Category: Legal Theory

From the New Property to the New Responsibility

apple small.jpgJust as Charles Reich was a premier theorist of rights to government largesse, Peter Schuck and Richard Zeckhauser are leading exponents of the responsibilities it entails. In Targeting Social Programs, S&Z focus on the denial of benefits to “bad bets” and “bad apples:”

Bad bets are individuals who are likely to benefit little from social resources relative to other [beneficiaries]. . . . Bad apples are individuals whose irresponsible, immoral, or illegal behavior in the past—and predictably, in the future as well—marks them as unsuitable to receive the benefits of social programs.

This may sound a bit cold-hearted at first, but S&Z make a good case that, behind a veil of ignorance, we’d quite sensibly allocate resources to, say, the transplant recipient who is most likely to benefit, rather than the one who has been on the wait list the longest. They also show how often “bad apples'” worst effects are on the disadvantaged citizens near them. (For an example, see Kahan and Meares on anti-loitering ordinances.)

The West Virginia Medicaid program provides an interesting case study of “bad apple screening.” Consider the fate of one beneficiary who refuses to sign a “health responsibility contract:”

Mr. Johnson. . . goes to a clinic once a month for diabetes checkups. Taxpayers foot the bill through Medicaid . . . [b]ut when doctors urged him to mind his diet, “I told them I eat what I want to eat and the hell with them. . . . I’ve been smoking for 50 years — why should I stop now? . . . This is supposed to be a free world.”

Traditionally, there was little Medicaid could do to encourage compliance. But now, “[u]nder a reorganized schedule of aid, the state, hoping for savings over time, plans to reward “responsible” patients with significant extra benefits or — as critics describe it — punish those who do not join weight-loss or antismoking programs, or who miss too many appointments, by denying important services.” But as the article notes, “Somewhat incongruously, [Johnson] appears to be off the hook: as a disabled person he will be exempt under the rules.”

Critics claim the program is unduly intrusive: “What if everyone at a major corporation were told they would lose benefits if they didn’t lose weight or drink less?” asked one doctor. Certainly in some manifestations it could be; consider this 1997 proposal by Judge John Marshall Meisburg:

Congress should . . . consider legislation stipulating that no one can be granted disability by SSA if s/he continues to smoke against the advice of his physician, and smoking is a factor material to the disability, because such claimants are bringing illness and disability upon themselves. Such a law would reduce the burden of proof now needed to deny benefits to persons who fail to heed their doctors’ advice, and would dovetail with legislation just passed by Congress to abolish disability benefits for persons addicted to drug and alcohol. In many cases, smoking is akin to “contributory negligence” and the SSA law should recognize it as such. [From Federal Lawyer, 44-APR FEDRLAW 56 on Westlaw.]

I think S&Z frame the debate in a nuanced enough way to avoid this kind of draconian proposal. But I do have a few quibbles with the framing of their work, if not its substance.

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Posner, Pragmatism, and Precedent

precedent1b.jpgOver at the Chicago Law Faculty Blog, Brian Leiter has a post discussing Judge Richard Posner’s legal pragmatism. He writes:

First: Do judges actually have any obligation or duty to abide by precedents or statutes or constitutions on the pragmatic view? Or do they only have some instrumental reasons to pay some attention to these materials? The pragmatist judge, according to Posner, is “unchecked by any felt duty to secure consistency oin principle” with past official actions, i.e., court decisions and legislative enactments (241). The pragmatist judge, he says, only decides “in accordance with precedent” when that is “the best method for producing the best results for the future.” (241). Judge Posner adds that the pragmatist judge is not “uninterested” in statutes and precedents, but that is because he “regards precedent, statutes, and constitutional text both as sources of potentially valuable information about the likely best result in the present case and as signposts that he must be careful not to obliterate or obscure gratuitously, because people may be relying upon them” (242). Indeed, he refers to these sources of law as “‘authorities'” (in quotation marks) and as “merely…sources of information and as limited constraints on [the judge’s] freedom of decision.” None of this makes it sound as though there is any serious obligation for the pragmatist to abide by precedent or statute.

