APSA-Opinio Juris Happy Hour in Philadelphia

Opinio Juris, the international law blog at which three (count ’em!) of my Temple colleagues are currently blogging, is on a roll of late. They’re holding a neat “virtual round-table” that coincides with the American Political Science Association (APSA)’s annual meeting. And tomorrow night, from 5:30 through 7:30 at Philadelphia’s swanky Continental Midtown , they are hosting a happy hour for APSA members, and other international law junkies. I’ll be crashing, and if you are one of our readers and happen to be at the event, be sure to say hello.


The Unconstitutionality of State-Created Bankruptcy-Specific Exemptions

Judge Jeffrey R. Hughes, writing for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Michigan, has held a Michigan exemption law that applies only in federal bankruptcy proceedings to be unconstitutional. In re Wallace, 2006 WL 2347807 (Bankr. W.D. Mich. Aug. 9, 2006) (to be published). The Bankruptcy Code authorizes states to opt out of the Code’s exemption scheme. As a general matter, then, debtors from opt-out states may only exempt property from their bankruptcy estates pursuant to state-provided exemptions and nonbankruptcy federal exemptions. 11 U.S.C. § 522(b)(2), (3)(A). In this regard, the Bankruptcy Code recognizes and defers to nonbankruptcy entitlements. A state exemption law that applies only in federal bankruptcy proceedings (a “bankruptcy-specific exemption”) raises the issue of whether the recognition of and deference to nonbankruptcy entitlements translates into a congressionally-delegated authority for states to create bankruptcy entitlements. Within the exemption context, the Wallace court has answered “no.” States do not have such authority, thus rendering a state-created bankruptcy-specific exemption unconstitutional.

The court in Wallace referenced a 2000 decision issued by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Indiana, In re Cross, 255 B.R. 25 (Bankr. N.D. Ind. 2000), which found that an Indiana bankruptcy-specific exemption regarding entireties property was unconstitutional. Aside from these two decisions, I know of no others that address this issue. This is curious as Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia have all enacted bankruptcy-specific exemptions in one form or another—some allowing debtors in bankruptcy to claim more exempt property than they otherwise could outside of bankruptcy and others providing the opposite. I wonder whether courts and/or legislatures in these jurisdictions will take notice of the Wallace decision. Perhaps there are more constitutional challenges or even statutory amendments on the horizon. Stay tuned.


The Supreme Court Clerkship Meritocracy

Lots of people, including the NYTimes, have noted and commented on the paucity of females among this year’s Supreme Court clerkship class. But one particular quote in the Times article stuck out. Linda Greenhouse wrote that Souter “explained that he had hired the top four applicants, who turned out to be men.”

Wait a second. The “top four applicants”? Are things really so cut and dried that one can clearly identify the top four applicants? First, it sure seems like most Justices filter out many excellent applicants. Based on the narrow range of schools that provide clerks, it appears that many Justices simply set aside highly qualified applicants based on school alone. I understand that this may be a simple way to limit an otherwise unwieldly pool of candidates. But it surely works to exclude many people – women, minorities, and yes, white men – who would do an equally good job. Many law non-Ivyish law schools have a top grad, an uber-star, who would make a top notch clerk. Alabama has one in the class of 2006 (a female) and I know more are in the pipeline.

But even if one accepts the assumption that four schools – Yale, Chicago, Harvard and Stanford (the schools identified by Brian Leiter as disproportionate feeders) – graduate better potential clerks than weaklings like Alabama, Texas, Temple, Vanderbilt, Emory, and Duke, I still doubt that whatever assessment tools the Justices use really identify the four objectively best candidates. Perhaps if the Justices had some data showing that a Yale Law Journal graduates who graduated summa from Williams is less likely to flame out than a Yale grad who graduated summa from Knox College, I’d buy it. And maybe the person who ingratiates himself to Larry Tribe really does pan out more often than the person who studies and thinks really hard, but never desires to do research assistance – or who does research for Jon Hanson. I just doubt it.

Diversity on the bench matters, if only because lived experience shows that people with different life experiences approach problems differently. (In that sense, Alabama’s monochromatic judiciary – 15 white men and 4 white women sit on the state’s three appellate courts – guarantees a cramped view of how to solve conflicts.) Diversity among clerks matters as well, partly because clerks sometimes do affect outcomes and partly because clerks form a primary pool for future solicitors, Supreme Court litigators, academics, and other leaders in the law. When Justice Souter and others (and clearly, Souter is relatively good on sex diversity) adopt dubious heuristics for evaluating candidates, their narrow choices have a wide ripple effect.

I’m certain that all nine Justices are focused on hiring good clerks. I simply believe that a pool of equally strong, and more diverse “top four applicants” can be found on the cutting room floor.


Are We Writing Only For Ourselves?

In 1992, Judge Harry Edwards wrote an article in Michigan, The Growing Disjuncture Between Legal Education and the Legal Profession, which was, as the title suggests, an effort to redirect legal scholarship from what Edwards perceived as a too-abstract and theoretical path towards work that would be of more immediate use to h judges and lawyers. I think it fair to say that, while legal scholarship, has since evolved in a variety of directions, one of them has not been more practical scholarship along the lines Judge Edwards urged.

