Can We Tolerate Tolerance?  

This is the third in a series of occasional short essays about free speech in America. Earlier installments can be found here and here.

We live in a tolerant society. Of course, that is an exaggeration. But when it comes to so many flashpoint issues – ranging from blasphemy to race-hate speech – we are far more tolerant than almost all other nations, so much so that we are routinely criticized for being too tolerant. It is our badge of honor . . . and dishonor.

Professor Mark Lilla

Professor Mark Lilla

Mindful of the events in France and Denmark earlier this year, I wonder: Will we continue to tolerate toleration if our world takes a terrible turn? My question has less to do with what is being tagged as the “terrorist’s veto” than with a more complex problem, and one therefore even more difficult to resolve. This problem occurred to me when I first read an eye-opening essay by Mark Lilla in the New York Review of Books, an essay entitled “France on Fire.” Here is a very brief excerpt:

“For the past quarter-century a political and intellectual culture war over the place of Islam in French society has been bubbling along, and every few years some event — a student wears a burka to school, riots erupt in a poor neighborhood, a mosque is attacked, the National Front wins a local election — renews hostilities.”

I want to extrapolate from that essay (at once insightful and provocative) in order to outline a phenomenon that may be hurling our way, a phenomenon related to toleration and dissident speech.

Before I do, however, let turn to the glorious side of the toleration equation by way of a well-known case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). Recall the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ flag-salute case, the one with that liberty-inspiring majority opinion by Justice Robert Jackson. In words that should be fixed in every lawmaker’s consciousness, Jackson declared: “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.” The judgment in that case affirming First Amendment freedom is all the more amazing given that it was rendered in wartime and involved a religious sect that was then very much hated in various quarters of American society. (See Shawn Francis Peters, Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution (2000).)

The (Hypothetical) Problem

Against that backdrop, imagine the following scenario. Assume that the editors of a respectable libertarian magazine elected to publish several satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in order to make a First Amendment point and to take a stand against the “terrorist’s veto.” Assume thereafter that the Charlie Hebdo incident replayed itself in Cincinnati (the headquarters of my hypothetical magazine). Ten people who work for the magazine are murdered and two Muslim extremists take credit. Both of the terrorists are later killed in a shootout with police that also results in the deaths of two local police officers.

Here is where I begin to extrapolate from Professor Lilla’s essay. Now assume the following additional scenarios, replete with a few quotations from the Lilla essay”

  1. The Governor of Ohio calls for a moment of mourning with heads bowed on the day following the tragedy (say, the time is 11:00 a.m.);
  2. A “noticeable number” of Muslim public high school students in Cincinnati refuse, on religious and political grounds, to bow their heads;
  3. “And not only that. Some [tell] their teachers that the victims got what they deserved because no one should be allowed to mock the Prophet”;
  4. “Others celebrate the killers on social media, and circulate rumors that the entire crisis was manufactured by the government and/or Zionist agents”; and
  5. The parents (some of whom work for state and local governments) of some of these Muslim-American students speak openly (though not at work) to defend their children and endorse the positions they took.

Note that the Muslim-Americans in the above scenarios were otherwise peaceful and law abiding. And some Muslim-American leaders sought to counteract the messages of the violent extremists among them. That said, let me stir the pot a bit more with a few more scenarios and related questions:

  1. So far as government entities are involved, how far are we willing to go to accommodate (culturally, statutorily, and constitutionally) the religious views of the more observant and separatist Muslim-Americans who harbor what we would see as extreme views concerning homosexuality, female purity, and Jews and Israel?
  2. Finally, let me again from quote Professor Lilla to raise a final question: Some “students and their parents demand separate swimming hours or refuse to let their children go on school trips where the sexes might mix. . . . There are fathers who won’t shake hands with female teachers, or let their wives speak alone to male teachers. There are cases of children refusing to sing, or dance, or learn an instrument, or draw a face, or use a mathematical symbol that resembles a cross. The question of dress and social mixing has led to the abandonment of gym classes in many places. Children also feel emboldened to refuse to read authors or books that they find religiously unacceptable: Rousseau, Molière, and Madame Bovary. Certain subjects are taboo: evolution, sex ed, the Shoah. As one father told a teacher, ‘I forbid you to mention Jesus to my son.’” Does our commitment to religious freedom extend that far so as to accommodate the genuine religious views of those who hold them?

Let me be clear: I do not mean to demean Muslim-Americans as a class, nor do I wish to be understood as saying the above scenarios mirror the sentiments of most Muslim-Americans . I trust they are not. Then again, I may disagree with some of them, and sometimes vigorously, on several of the issues flagged above. But I also believe in toleration, and the ever-present need to be sensitive to the plight of minorities of all ideological, political, and religious stripes.