The pragmatic theory of precedent is actually much stronger than the above characterization. There can be strong instrumental reasons for rigidly adhering to precedent. First, establishing a firm tradition of adherence to precedent promotes consistency and serves as a limit on judicial power. Second, disrespect for precedent might undermine the political capital of the judiciary and may lead to a backlash by other branches or the public, thus undermining the judiciary’s power in the future. Third, departing from precedent gradually undermines the function of adherence to precedent, which helps establish the legitimacy of judicial decisions. Undermining this source of legitimacy renders impotent one of the primary sources of judicial power.

True, under a pragmatic theory, judges have instrumental reasons for adhering to precedent but don’t have an “obligation” to do so. These instrumental reasons may sound less absolutist than a more categorical command to obey precedent, but these reasons can be just as potent and powerful in practice.

Indeed, it is not at all clear that non-pragmatist judges are more likely to respect precedent. Non-pragmatist judges who proclaim their strict duty to precedent can readily cheat and pretend to follow precedent while cleverly manipulating it to get the results they want. A non-pragmatist judge may adopt a rather loose or creative interpretive stance toward prior caselaw or statutes, allowing her to claim adherence to precedent while at the same time taking the law in a new direction. The non-pragmatist judge will claim that this new direction is consistent with prior cases based on interpretive reasons. In contrast, the pragmatist judge might more openly acknowledge the departure from precedent and justify it with instrumental reasons for the departure. But the fact that the pragmatist judge might describe the departure in a different manner does not mean that the pragmatist judge is more likely to depart from precedent. In fact, if a pragmatist judge is committed to honestly acknowledging departures from precedent, then this could make the judge more reluctant to depart than the non-pragmatist judge who believes she can cloak her departures with skillful rhetoric.

In other words, I don’t see why pragmatist judges are likely to be less respectful of precedent or more likely to depart from it than non-pragmatist judges.

There’s also a podcast of Leiter’s discussion with Posner, which I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to.

Grimmelmann: “Is Fashion a Bad?”


I always enjoy James Grimmelmann’s blog and learn much from his articles. He combines a passion for precision with an unerring sense of the big picture. That’s evident today on the Picker MobBlog discussing Raustiala & Sprigman’s work on IP protections (or the lack thereof) in the fashion industry. Rather than engage the usual dialogue on innovation maximization, Grimmelmann asks flat out: is fashion a bad?

Sure, the fashion cycle may work for the fashion industry, but is that really something we should be glad about? . . . If low IP protection is good for the fashion industry because it enables rapid copying and a quick cycle of obsolescence, and if that cycle involves waste induced by conspicuous consumption, then isn’t a low IP regime a bad thing?

I’m sympathetic with Grimmelmann’s position, and this gap is symptomatic of a larger problem: “most economists believe that the core of economics can be developed with no assumptions at all about what an economy should aim to provide” (Dupre & Gagnier). But I also feel obliged to give the other side its due. And recently, one of the most enthusiastic exponents of laissez-faire here has been Virginia Postrel. Consider this encomium to style:

Even analysts who do not view luxury goods as waste do not [adequately] credit the goods’ intrinsic sensory appeal. . . . [They have] a hard time noticing any qualities beyond status badges and advertising-created brand personas. [But] more is going on. . . . People pet Armani clothes because the fabrics feel so good. Those clothes attract us as visual, tactile creatures, not because they are “rich in meaning” but because they are rich in pleasure. The garments’ utility includes the way they look and feel.

So the challenge for the latter-day Veblen is to disaggregate the “status-conferring” aspect of the fashion from its aesthetic, tactile, and expressive appeal (as Jeff Harrison notes). But as Veblen himself realized, this is an inquiry that has to share in both economic and humanistic approaches. And perhaps it even involves a bit of “norm entrepreneurship” in reinterpreting fashion . . .

