Lilly Irani’s excellent review of Erik Brynjolffson & Andrew McAfee’s The Second Machine Age, and Simon Head’s Mindless. Irani, a former Googler, digs into the real conditions of work at leading firms of the digital economy. She observes that much of what we might consider “making” (pursuant to some professional standards) is a form of “managing:”
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Cognitive Biases, the Legal Academy, and the Judiciary

It’s a pleasure to be here at Concurring Opinions.  I would like to thank Dan, Sarah, and Ron for inviting me.  During my visit, I hope to talk a bit about my core research areas of land use and local government law (including why you, who are statistically unlikely to be interested in either land use or local government law, should be interested), but also about other issues such as the current state of the legal academy and the legal profession, often using land use or local government law to examine these broader issues.

On Cognitive Biases

On that last note, Slate.com recently ran a great piece by Katy Waldman regarding how the human brain processes information, observing that people have a predilection to believe factual claims that we find easy to process.  Waldman synthesizes the results of several interesting studies, including one eye-opening study that identifies three persistent cognitive biases that humans possess.  As Waldman summarizes these biases: “First, we reflexively attribute people’s behavior to their character rather than their circumstances.” Second, “we learn more easily when knowledge is arranged hierarchically, so in a pinch we may be inclined to accept fixed status and gender roles.” And third, “we tend to assume that persisting and long-standing states are good and desirable, which stirs our faith in the status quo absent any kind of deep reflection.” The studygreen-lizard-1427838-s attributes these biases to the basic human need, rooted in the primitive recesses of our lizard brain (pictured), to manage uncertainty and risk.

While Waldman argues that there is some relationship between these biases and conservative political beliefs, what struck me about these findings is how well the biases describe judicial behavior.

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Chapter 8 of Berkshire Beyond Buffett: An Excerpt and Link

untitledThe following is an excerpt from Chapter 8, Autonomy, from Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values; the full text of the chapter, which considers the case for Berkshire’s distinctive trust-based model of corporate governance, can be downloaded free from SSRN here.

. . . Berkshire corporate policy strikes a balance between autonomy and authority. Buffett issues written instructions every two years that reflect the balance. The missive states the mandates Berkshire places on subsidiary CEOs: (1) guard Berkshire’s reputation; (2) report bad news early; (3) confer about post-retirement benefit changes and large capital expenditures (including acquisitions, which are encouraged); (4) adopt a fifty-year time horizon; (5) refer any opportunities for a Berkshire acquisition to Omaha; and (6) submit written successor recommendations. Otherwise, Berkshire stresses that managers were chosen because of their excellence and are urged to act on that excellence.   

Berkshire defers as much as possible to subsidiary chief executives on operational matters with scarcely any central supervision. All quotidian decisions would qualify: GEICO’s advertising budget and underwriting standards; loan terms at Clayton Homes and environmental quality of Benjamin Moore paints; the product mix and pricing at Johns Manville, the furniture stores and jewelry shops. The same applies to decisions about hiring, merchandising, inventory, and receivables management, whether Acme Brick, Garan, or The Pampered Chef. Berkshire’s deference extends to subsidiary decisions on succession to senior positions, including chief executive officer, as seen in such cases as Dairy Queen and Justin Brands.

Munger has said Berkshire’s oversight is just short of abdication. In a wild example, Lou Vincenti, the chief executive at Berkshire’s Wesco Financial subsidiary since its acquisition in 1973, ran the company for several years while suffering from Alzheimer’s disease—without Buffett or Munger aware of the condition. “We loved him so much,” Munger said, “that even after we found out, we kept him in his job until the week that he went off to the Alzheimer’s home. He liked coming in, and he wasn’t doing us any harm.” The two lightened a grim situation, quipping that they wished to have more subsidiaries so earnest and reputable that they could be managed by people with such debilitating medical conditions.   

There are obvious exceptions to Berkshire’s tenet of autonomy. Large capital expenditures—or the chance of that—lead reinsurance executives to run outsize policies and risks by headquarters. Berkshire intervenes in extraordinary circumstances, for example, the costly deterioration in underwriting standards at Gen Re and threatened repudiation of a Berkshire commitment to distributors at Benjamin Moore. Mandatory or not, Berkshire was involved in R. C. Willey’s expansion outside of Utah and rightly asserts itself in costly capital allocation decisions like those concerning purchasing aviation simulators at FlightSafety or increasing the size of the core fleet at NetJets.

 Ironically, gains from Berkshire’s hands-off management are highlighted by an occasion when Buffett made an exception. Buffett persuaded GEICO managers to launch a credit card business for its policyholders. Buffett hatched the idea after puzzling for years to imagine an additional product to offer its millions of loyal car insurance customers. GEICO’s management warned Buffett against the move, expressing concern that the likely result would be to get a high volume of business from its least creditworthy customers and little from its most reliable ones. By 2009, GEICO had lost more than $6 million in the credit card business and took another $44 million hit when it sold the portfolio of receivables at a discount to face value. The costly venture would not have been pursued had Berkshire stuck to its autonomy principle.

The more important—and more difficult—question is the price of autonomy.  Buffett has explained Berkshire’s preference for autonomy and assessment of the related costs: 

We tend to let our many subsidiaries operate on their own, without our supervising and monitoring them to any degree. That means we are sometimes late in spotting management problems and that [disagreeable] operating and capital decisions are occasionally made. . . . Most of our managers, however, use the independence we grant them magnificently, rewarding our confidence by maintaining an owner-oriented attitude that is invaluable and too seldom found in huge organizations. We would rather suffer the visible costs of a few bad decisions than incur the many invisible costs that come from decisions made too slowly—or not at all—because of a stifling bureaucracy.

Berkshire’s approach is so unusual that the occasional crises that result provoke public debate about which is better in corporate culture: Berkshire’s model of autonomy-and-trust or the more common approach of command-and-control. Few episodes have been more wrenching and instructive for Berkshire culture than when David L. Sokol, an esteemed senior executive with his hand in many Berkshire subsidiaries, was suspected of insider trading in an acquisition candidate’s stock. . . .

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