So where does that leave us?

Testing Our Tolerance Read More


Introducing Guest Blogger Jenny-Brooke Condon

I am delighted to welcome Professor Jenny-Brooke Condon who will be joining us for a guest visit this month. Professor Condon is an Associatecondon-jenny-brooke-lg_1 Professor of Law in the Center for Social Justice at Seton Hall Law School where she directs the Equal Justice Clinic. Her research and practice interests are in the areas of human rights, immigration law, prisoners’ rights, and constitutional law.

Professor Condon was a lead attorney in Matter of A-T, a challenge to the denial of asylum to a victim of female genital mutilation, which in conjunction with a national advocacy effort, resulted in a precedential decision by the Attorney General establishing that victims of gender-based violence are entitled to equal treatment under the asylum laws. Through the Equal Justice Clinic, she also litigated an equal protection challenge to the denial of state-funded healthcare benefits to low-income, lawful permanent residents on the basis of their alienage status before the New Jersey Supreme Court. Currently the clinic is counsel in matters addressing conditions for prisoners at a county jail, the death penalty in Alabama, public access to information regarding private prison contractors’ influence on immigration detention policy, and the deaths of migrants along the southern border.

Prior to rejoining the Seton Hall Law School faculty in 2010, Professor Condon was a John J. Gibbons Fellow in Public Interest and Constitutional Law at Gibbons P.C. where she engaged in a wide range of public interest litigation within New Jersey and nationally. During her fellowship, Professor Condon co-counseled with the ACLU in Freedom of Information Act litigation compelling the disclosure of the Office of Legal Counsel’s so-called “torture memos,” which purported to authorize the abuse of prisoners detained abroad; successfully advocated on behalf of a local citizen’s group to defend a municipal gun control ordinance in the New Jersey Supreme Court; and contributed to the criminal defense of Ali al-Marri, the last remaining enemy combatant held on U.S. soil. Her work as a Gibbons Fellow also addressed such issues as marriage equality, police misconduct, and capital punishment. As a clinical teaching fellow and Visiting Professor at Seton Hall Law from 2005-2008, Professor Condon represented numerous survivors of torture, trafficking, and domestic violence in successful claims for asylum and other immigration relief. She also helped supervise a civil litigation clinic focused on the revitalization of urban communities plagued by foreclosure and predatory lending.

In 2008, Professor Condon organized and led Seton Hall’s annual delegation of students and faculty to L’École Supérieure Catholique de Droit de Jérémie in Haiti and was a member of the delegation in 2007. Following graduation from law school, Professor Condon served as a law clerk to the Honorable Barry T. Albin, Associate Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. She then served as the Litigation Director for the World Organization for Human Rights in Washington, D.C. Professor Condon graduated from Seton Hall Law School magna cum laude, where she was a Chancellor Scholar, was inducted into the Order of the Coif, and served as an editor of the Law Review.

Her publications include:

The Preempting of Equal Protection for Immigrations, ____ Wash. & Lee L. Rev. ____ (forthcoming 2015)

 Illegal Secrets, 91 Wash. U. L. Rev. 1099 (2014)

 Extraterritorial Interrogation: The Porous Border Between Torture and U.S. Criminal Trials, 60 Rutgers L. Rev. 3 (2008)

You can find her ssrn page here.


Weiner’s Response to Comments about the Parent-Partner Status


As the date for this symposium drew near, I grew both excited and terrified. The excitement stemmed from the fact that seven insightful and well-respected family law scholars were going to read and comment on my book. Not only would my book have an audience, but the audience would be composed of people whom I knew and respected! That excited me. The terror came from my fear that those readers might hate the book.   I confessed to one of my Oregon law colleagues that the fear kept me up at night. He reminded me that academics are supposed to be critical, test ideas, and engage in discussion. He warned me that no blog post would simply say, “I completely agree with the book.” While I knew this fact even before he spoke, his words brought me some peace of mind. Our job is to discuss and to question.  In fact, I myself had critiqued some of my co-participants’ work in my book.

When the blog posts started emerging (and the first four appeared quickly in succession on Monday), I felt a great sense of appreciation that the participants had taken the time to read my book, and had shared their thoughts about it with the world.  I, of course, was also relieved that people found the book interesting and provocative. The participants did not always agree with me, but I found each blog post fascinating, cogent, and deserving of a response. The symposium had instantly achieved my own personal goal of providing a starting point for a conversation.

