The Times’ “Massive” Libel Exposure?

Mickey Kaus, who tells-others-so often, blogs about the Hatfill v. NYT libel suit [For Mickey’s take, go to Wednesday’s column and scroll down]:

The Times now faces massive exposure in the Steven Hatfill libel case against columnist Nicholas ‘I Might Have Gotten it Right’ Kristof.

This feels like a massive overstatement to me. I can’t find any good analysis on the ‘net of the Times’ exposure: because it is a federal case, there was no ad damnum. A quick look around suggests that libel verdicts don’t get to be much more than $50 M (at least, those that stand up don’t). Moreover, Virginia (I believe) caps punitives at $350,000. I suppose such a cap would apply in this diversity case if VA law applied (the extent it does instead of NY law is yet to be resolved.) Putting that aside, and assuming a high damage award, the Times’ expected liability has to be discounted by the probability of its losing at trial in a traditionally pro-defendant jurisdiction. Just a guess, but I’d put the resulting probable exposure at less than $10,000,000. (I may be missing many parts to this analysis. Readers are free to chime in).

If I’m nearly right, in light of the corporation’s $250 million 2005 net income, do you think this case is keeping the CFO up at night? I don’t. I tried without luck to find any mention of a Hatfill reserve in the Times’ recent SEC filings. The only discussion of pending litigation contains “no material adverse impact” language, which is surprisingly general. If you want to know the risks that the Times thinks its shareholders should care about, check out this scary page. Bottom line: litigation isn’t the problem, the web is.


A Defining Opinion On Federal Criminal Sentencing

Doug Berman has pointed out a truly engaging sentencing opinion out of the Northern District of Iowa. The case, U.S. v. Saenz, involved a downward departure from the federal sentencing guidelines for a defendant who provided “substantial assistance” to the government. After Kim Saenz entered a plea of guilty to a drug crime, and in light of her genuinely substantial assistance to prosecutors, Judge Mark Bennett gave the defendant a 68% reduction in sentence. Thus, Ms. Saenz received a term of 20 months for her role in the distribution of marijuana. The Eighth Circuit slapped down Bennett’s ruling, holding that this downward departure from the (no longer binding) federal sentencing guidelines was “unreasonable and excessive.” In particular, the Circuit indicated that a downward departure of 50% for substantial assistance was inherently “extraordinary.” It appears that several of the Judge’s recent sentencing decisions have been remanded on the grounds of excessive leniency.

Judge Bennett’s decision was all about redefinition. He redefined language, people, and even his own role in the production of law. In doing so, he created an opinion worth a few reading.

First, he sought to redefine the word “extraordinary.” Courts routinely define terms and in the case of the Eighth Circuit, they have defined an “extraordinary” departure as one that cuts the guideline sentence in half. This is a legal definition, of course. While this particular definition of extraordinariness may carry the force of law, it does not necessarily have the force of reality. Judge Bennett attacked attempted to undermine this legal holding by showing that a 50% reduction was not extraordinary, in the dictionary sense of the word. Like a good 21st century law prof, Judge Bennett used quantitative empirical data produced by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to show that such a reduction is actually quite ordinary. Thus, he attempted to undermine the Eighth Circuit’s legal claim by subtly shifting the term “extraordinary” out of its special legal use, and into common parlance. Very nice.

Judge Bennett also sought to redefine people. Most importantly, he wanted to reclaim the ability to define himself. He acknowledged that some people might see him as a sentencing softy. “Contrary to the perception that this string of reversals may have engendered, I am not a habitually lenient sentencer.” How to prove his sentencing cojones? First, he used capital punishment as a proxy for toughness. “The two most recent ‘kingpins’ to appear in my court received the death penalty”, he boasted. Then, more on point, he confirmed his willingness to bang a defendant, even when the government thought it unnecessary. “I have not hesitated to depart or vary upward, even sua sponte.” He concluded: “the issue is not, or should not be, whether or not I am an excessively lenient sentencer. I am not. What I am is a very experienced sentencer.”

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The Big Law School Shuffle and the US News Rankings

usnwr1.jpgThe US News rankings are officially out (here), although advance copies floating around the blogosphere spoiled the exciting surprises.

As usual, there was some small shuffling here and there. US News sure has designed a great gimmick to captivate the world of legal academia in a near-hypnotic spell. We eagerly watch what is in essence a rather boring snail’s race, where each year, some schools inch up a few paces and some fall a few paces behind. US News gives us just enough shuffling in the race to keep us in suspense, but in reality, this race has the pacing and excitement of a 100-page law review article.

With that said, I confess I’m captivated by this silly race myself, and Paul Caron has a nifty summary of the schools making the biggest shuffles forward and backward in the race. I’m pleased that GW has inched up one notch. Now that the results are out, we’ll all have to wait until next spring to see the snails do their little shuffle again.