His piece has been much discussed, but also essentially ignored as legal scholarship has moved futher in the direction Edwards decried (I’m speaking too broadly here, I know, since terrific doctrinal scholarship continues to be produced and an increasingly empirical literature might be the most “practical” of anything that appears in the law reviews). But the median journal article, so to speak, at least in the leading law reviews, is one it is hard to imagine a lawyer or court citing, and not much easier to imagine your average policy-maker even understanding.

But this is old news. As I start this academic year, iit occurred to me that not only is legal scholarship no longer written for judges and attorneys but we in the legal academy seem far less interested than in past years in even acquainting future judges, lawers, legislators, and policy makers with our scholarship. Casebooks are increasing ignoring the literature that is the stuff of academic discussions of the topic in question, and, when the scholarship is cited it is typically in tip-of-the-hat fashion.

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Above the Law: Welcome to the Blogosphere

above-the-law.gifYou knew her him as A3G of Underneath Their Robes. He went on to blog at Wonkette, and now David Lat is at the helm of a new blog, Above the Law.

David offers a preview of what’s to come:

1. Legal Eagle Wedding Watch. We review the New York Times wedding announcements each week, pick out some couples with lawyers, and score them — on their résumés, families, balance, and beauty (if pictured). Then we calculate overall scores and declare a winner. FUN! (We’ve been at this for a few weeks now; click here and scroll down for the Wedding Watch archives.)

2. Lawyerly Lairs. Real estate and shelter porn for the J.D. set. We take you inside the lavish homes and resplendent offices of America’s top lawyers and judges. Don’t blame us if your keyboard ends up covered in drool. (Previously covered: Greta Van Susteren and John Coale’s New York digs.)

3. The Eyes of the Law: Legal Celebrity Sightings. When you called your sister from Starbucks, in a tizzy after seeing Ted Olson, she asked: “What about Mary-Kate and Ashley?” But don’t despair; we understand.

4. Advice for the Lawlame. We take the painfully earnest questions submitted to the popular career advice columns at NYLawyer.com — and offer up responses of our own (examples here and here).

5. Hotties Contests. And lots of ’em. You get to vote on the hottest judges, law professors, and legal journalists — among many others. (First up: ERISA lawyers. Don’t say we didn’t warn you — NSFW!!!)


Is Litigating While Drunk A Crime? I Say Yes

Dave’s video link about the drunk criminal defense lawyer has generated some interesting comments. Folks seem to feel that the judge (and presumably the state) have little criminal recourse against a defense attorney who attempts to represent a client (facing life in prison, no less) while intoxicated. I’m not sure I agree.

I think there were several possibilities here. First, the judge could probably have charged him with contempt of court. Under Nevada law (NRS 199.340) criminal contempt consists (among other things) of “disorderly, contemptuous or insolent behavior committed during the sitting of the court, in its immediate view and presence, and directly tending to interrupt its proceedings or to impair the respect due to its authority.” Litigating while drunk seems to qualify. And in Nevada, a judge may be able to charge the crime herself – there may be no need for a DA to bring the charges.

The DA would probably be responsible for lodging other charges. The obvious one is public intoxication. I don’t know for sure, but I would not assume that the lawyer’s failure to blow a .08 in court has any particular signficance under a public intox statute. First off, this numeric standard relates to drunk driving; I doubt that it has any explicit relationsihp to public intoxication. Second, since he’d been in court for two hours before blowing the breathalyzer, it’s possible to infer that he was intoxicated under the DUI standard for at least part of the time. (An expert can support that claim.)

Another possibility is DUI. Based on his own admission, he drove a motor vehicle earlier. Based on his breathalyzer, as well as his statements (and an accident where he left before police arrived), there is arguably probable cause to believe he committed DUI. Will the DA win at trial? Will his statements be suppressed? Interesting questions – but not ones that necessarily need an answer at the charging stage.

But I’d like to think about a final charge – some version of an attempted assault. In Nevada, assault consists of “intentionally placing another person in reasonable apprehension of immediate bodily harm.” By intentionally attempting to represent a defendant while drunk, might the state argue that he made the defendant fear unjust incarceration, and its related harms? I know this is a stretch. (He would probably argue, for example, that he did not intend to put the defendant at risk.) And I am hesitant about criminalizing lawyer conduct like this for fear that it will deter lawyers from taking serious criminal cases. But it strikes me that the choice to represent people facing life – or worse, death – while drunk is more than a courtroom management problem. It’s more than an “appearance of justice” problem.

It’s definitely more than an uncomfortable moment for a lawyer. It’s a crime.


This Is My Domain, Well Everyone’s Really: Google and Full Text Public Domain Books

library 2.JPG

I remember watching Tarzan as a kid and hearing the declaration “The jungle…this is my domain…and I protect those who come here. For I am Tarzan, lord of the jungle” at the beginning of every episode. Well Google has taken up the public domain cry and in effect has said “This is public domain and we share it with all. For we are Google, lord of information.” Google’s latest cool offering is in Google books. As Google puts it “Starting today, you can go to Google Book Search and download full copies of out-of-copyright books to read at your own pace. You’re free to choose from a diverse collection of public domain titles — from well-known classics to obscure gems.”