After reading and pondering all of the blog posts, I was struck as much by what the commentators did not say, as what they did say. While I will engage with each of the author’s comments later, it is notable that no one took issue with the idea that a status might offer great benefits for children and society. No one disputed that too many children are disadvantaged because of suboptimal parental relationships, including a failure of the parents to work together as a team for their children’s benefit. No one disagreed with my claim that it was unfair that society had not given a name to the relationship of so many children’s parents, let alone a structure that might foster supportive behavior between the parents. No one questioned the law’s ability to create a social role, and the effect that a new social role might have on ill-advised reproductive behavior and detrimental parental behavior. The reviewers also left untouched the claim that the status might foster love and civic virtue.

I don’t want to read too much into the silence surrounding these and other topics, for the reviewers understandably focused on the issues that most concerned them. Their silence may not signal agreement with my analysis. Nonetheless, I am going to take it as a positive sign that the book’s basic argument was not challenged. Instead people mostly raised questions about various obligations (e.g., was the content of relationship work appropriate) and potential disadvantages to specific obligations (e.g., would the obligation to give care or share disproportionately impact low-income or minority communities). People’s comments also suggested that they were receptive to the general idea. One participant thought the book “makes a persuasive case for seriously considering the adoption of such a status,” another said the status “is clearly promising enough to be worth a state experiment, or two or three or four,” a third participant concluded, “I fully support Weiner’s larger project of inculcating a stronger tie between parents to promote the well-being of children,” another stated, “I have no problem with three of the five duties,” and yet another indicated that the book was “compelling…on why we need to create a new legal status.” As I said at the end of Chapter 8, “[T]he legal obligations are just the details and details about which we might reasonably disagree. They should not detract from the conclusion that flows from the foregoing analysis: a parent-partner status is warranted.” (p. 318). It seems as if my co-participants might agree; if so, we should work together in the future to identify other inter se obligations that might better constitute the status than those that they disliked. Of course, this future project might become unnecessary if I can convince them here that all of the obligations are warranted.

Before I address each participant’s comments, I want to thank the organizer of this wonderful symposium, Solangel Maldonado. Professor Maldonado has written with great insight about the discrimination that nonmarital children still face as well as the importance of the relationship between divorced fathers and their children, among other things. I feel honored that she chose my book as the centerpiece for a conversation about the future direction of family law. If it weren’t for Professor Maldonado’s initiative and organizational skills (e.g., identifying participants, getting materials out in a timely fashion, and instructing us how to blog), this symposium would not have happened. So, thank you, Professor Maldonado. I have enjoyed the symposium immensely and have learned a lot from my co-participants.

Read More

From Territorial to Functional Governance

Susan Crawford is one of the leading global thinkers on digital infrastructure. Her brilliant book Captive Audience spearheaded a national debate on net neutrality. She helped convince the Federal Communications Commission to better regulate big internet service providers. And her latest intervention–on Uber–is a must-read. Crawford worries that Uber will rapidly monopolize urban ride services. It’s repeatedly tried to avoid regulation and taxes. And while it may offer a good deal to drivers and riders now, there is no guarantee it will in the future.

A noted critic of the sharing economy, Tom Slee, has backed up Crawford’s concerns, from an international perspective. “For a smallish city in Canada, what happens to accountability when faced with a massive American company with little interest in Canadian employment law or Canadian traditions?”, Slee asks, raising a very deep point about the nature of governance. What happens to a city when its government’s responsibilities are slowly disaggregated, functionally? Some citizens may want to see the effective governance of paid rides via Uber, of spare rooms via AirBnB, and so on. A full privatization of city governance awaits, from water to sidewalks.

If you’re concerned about that, you may find my recent piece on the sharing economy of interest. We’ll also be discussing this and similar issues at Northeastern’s conference “Tackling the Urban Core Puzzle.” Transitions from territorial to functional governance will be critical topics of legal scholarship in the coming decade.


Suing the Lottery

Illinois is in the throes of a budget crisis, and one of the means that the state is using to save money is delaying lottery payouts. At least one lottery winner is suing over this, which leads me to wonder

  1. Do lottery statutes typically mandate that eligible ticket holders and winners get a payout, or do they provide some discretion to the state not to pay?
  2. Can Illinois be sued for damages for a payout delay or does sovereign immunity bar any action?
  3. If a damage suit is possible, is the proper remedy for a payout delay merely interest, or there is something else that would be required given the tax consequences of a delay?

FAN 82 (First Amendment News) Smolla & Abrams to file First Amendment brief in Redskins trademark case

The case is Pro-Football, Inc. v. Blackhorse, which is currently pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The stakes in that game will soon get higher as two noted First Amendment players prepare to file a brief in the case — Dean Rod Smolla and Floyd Abrams. Their amicus brief is being filed today on behalf of “professors who regularly engage in legal scholarship and litigation matters germane to the First Amendment, including the intersection of freedom of speech and intellectual property.”