Last year at PrawfsBlawg, my co-blogger Kaimi had a very interesting post on the US News rankings:

Everybody loves to bash the US News rankings. Especially Brian Leiter. There is evidence that schools “game the system.” There are absurd results — precipitous drops for University of Washington and University of Kansas. There was even that dark time when the rankings placed NYU above Columbia — sacrilege by any standards, and irrefutable proof of flawed methodology. But even with all of its warts — and they are many — the US News list serves a valuable purpose. It’s cheap, accessible, and easily digestible, and it’s right more often than not. And frankly, it would be pretty ridiculous to expect much more from a $3.50 magazine. With U.S. News, the reader gets exactly what she pays for.

Exactly. We love to gripe about the US News rankings — and with good reason, for the rankings are stupid — but what should we expect from a magazine’s gimmick to sell issues? Actually, I think that the folks at US News are quite brilliant. Why should they invest the time and money to do the rankings properly? They’ve figured out a way to do the rankings cheaply yet with just enough plausibility to have them be widely accepted. They have no particular expertise in legal education, yet their rankings weild tremendous influence over it. They’ve figured out a way to shuffle up the rankings just enough each year so that we keep coming back to find out what’s going on. We gripe and gripe about it in the legal academy, yet what do we do about it? We still play along with US News. Of course, we have to, since so many folks take the rankings seriously. However, what’s to stop us from working on developing alternative ranking systems, as Brain Leiter has done? Or at the very least, why don’t we try to work with US News to get them to improve upon their rankings? Until that time, we’ll continue to be slaves to a magazine.

Relative Deprivation, Location, and Lawdenfreude


As a recent buyer of a “luxury” (read: habitable) condo in a not-so-fashionable precinct of Jersey City, I obsessively read about the “housing bubble.” It’s about as irresistible as kitschy old TV shows. The latest installment is this interesting piece by Dean Baker, arguing for governmental intervention designed to pop the purported bubble “sooner rather than later:”

If mortgage rates were pushed back to more normal levels (e.g., 7 to 8 percent), it would almost certainly lead to a sharp reduction in housing prices. Deliberately destroying trillions of dollars of wealth may seem like perverse policy, but it is important to recognize the context. If there is in fact an unsustainable run-up in housing prices, then the question is not whether prices will fall, but rather when prices will fall. The wealth is not really there. It is an illusion.

Housing economists can have a field day debating the wisdom of this proposition as a policy matter—I defer to their opinions. What piques me is the notion of “illusory wealth.” The housing bubble story reveals something fundamental about “wealth creation” via certain assets that mainstream economic measurement tends to ignore. For the 68% or so of people who own a house, rising real estate prices bring security and well-being. But for the rest, they can cause real anxieties. In many commodities markets, rising prices can induce more suppliers to meet the demand. But in many urban centers, there is little space left next to public transit or desirable amenities. Supply can’t rise to meet demand. So what we really have is a bidding war for prime space. Does this have any implications for law?

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Drug Free Zones, Race, And Sentencing Dilution

A recent report from the Justice Policy Institute, Disparity By Design, reviews the use of “drug free zones”. Almost every state has adopted sentencing enhancements for individuals convicted of selling drugs within a set distance from schools or other drug-sensitive locations. In many jurisdictions, these zones reach a thousand feet (more or less) from the targeted drug-free site. In my home state, Alabama, any drug sale within three miles of any school (including universities) results in a mandatory five year prison term. As the Justice Policy Institute points out, this means that pretty much the entire core of the city of Birmingham is a drug free zone.

Whatever one may think of anti-drug policy, these drug free zones are very problematic. The Justice Policy Institute study points out one key reason: these rules have a substantially disparate racial impact. This disparity occurs because drug free zones have their greatest impact in high density areas, and because minorities – particularly African-Americans – are disproportionately concentrated in such areas. Though I haven’t studied the matter, I suspect that much of the impetus for these zones came from empowered suburban parents desperate to keep the drug menace out of their idyllic suburban school systems. As Joel Best showed in Threatened Children the push for many child protection laws – ranging from Megan’s Laws to these drug provisions – is typically provided by a relatively small coterie of activists who maintain their power and profile by promoting new child-protection legislation. My guess is that these individuals and groups did not set out to produce a law with a disparate racial impact. But just as in the case of Megan’s Laws – which I have shown have disparate race effects – nobody bothered to notice that these laws would almost inevitably lead to race disparities. Given the demographics of drug crimes, this impact simply cannot have been a surprise. (As for those states that make public housing a drug-free zone, matters are more complex. On one hand, the likelihood of disparate race effects is self-evident. On the other, some scholars – like Dan Kahan and Tracey Meares – might argue that the fact that these provisions are endorsed by representatives of minority communities effectively immunizes them from the disparate impact critique.)