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The Beauty-Industrial Complex

There have been a lot of reviews lately of Alex Kuczynski’s Beauty Junkies: Inside our $15 Billion Obsession with Cosmetic Surgery. Kuczynski writes for the NYT’s Thursday Styles section, and has a journalist’s flair for finding the most bizarre instances of consumer trends (such as an $11,000 South African surgery/safari package). I found Rebecca Mead’s take particularly insightful:

“We have begun to think of our bodies as something like an accessory that can be modified when necessary, discarded when it is worn out, and upgraded when required, a leathery sack to transport us from one medical specialist to the next,” Kuczynski writes; and the analogy is apt . . . . The new idea offered by the contemporary culture of cosmetic surgery is that it is the vessel itself that we must value, rather than the soul or spirit that it contains.

Mead also focuses on an underreported aspect of Kuczynski’s analysis: how business pressures and laws governing health care and insurance are spurring the trend:

Kuczynski argues that the soaring incidence of cosmetic surgery—a nearly fivefold increase in the number of cosmetic procedures performed on Americans during the past decade—has been driven by market forces rather than by the measurable health needs of the nation. Surgeons exhausted by the medical-insurance morass are flocking to the field. “If you’re a doctor working in this kind of environment, do you want to spend an hour removing a freckle and get paid $12 in two months by some insurance company? Or do you want to spend fifteen minutes putting Botox into someone’s face and get $1,000 in cash five minutes later?” one attendee at a convention of plastic surgeons asks.

Indeed, many moves to “high end health care” are driven by frustration with insurance providers. Some argue that a move to “free up” the health care field from regulation might help restore a balance. But a book on plastic surgery far more critical than Kuczynski’s suggests there is a deeper “market based” method to the industry. . .

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In Memoriam: Clifford Geertz

geertz.jpgI recently noticed an obituary for Clifford Geertz on PTDR. Law & the humanities have had an uneasy relationship for some time now, but one of the few humanists with an undisputed place in the canon was “anthropologist” Clifford Geertz. I use the scare quotes because Geertz appeared to me to be far more than a type of social scientist, but a scholar whose deep sense of the connections between belief and desire, knowledge and will, could reinvigorate whole fields.

For a taste of the possibilities, check out this review of Posner’s book Catastrophe in the NYRB:

Posner largely handles the problem of estimating danger via sheer postulation—weird and (one assumes, unintentionally) madcap burlesque. “Suppose the cost of extinction of the human race…can be very conservatively estimated at 600 trillion dollars [and there is] a 1 in 10 million annual probability of a strangelet disaster.”

Geertz could look at the fashions and fads of the modern academy with the same mixture of sympathy and detachment he brought to the customs of Berbers or Balinese villagers. This long essay on a “life of learning” can be inspirational to anyone who has chosen “science as a vocation.” After college, I was trapped in a very frustrating graduate program for a while, and I remember taking great comfort in the thought that someone like Geertz managed to transcend disciplinary boundaries while still finding a “home” in the academy.

Geertz offered us a vision of humanities informing law in the deepest sense, by showing us the inextricable intertwining of description and judgment (or, as lawyers often experience, fact and law). I particularly like this quote from Geertz’s essay, Deep Play in a Balinese Cockfight:

Any expressive form works (when it works) by disarranging semantic contexts in such a way that properties conventionally ascribed to certain things are unconventionally ascribed to others, which are then seen actually to possess them. To call the wind a cripple, as Stevens does, to fix tone and manipulate timbre, as Schoenberg does, or, closer to our case, to picture an art critic as a dissolute bear, as Hogarth does, is to cross conceptual wires; the established conjunctions between objects and their qualities are altered and phenomena—fall weather, melodic shape, or cultural journalism—are clothed in signifiers which normally point to other referents. Similarly, to connect—and connect, and connect—the collision of roosters with the divisiveness of status is to invite a transfer of perceptions from the former to the latter, a transfer which is at once a description and a judgment [emphasis added].