As District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee described it in his opinion, this “case concerns Blackhorse Defendants’ petition to cancel the registration of six trademarks owned by PFI on the grounds that the marks consisted of matter that ‘may disparage’ a substantial composite of Native Americans and bring them into contempt or disrepute under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), at the time of their registrations (1967, 1974, 1978, and 1990).”

UnknownDistrict Court Ruling: As to the Pro-Football Inc’s (PFI) First Amendment claims, Judge Lee ruled: “With regard to PFI’s First Amendment challenge, the Court DENIES PFI’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Constitutional Claims and GRANTS the cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Blackhorse Defendants and the United States of America for two reasons. First, Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act does not implicate the First Amendment. Second, the federal trademark registration program is government speech and is therefore exempt from First Amendment scrutiny.”

Enter Smolla & Abrams: First, they argue that “Section 1052(a) of the Lanham Act is a brazen exercise in viewpoint discrimination. On its face and as its animating purpose, it exists to discriminate against expression perceived by the government to be disparaging and offensive. Under the strict scrutiny standard applicable to content and viewpoint discrimination, the law cannot stand in light of the bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment that government may not penalize speech merely because it is deemed offensive or disagreeable. These principles apply to laws that burden speech just as they apply to laws that fully censor it.”

Dean Rod Smolla

Dean Rod Smolla

Next, they maintain that “Section 1052(a) is plainly unconstitutional unless some alternative First Amendment doctrine is applicable exempting the statute from the normal strictures forbidding viewpoint discrimination. Several have been posited. One claim is that trademark registration is ‘government speech’ and thus outside the provenance of the First Amendment. A second argument is that trademark registration is a government benefit, not a right, and that what appears to be viewpoint discrimination is merely the government acting to shape the contours of a benefit program. And finally, it may be claimed that regulation of disparaging trademarks constitute a valid regulation of commercial speech. None of these arguments are sound.”

In response, Smolla & Abrams offer four main arguments:

  1. “A decision by the government to deny trademark registration does not fit either the theoretical justifications that support the government speech doctrine, or the doctrinal tests that have emerged to define the doctrine’s contours. . . .”
  2. “Trademark registration is similarly outside the doctrinal definition of government speech. Trademarks are understood in society as the identifiers of private speakers. Trademarks are not created by the government, aligned with the government, or functionally used as “government IDs” or platforms for government expression. . . .”
  3. “The doctrine of unconstitutional conditions bars the government from denying government benefits to speakers on the condition that those speakers surrender First Amendment rights they would otherwise enjoy. While the unconstitutional conditions doctrine does not bar government from using the leverage of a public benefits program to prevent discriminatory conduct (as, for example, with gender discrimination provisions of Title IX), § 1052(a) is not an anti-discrimination provision, and the Washington Redskins franchise does not stand accused of any discriminatory conduct. . . . ,” and
  4. “Section 1052(a) cannot be defended as a valid regulation of commercial speech. Although trademarks are commercial identifiers, and regulation of trademarks are often regulations of commercial speech, there is no commercially related purpose underlying § 1052(a)’s prohibition on disparaging, scandalous, or contemptuous marks. It is entirely the non-commercial elements of the communication that § 1052(a) regulates, the elements deemed by the government to be culturally and politically offensive. The cancellation of the Redskins mark is thus not in any authentic sense commercial regulation at all, and ought not be analyzed under commercial speech doctrine.”

Disclosure: I signed onto the Smolla-Abrams amicus brief. 

Related Stories 

Alex Christian, “Is There Hope for the Washington Redskins’ Trademarks After All?,” Davis Brown, Oct. 22, 2015

California governor bans Redskins name at public schools,” Associated Press, Oct. 13, 2015

→ AAron Kraut, “Debate Over Washington Redskins Name Comes to County Elementary School,” Bethesda Magazine, Oct. 26, 2015 (“After a parent said the school system should bar staff and students from wearing team garb, other parents defended the name.”)

Steph Bazzle, “ACLU On Redskins’ Trademark Case: Government Shouldn’t Force The Team To Change Its Name,” Inquisitr,  March 8, 2015

Begging & the First Amendment

Dec. 12, 2011. Boston, MA. Staff photos of the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. © 2011 Marilyn Humphries

Matt Segal
© 2011 Marilyn Humphries

Here is an op-ed by Matthew Segal (of the Massachusetts ACLU) concerning the rights of the poor to engage in life-sustaining speech (aka begging). What follows are excerpts from Mr. Segal’s  op-ed, which recently appeared in The Guardian:

“All across America, municipalities have criminalized begging. This is bizarre. It is now clearly established that the first amendment protects people who express themselves by spending millions of dollars. How can it fail to protect people who express themselves by asking for one dollar?”