There is a second problem with these laws, however. They undermine their very purpose. If the goal of these provisions was to deter drug sales within close proximity of schools, they should have created stronger sentences for crimes committed at the real site of risk. By expanding these zones far beyond schools, drug sellers cease to view schools as protected areas. Instead, as a practical matter, these zones simply increase the general punishment for drug sales. Some people may think this is a fine idea, but these people need to recognize that in doing so, they have diluted any special protection for schools. Not surprisingly, the study showed that these zones did not have a deterrent effect.

Kudos again to the Birmingham News for challenging Alabama’s expansive zones as bad criminal justice policy.

Hat tip: Doug Berman


The Most Cited Cases in Administrative Law

Some empirical research is more blog-worthy than essay-worthy. Entering citations into Westlaw’s Allfeds database over lunch may be an example.

Others have observed that Chevron v. NRDC may become the most cited case of any kind by federal courts, displacing Erie v. Thompkins. It has garnered 7909 citations, far ahead of the next most cited case in administrative law, NLRB v. Universal Camera Corp. (substantial evidence), with 4801 citations. Following that, it’s a tight race between Matthews v. Eldridge (due process), with 4293 citations, and Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe (hard look), with 4227. The scope-of-judicial-review case that has underperformed is MVMA v. State Farm (arbitrary and capricious), with 2276 citations, less than the sort of quaint Goldberg v. Kelly’s (due process) 2377 citations and the narrow-issue-area Abbott Labs v. Gardner’s (ripeness) 2910 citations. Chevron has also stolen a lot of Vermont Yankee v. NRDC’s (rulemaking) glory – it has 1059 citations. But my not-so-dark-horse candidate for the silver medal in the future is Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (standing) with 3775 cites. Not too bad for a case from 1992, and I suspect that the government has installed a shift-F4 macro for the case on every one of its attorneys’ computers.


Where Credit’s Due?

In recent months, in widely varied contexts, bloggers have expended a non-trivial number of words trying to divine a proper citation policy for writing on the ‘net. It’s the kind of activity that ought to set law review articles editors’ hearts-a-flutter, were they not engaged in the project of footnote generation editing and studying. See, e.g., the Domenech controversy (instigation; synthesis; resolution; Malkin’s moral: “the determined moonbat hordes . . . painfully . . . are right.”); the AP-citation brouhaha; the RibsteinBaude discussion on citation as a norm/quality warranty; and yesterday’s discussions about Prawfs’/OrinKerr’s “need” to credit Xoxohth for their early posting of the ’07 USNews Rankings

Are all of these situations the same? What distinguishes them?

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A Conspiracy of Paper-Pushers

Perhaps you have wondered why the money that law school professors pull down is only obvious at certain law schools subject to state cognates of the Freedom of Information Act. Antitrust may be the culprit. Pursuant to a consent decree with the United States resolving a case brought under the Sherman Act, the ABA’s school accreditation committee has, among other things, “agreed to refrain from using law school compensation data and from adopting or enforcing any standards that have the purpose or effect of imposing requirements as to the base salary, stipends, fringe benefits or other compensation paid to law school deans, administrators, faculty, librarians or other employees.”

This consent decree sunsets on June 25, after a ten year run during which a number of new law schools entered the market, and salary data got enshrouded in an aura of mystery. Did the consent decree affect legal education, was it a good thing, and what will happen when it expires?

Antitrust ain’t my raison d’etre. I only wonder – and I confess I only wonder this because of a tip from a colleague – if the law reviews, with their concerted action on article length are going to be the next up against the wall. [ed. Uh, the article length thing isn’t commercial and varies from review to review. Oh really? Each of the eleven law reviews that got the ball rolling on article length signed on to a joint statement, each is “committed to rethinking and modifying its policies,” presumably at the behest of the other ten, and each is “actively exploring how to address” article length in concert with one another. So I recommend against loose talk around Thomas Barnett.]

Anyway, I farmed this one out to an expert. I asked Josh Wright, a prominent and businessey professor blogger, what he thought about the sunset of the ABA accreditation decree, in exchange for an offer to cross-post the result. Here’s what he said:

“The consent decree prohibited activity that was plainly anticompetitive: colluding with respect to faculty salaries and other benefits as well as boycotting non-ABA approved schools. Forcing existing law schools to face competition from schools, even those that offer lower salaries and fewer amenities, can only improve legal education. However, my guess is that the expiration of the decree will not tempt further collusion, because any such attempt would be both highly visible and likely to attract antitrust scrutiny.”

But Josh and I would welcome further thoughts.