Some scholars have worked out the implications of thoughts like these with great power and precision–such as Balkin (and Levinson’s) work on Law and Music, or Bill Eskridge’s work on Gadamer and statutory interpretation, or some cyberscholars on metaphorical descriptions of cyberspace (like Cohen and Hunter). But I think there is still a rich vein of work to be inspired by Geertz’s classic elaborations of the idea that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”


William of Ockham Goes to Commercial Law Class

Ockham.jpgA lot of legal argument consists of mastering the reasons for and against various recurring dualisms in the law. For example, there is the well-worn dichotomy between rules and standards. Rules provide ex ante certainty and easy resolution of disputes ex post. Standards reduce the incentives for parties to engage in undesirable but rule-skirting behavior ex ante and provide greater substantive fairness ex post. Another example is substance vs. procedure. For example, in administrative or corporate law should judges scrutinize the substance of the decisions that were made, or should they confine themselves to looking only at the procedures used to reach the decision?

A key to understanding the U.C.C., and with it commercial law, is another distinction that students have a harder time wrapping their minds around. I call it the divide between realism and nominalism. During the middle ages scholastic philosophers debated whether or not universals had actual existence independent of any particular instance of the universal, or whether ultimately all that existed was the particulars themselves. The U.C.C. makes a lot more sense, I believe, once you recognize that it in so far as it is possible, it is aggressively committed to nominalism.

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The Fog of Admin: Beliefs about Beliefs

fog.jpgI’ve just started teaching “standards of review” in my administrative law course, and as admin maven Richard Murphy has noted, pinning down the doctrine can feel like “lassoing smoke.” Even the top scholars in the field appear to disagree on basic premises. I think the nub of the difficulty has to do with the “meta-” ness of the enterprise. When a court tries to determine if agency action is “arbitrary and capricious,” it’s often assessing the head of the agency’s beliefs about an ALJ’s beliefs about the parties’ beliefs about the matter at issue.

Obviously this problem occurs elsewhere in law, and there are many deference standards that try to address it. Perhaps in line with Lawrence Rosen’s work on the cultural influence of law, I’m beginning to think some of these standards are filtering into academic and public discourse. One can “map” some controversies as boiling down to points about the deference certain beliefs are owed. For example,

1. Belief: A majority of Americans believe in God.

2. Belief about belief: Some academics criticize this belief. (Dawkins’s The God Delusion; Dennett’s Brights.)

3. Belief about belief about belief: Commentators criticize the critics. (Eagleton on Dawkins; Wieseltier on Dennett)

4. Belief about belief about belief about belief: Others intervene. (Leiter on Wieseltier on Dennett).

The debate can be a little dizzying, but as Eagleton notes, it’s often necessary to “repudiate the brand of mealy-mouthed liberalism which believes that one has to respect other people’s silly or obnoxious ideas just because they are other people’s.” Nevertheless, Eagleton cautions how projects like Dawkins’ risk making a category mistake about the phenomenon they attempt to discredit:

[T]o claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is . . . to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.

In other words, in a pluralistic society, we’re all obliged to develop the capacity to respect varieties of personal knowledge. . . . without, of course, falling into radical skepticism. I think the difficulty of that balance mirrors the difficulty of developing any coherent account of deference doctrine in admin (which, as Murphy notes, is “a complex brew of improbable fictions and proceduralism”).

Photo Credit: Flickr/B. Jones.

Net Neutrality: Law, Money, and Culture


Bill Moyers enters the fray in the raging legal debate over net neutrality tonight, with a documentary on PBS. The Wu/Yoo debate on the topic gets the central issues on the table: should we permit dominant ISP’s (like Verizon and Comcast) to discriminate among the “bits” on their networks, giving more rapid service to preferred sites? I’ve offered some tentative thoughts on the matter, and these continue in that vein.