“Many cities have suggested that begging fails to express ideas worthy of the first amendment. Not so. Requests for charity – whether from homeless persons, Salvation Army volunteers or firefighters – express need. They do so inherently and sometimes profoundly. . . .”

When we ban begging we take away the first amendment rights of the poor.

“Anti-begging measures contradict not one but two recent supreme court decisions: McCullen v Coakley, which invalidated a Massachusetts law creating buffer zones around reproductive health clinics, and Reed v Town of Gilbert, which invalidated an Arizona sign code because its rules hinged on what each sign said. So zones that prohibit begging are unconstitutional both because anti-speech buffer zones are problematic under McCullen, and because singling out one type of speech – begging – is content-based, like the sign code struck down in Reed. . . .”

“[B]eyond case law, the more fundamental issue is that begging codes risk apportioning first amendment rights by wealth. The poor cannot buy TV ads. They cannot afford lobbyists. They are not trending on Twitter. So it is cruel and unfair to say that governments can safely regulate words, including requests for charity, spoken by the poor but not by the wealthy.”

“If censorship cannot be justified by worries about animal cruelty or money in politics, then governments should not be permitted to ban begging just because it makes people feel icky.”

Anti-panhandling laws are just another form of unpopular speech. And the point of the First Amendment is keep government from suppressing what is unpopular or even despised.  — Robert Corn-Revere, Oct. 26, 2015

 Police Officer Uses First Amendment to Protest “Scam” Panhandler (see video here

Campus Free-Speech Watch Read More


Parent-Partners and Intimate Partner Violence

Professor Merle Weiner’s proposal for a parent-partner status in American family law is novel and intriguing, and her exhaustively researched book makes a persuasive case for seriously considering the adoption of such a status. But because my principal preoccupation is intimate partner violence, I have to admit that it worries me. Weiner’s status would obligate parents to refrain from abusing each other (an obligation that already exists by virtue of both criminal and civil law, but is still too frequently breached) while at the same time requiring them to engage in relationship work both at the start of the parenting relationship and at the time when the romantic relationship ends (which assumes there has been a romantic, rather than short sexual, relationship between the parties). I immediately began to have doubts: how would the non-abuse and relationship provisions coexist in relationships marked by intimate partner violence?

Because Professor Weiner has long been thoughtful about intimate partner violence, she anticipated my concerns. In fact, Professor Weiner contends, the parent-partner status will provide greater protection for people subjected to intimate partner violence, not less. She proposes changes to both criminal and civil law that she believes would better protect parent-partners. Moreover, she makes it clear that the relationship work requires only that a parent attend counseling or an educational program at the other parent’s request. She is careful to note, too, that in the case of a child conceived through rape, the obligations between parents flow only one direction: from the rapist to the victim.

Professor Weiner argues that including the duty not to abuse in the parent-partner status sends an important normative message, recognizing both that “abuse between parent-partners is more common and more serious than violence between others in intimate relationships” and that the legal tools currently deployed to address that violence are in many ways inadequate. Professor Weiner’s solution is to expand the reach of both the civil and criminal law. On the civil side, Professor Weiner would ensure that protection orders enjoining both physical and psychological abuse are available to parent-partners from conception onward. On the criminal side, Professor Weiner would specifically criminalize parent-partner physical abuse.

Professor Weiner’s proposal to expand the definition of abuse in the context of civil protection orders recognizes the harm that psychological abuse inflicts; as she notes, many people subjected to abuse find psychological harm much more damaging than physical violence. Some states already authorize the entry of protective orders for some forms psychological abuse, and many scholars have argued that legal definitions of domestic violence should include psychological abuse. Nonetheless, there is reason to be cautious about embracing the proposal, as Professor Weiner recognizes. Without carefully defining what constitutes psychological abuse, some fear that an expanded definition of abuse could fail to distinguish between coercively controlling psychological abuse and garden variety nagging or name-calling. Extending eligibility for protective orders too broadly could also create unnecessary family litigation and overwhelm the courts, leaving judges with even less time and patience with which to address cases of serious intimate partner violence. Professor Weiner has more faith than I do that state legislators can and will craft these definitions in a way that will target only the behavior she hopes to capture, without creating a tool that perpetrators of intimate partner violence can use to harass and abuse their partners.

Professor Weiner also proposes that states create a new crime of abuse of a parent-partner. Professor Weiner notes that there is an ongoing debate about the efficacy of the criminal justice response to domestic violence. Since 1984, criminal justice interventions have been the primary response to domestic violence in the United States, a policy choice bolstered by the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. Hundreds of millions of dollars of federal money have been poured into the criminal justice system since 1994. And rates of domestic violence have fallen since 1994. Between 1994 and 2000, rates of domestic violence fell in tandem with the decrease in the overall crime rate; between 2000 and 2010, however, rates of domestic violence fell less than the decrease in the overall crime rate, notwithstanding the money and effort dedicated to the criminal justice response. There is no social science evidence to suggest that the criminal justice response has had an appreciable impact on domestic violence rates or has deterred abusers from committing acts of violence. Moreover, some scholars have argued that criminalization does more harm than good, both in the way that the legal system imposes itself upon victims of violence and in the damage done to perpetrators, many of whom are low income men of color, and their communities.