The CNET article about the service notes that Google seems to be taking a somewhat conservative approach to the definition of what is in the public domain including screening access based on different country’s laws. Indeed Google cautions users to “please confirm the legality of your actions. The rules of public domain differ from country to country, and we can’t offer guidance on whether any specific use is allowed. Please don’t assume that a book’s appearance in Google Book Search means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.”

My guess is that the disclaimer is a way to combat some publisher who argues Google is liable for contributory infringement. And to me the country access restriction is an interesting way to try and honor differing countries copyright laws without only using the most restrictive definitions, but I wonder whether Google will use that same technology to honor reduced access to this information for political demands. This point was at issue with China already.

Finally some of you may want to check out Paul Heald’s (Georgia) abstract and summary for his empirical study of public domain and copyrighted best sellers. The study examines the hypothesis that copyright extension is necessary to ensure that copyright holders would “restore older works and further disseminate them to the public.” I heard Paul present the piece at the IPSC conference a few weeks ago and his use of the data to reach his conclusion about whether works are under-exploited is worth a look. I won’t tell you the conclusion because that would be a spoiler.


An Unusual Call to the Law

woodruff.jpgLaw seems to be a profession that produces family dynasties. For example, I clerked for a judge who was the scion of a great Southern legal family that had a duo of distinguished federal appellate judges and a couple of state supreme court justices to its credit. The Oman family, however, is but one generation removed from high country ranching on the western slope of the Rockies. I have, however, unearthed some judicial ancestors through my paternal grandmother.

My great, great grandfather was a man named Justin Call. He was born in Utah in the last half of the 19th century and came of age as the confrontation between the Mormon Church and the federal government reached white-hot intensity. The Mormons had committed themselves to creating a religious (indeed theocratic) commonwealth in Great Basin that was to include communitarian economic experiments, religious direction on political questions, and — most notoriously — polygamy. Not surprisingly, an America devoted to ideals of companionate monogamy and economic individualism was not about to let the Mormon viper rear its ugly head on the nation’s hearth. The result was a series of ever more punitive laws between the 1860s and the 1880s directed against Mormon polygamists and the Mormon Church as an institution. By 1890, thousands of Mormons had been incarcerated for polygamy and “unlawful cohabitation,” the Mormon Church lay in financial ruin with essentially all of its assets confiscated by the federal government, tens of thousands of Mormons had been disenfranchised, and Congress stood poised to pass legislation that would purge all Mormons from the voting rolls. Faced with institutional annihilation and permanent political subjugation for his people, Wilford Woodruff, president of the Mormon Church, issued the so-called “Manifesto,” which began the tortuous process of abandoning plural marriage and Mormonism’s 19th-century utopian ambitions.

Ironically, the Mormon efforts to resist the federal legal campaign had been hindered by their own anti-legalism. Zion — the name that Mormons gave to their vision of the godly society — was to be a place ruled by love and justice, not by the pettifogging technicalities of the common law. Accordingly, Brigham Young and his associates treated Mormons to a good generation or two of sermons denouncing the evils of lawyers and “going to law” against one’s brothers and sisters. Hence, when the legal confrontation came, Mormons found themselves without many — in Young’s phrase — “lawyers of their own to defend them.”

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Educated Yet Broke

Can you be too poor to file for bankruptcy, yet have the ability to repay your student loans?

When Congress amended the Bankruptcy Code in 2005, it also amended the Judicial Code to provide for the waiver of the mandatory filing fee for bankruptcy. That’s right. Prior to this statutory amendment, if you were so financially strapped that you couldn’t pay the filing fee (then, $150 for Chapters 7 and 13; now, $220 for Chapter 7 and $150 for Chapter 13), you were out of luck: Per the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in United States v. Kras, 409 U.S. 434, in forma pauperis relief was unavailable in bankruptcy. Lest we prematurely praise Congress for changing this state of affairs, debtors today will get a waiver of the filing fee only under very narrow circumstances. A debtor must have (1) household income less than 150% of the poverty line and (2) and an inability to pay the filing fee in installments (see 28 U.S.C. § 1930(f)(1)).

Now that we have a sense of what Congress deems to be a financially dire situation, at least for purposes of filing for bankruptcy, it strikes me that we might use this measure to gauge a debtor’s inability to repay other types of debts—say, for example, student loans. In an empirical study of the discharge of student loans in bankruptcy, Michelle Lacey (mathematics, Tulane) and I documented that the financial characteristics of the great majority of debtors in our sample evidenced an inability to repay their student loans. One measure we used was the amount of the debtor’s household income in relation to the poverty line established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. We had sufficient information to calculate this figure for 262 discharge determinations. For this group of debtors, half of them had household income less than 200% of the poverty line. It didn’t occur to us to run the numbers using the 150% figure applicable to the fee waiver. In light of the new statutory provision, I’ve set out to look at our data from this perspective. The numbers are sobering, to say the least.

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