The net neutrality battle may offer us a classic efficiency-equity tradeoff. Imagine a world where everything on the internet came to you four times faster, but dominant ISP’s could cut deals with certain sites that made their content come 10 times faster. On many classic economic accounts, that would be Pareto-optimal–everyone’s better off. As some very smart people (like Philip Weiser) have claimed, that differential pricing could finally lead to revenue levels that would remedy the US’s unacceptably slow pace of getting people connected to broadband (and faster) networks.

But on the other hand, what about the competitive disadvantage of those unable to cut the deals? Compare this article reprinted in the Boston Pilot (the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s official paper) touting net neutrality and this piece from Brookings-AEI disparaging it as a form of “price control.” The economists just tend to miss the cultural importance of media consolidation. That’s what convinced me that the stakes are ultimately a “battle for mindshare” (to use Hannibal Travis’s evocative metaphor), and can’t be cast in simple economic terms.

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Must District Judges Give Reasons?

gavel.jpgJonathan Adler highlights this astonishing Ninth Circuit opinion on the alleged misconduct of now-embattled District Judge Manuel Real. Some interesting facets of the case (previously blogged about here, here, and elsewhere). First, dissents matter. It is more than tempting to attribute the current push to impeach Judge Real to Judge Kozinski’s harsh dissent from the panel’s order exonerating him on the misconduct charge. Second, the case raises a neat issue which relates to what I’ve been writing this summer. While the overall facts of the case are well worth reading in the original, if you’ve ten or twenty minutes, I want to focus briefly on part of Judge Kozinski’s charge against Real: that he failed to explain the reasoning for a controversial order.

The basic story is that Judge Real withdrew the petition in a pending bankruptcy case and stayed a state-court judgement evicting a woman who was appearing before his court in a criminal matter. Both orders were entered apparently sua sponte, or at least without hearing the evicting party’s arguments. According to Kozinski, Judge Real “gave no reasons, cited no authority, made no reference to a motion or other petition, imposed no bond, balanced no equities. The two orders [the withdraw and stay] were a raw exercise of judicial power…” In a subsequent hearing, Kozinski continued, “we find the following unilluminating exchange”:

The Court: Defendants’ motion to dismiss is denied, and the motion for lifting of the stay is denied . . .”

Attorney for Evicting Party: May I ask the reasons, your Honor?

The Court: Just because I said it, Counsel.

Kozinski wrote:

I could stop right here and have no trouble concluding that the judge committed misconduct. [Not only was there a failure of the adversary process . . . but also] a statement of reasons for the decision, reliance on legal authority. These niceties of orderly procedure are not designed merely to ensure fairness to the litigants and a correct application of the law . . . they lend legitimacy to the judicial process by ensuring that judicial action is-and is seen to be-based on law, not the judge’s caprice . . . [And later, Kozinski exclaims] Throughout these lengthy proceedings, the judge has offered nothing at all to justify his actions-not a case, not a statute, not a bankruptcy treatise, not a law review article, not a student note, not even a blawg. [DH: Check out the order of authority!]

So here’s the issue: in the ordinary case, to what extent are judges required to explain themselves?

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The Meaning of “Well Settled Law”

Lawyers use the phrase liberally in their briefs; judges sprinkle their opinions with it. But hardly anyone agrees what it means. The phrase: “well settled law.” One of the most interesting exchanges occurred during the Alito hearings over this very phrase:

Ms. Feinstein asked whether Judge Alito did not agree that Roe “was well settled in court.”

He said, “It depends on what one means by the term ‘well settled.'”

This was followed by an extended back-and-forth and careful parsing of what the phrase may or may not mean to Alito.

It would be a mistake to see Alito’s equivocation as merely a product of confusion over terminology. Indeed, Alito’s hesitation to accord Roe the status of “well settled law”–he finally said only that it must be accorded “respect” as “very important precedent”–cannot be understood in an internally coherent way.

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