While Weiner sidesteps the issue of the efficacy of the criminal justice response, stating that “the wisdom of making the parent-partner relationship more relevant to the prosecution of behavior that is already criminal is a separate issue from whether a criminal law response is appropriate at all,” the act of proposing a new crime shows Weiner’s faith in the power of criminal justice intervention. Expanding the criminal law gives credence to the idea that criminal justice interventions are effective in addressing intimate partner violence. But there is no reason to believe that creating a new crime based on the parent-partner status will be any more of a deterrent than the prospect of incarceration for the many intimate partner violence crimes currently on the books has been. Diverting time and attention away from developing alternatives to the ineffectual criminal justice response to intimate partner violence by putting that effort into passing new criminal laws is simply bad policy and will not benefit the parents or children that Weiner hopes to help.

The parent-partner status could significantly benefit one category of victims of intimate partner abuse, however. Recognizing a parent-partner status could decrease the stigma experienced by women who want to maintain relationships with their abusive current or former partners or who appreciate their partners’ parenting skills even if they don’t want to stay in relationships. Many people subjected to abuse want to continue to have some relationship with their partners—they simply want the violence to stop. Professor Weiner recognizes this reality, and her suggestion that all states provide protective orders that allow for continued contact between the parties while enjoining further violence is a good one.

The requirement that parent-partners engage in relationship work raises obvious concerns. Professor Weiner is careful to note that one parent cannot force the other to remain in the relationship, and that “the educators and counselors must ensure that batterers are not using the obligation of relationship work as a way t gain access to and control over the other parent.” But even the requirement that a parent attend an information session will feel unduly onerous to a victim of violence who does not want to have any contact with a former partner and who knows that the abuser is using the requirement to harass or harm or fears that somehow, the abusive partner will be able to establish contact through the relationship work requirement. Allowing victims of violence to opt out of the relationship work requirements seems to me the only way to ensure that people subjected to abuse are truly protected from the harm that this requirement could cause.

A consensus that American family law should be organized around children’s well-being, and that ensuring well-being requires strengthening connections between parents, seems to be emerging among family law scholars. Professor Weiner comprehensively lays out the case for taking this approach, and in many ways, her argument is persuasive. But there are downsides to this choice, and one of them is the relative lack of concern for the rights and interests of adults, particularly adults who have been subjected to domestic violence. Although we pay lip service to protecting parents who have been subjected to abuse, a number of recent child-centered developments in the family courts, including friendly parent provisions, custody evaluation, parenting coordination, and mediation, have been criticized as not sufficiently attentive to the needs of victims of violence. As Professor Weiner acknowledges, although most courts purport to screen for domestic violence prior to ordering these services, screening is often slipshod, and many people subjected to abuse choose, for whatever reason, not disclose to court personnel.
Professor Weiner urges us to move forward with her proposals although “[u]ncertainties remain and unanswered questions exist.” And she’s right that if we wait to answer every question, change will never be made. Nonetheless, however appealing the theory is, without some certainty as to the effectiveness of the measures Professor Weiner proposes to protect people subjected to abuse, it may be difficult for those of us concerned about these issues to seriously commit to the parent-partner status.


Judge Richard J. Cardamone

I wanted to note the passing of Judge Cardamone, who was on the Second Circuit when I was a law clerk.  This NYT obituary gives an account of his life and career, and includes this quote from him about judging:

“How one wishes to decide a case comes lightly to mind, on a wing. But often, how one must decide it comes arduously, weighed down by somber thought.”

I fondly recall having lunch with him, my judge, and my co-clerks, and we praised a recent dissent that he’d written.  Judge Cardamone replied ruefully that “a dissent just means that you failed to persuade your colleagues,” which is a wonderful way of describing collegiality.

Finally, I’ll note that he had ten children!  That’s an achievement onto itself.


Women’s Autonomy and the Parent-Parent Status

Women’s Autonomy and the Parent-Parent Status

Merle Weiner has written an extremely thoughtful and compelling book on just why we need to create a new legal status to recognize the relationship between two people who have a child together. Family law focuses on the adult-partner relationship, though marriage or contract, or the parent-child relationship, which may impose obligations related to custody or support on the other parent. No law, however, assigns obligations from one parent to another on the basis of the child they have in common. (pp. 54-56). Weiner attempts to remedy the matter by providing a legal status that would create binding relations between parents while their child was a minor.
Weiner’s proposal is a creative response to current efforts to resurrect the two-parent family without necessarily bringing back marriage as a compulsory response to pregnancy. As fewer couples choose to marry, many have fought for legal recognition of a continuum of relationships on terms of the couples’ choosing. And as women have achieved greater ability to raise children on their own, fathers have sought to make their custodial rights independent of their relationship to mother. See, e.g., Clare Huntington, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2513885 The challenge underlying all these efforts, however, have been the tensions between autonomy and equality. Even couples who consciously negotiated the terms of their union often intensely disagree on the terms of their parting. And as marriage has increasingly come to require an equal assumption of parenting obligations, parents who do not marry now fall on a continuum from those who have relationships equivalent to marriage to those who vehemently object that they want no such thing. In this context, most proposals to encourage stronger two parent relationships sacrifice unmarried women’s greater autonomy in an effort to encourage greater paternal involvement. Weiner’s proposals differ from others in her effort to simultaneously insist that parents acknowledge their obligations to each other and to rewrite the gender balance in these relationships.
The project of setting out obligations between parents to ensure that they act fairly with one another with respect to their joint child is admirable, and we applaud Professor Weiner for this effort to chart a new status. Weiner and others such as Solangel Maldonado, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=569363, seeking to involve both parents in caring for their children can help us change the focus from what’s wrong with the family to how can we move forward. We think her project is appealing – but not for all parents of all classes in every situation. Accordingly, we explore three questions. First is for whom will – or might — this new status work well? Second, how much harm might the status do to everyone else? The third is whether her proposal can be implemented so it provides support to those who need it, without coercing others into an unwanted new legal scheme?
As we have suggested elsewhere, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2434750 families in the United States have developed three diverging patterns (and Weiner discusses our work on this). The elite, who – roughly — constitute the one-third of the country who graduate from college and/or enjoy substantial incomes, has become, if anything, more likely to raise their children in committed two-parent families. The marginalized bottom third has largely given up on marriage, raising children in the context of single-parent families and contingent, rather than committed, relationships with a second adult. The middle is in flux, as it remains more likely to marry than the bottom, more likely to divorce than the top, and in the midst of an unresolved struggle to redefine the new terms for multiple parents, stepparents, and intimate partners.
As Weiner recognizes, elite communities continue to connect readiness for parenthood with the right choice of a partner. For the wealthiest and best educated, the unintended pregnancy rate has steadily fallen. And while this group has relatively few abortions because of its embrace of contraception, it ends a higher percentage of its unplanned pregnancies with abortion than any other group. This sets the stage for later parenthood in the context of more stable relationships. The only group whose marriage rates have not declined are the top ten percent of women by income, and for college graduates as a whole, divorce rates have declined back to the levels of the mid-sixties – before adoption of no-fault divorce and before the widespread availability of abortion and the pill. For those who marry, parenthood involves an equal assumption of responsibility for children, and the law increasingly seeks to insure the two parents’ equal involvement with the children if they divorce. Those college graduates who do have children outside of marriage often do so either with an agreement about the terms of their relationship with another parental partner, or with use of a donor whose parental rights have been severed. Implementation of Weiner’s proposals is easiest to imagine for this group.
While equal assumption of parental responsibilities has become the norm associated with marriage, those who do not marry often do not do so precisely because their relationships do not involve either mutual respect or the capacity for an equal assumption of parenting responsibilities. It will be for these communities that her proposals offer the greatest challenges. In the communities moving most decisively away from marriage, a majority of parental-partnerships end because of domestic violence and forty percent involve flagrant infidelity. EDIN AND KEFALAS, PROMISES I CAN KEEP: WHY POOR WOMEN PUT MOTHERHOOD BEFORE MARRIAGE 81 (2015). For these couples, unmarried fathers’ relationships with their children occur in the context of the contingent relationships they negotiate with the mothers. Studies indicate that the fathers overwhelming want a continuing relationship with the child, and the fathers believe that their ability to continue to see the child depends on how they manages the relationship with the mother. The mothers’ support in turn depends on the fathers’ contributions and her entry into new relationships. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20355690. Race makes a difference in these patterns. Black mothers, who have a much longer tradition of co-parenting outside of marriage, report higher rates of effective co-parenting and more involvement from unmarried fathers than other races, http://crcw.princeton.edu/workingpapers/WP14-07-FF.pdf, though the norms in white working class communities are changing in ways that make paternal involvement less dependent on the continuation of the adult partnership. For all groups, as Weiner notes, fathers in fragile families initially offer formal and informal support to their children, but that amount declines as the parents’ cohabiting relationship recedes (p. 204).
It therefore makes no sense to impose the same system of obligations, regardless of marriage and adult-adult commitment and income, on all parenting arrangements. http://concurringopinions.com/archives/2015/10/the-potential-harm-to-low-income-families-from-the-parent-partner-status.html The elite already recognize the importance of the right partnership for raising children, whether or not they marry; those outside the elite often do not marry precisely because they do not believe that such a partnership is possible. The relationships that produce the pregnancy typically end because of behavior that makes the prospects for a continuing relationship based on cooperation and mutual respect unlikely.
To be sure, Weiner addresses the potential objections to her proposal. Indeed, she balances her call for greater recognition of parenting partnerships with calls for greater protection of those who might be disadvantaged by them. She accordingly calls both for placing greater emphasis on the existence of the relationship and calls for more resources to encourage good behavior within it. The result is an ambitious undertaking, one that hopes to recreate the norms that make healthier relationships ships possible.
Weiner’s most original proposals are those which seek to achieve greater respect between parents. She recognizes that parents who parent apart rarely assume equal responsibility for a child, and she therefore recommends that “[t]he primary breadwinner” may share income with a caregiver, which could rebalance parental contributions. (P. 437). She acknowledges the importance of domestic violence, both because of its role in undermining parental relationships and because of the harm it inflicts on children (p. 508). She accordingly recommends that parents who commit violence against another parent should be treated with harsher punishments than those who commit physical violence against other adults (p. 329), and that the definition of partnership abuse be expanded to include psychological as well as physical manipulation and harassment. Nor does she advocate joint custody; instead, she believes that her proposal for the new parent-partner status, caregiver compensation, and a change in norms to encourage positive co-parenting would mean that custody law would become less important (p. 506-07). And she advocates relationship classes that would underscore appropriate norms for parental relationships and help parents to achieve them. Her final chapter (before the Conclusion) which is titled “Possible Concerns about the Parent-Partner Status, briefly addresses whether the status would encroach on individual autonomy or disadvantage women and children. While she concedes that women might, in fact, lose some of their authority, this loss would instead show the success of this new status in creating new and positive co-parenting norms, complete with behavioral change.(p. 510).
Weiner’s central objective is to remake the norms that underlie parenting. She objects that too many couples have children without the ability to manage their own relationships and, if the effect of her proposals would be to compel greater use of contraceptives, she seems to welcome the result. What she does not fully address, however, is the heavy handed nature of the legal system. Mothers have won a measure of autonomy by their ability to stay out of court; Weiner would make it easier for parents to find their way back in. She is most eager to empower those who would embrace parenting education and those who seek protection from abuse; yet, she acknowledges that the courts have been willing to reward abusers who seek custodial rights rather than to protect victims. The subtext of her proposals, whatever their intentions, is to make the working class more like the elite in their ability to manage relationships. More enforceable relationship rights, however, may have the perverse effect of empowering those who would like to hang on to the shreds of a relationship that the other parent has ended for good reason.
Weiner’s proposals, in their focus on the legal system, do not and cannot address the greater economic inequality that has remade the family. To rebuild healthy relationships premised on a middle class model, it is necessary to rebuild the pathways into the middle class. Decreasing male economic inequality is critical and will do much to reinvolve both parents in their children’s lives.


The Limits of Relationship Work

Merle Weiner’s book, A Parent-Partner Status for American Family Law, is a tremendously important contribution to the debate about how to strengthen families and improve outcomes for children. At a time when families are rapidly changing and marriage is of dwindling importance in some communities, it is imperative to think anew about how to support a wide range of families. Weiner’s proposal for a new parent-partner status is a bold and welcome addition to this debate.

Weiner proposes five core legal obligations that would attach to the parent-partner status. Three of these obligations are incremental changes to existing law—a duty to aid regardless of marital status, a heightened duty of loyalty in contracting, and additional protections against domestic violence for parent-partners. These obligations strike me as reasonable and would seem to further Weiner’s goal of inculcating stronger ties between parents. A fourth obligation—financial compensation for a parent who does a disproportionate share of the physical caregiving—usefully builds on existing law as well as the proposals in the ALI Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution, which Weiner convincingly critiques. Together, these obligations would formalize a status that exists currently in the interstices of family law, which is itself a positive step forward.

It is Weiner’s final obligation that, at least at first glance, appears to be a major departure from existing law. She proposes that parent-partners have a legally enforceable obligation to engage in “relationship work”—counseling, education, and so on—both at the time a child is born and if the parents’ romantic relationship ends. The relationship work at the first juncture is intended to help parents navigate the stressful transition to parenthood. The relationship work at the time of dissolution contemplates reconciliation as a first measure. If, after considering the impact of the dissolution on the child, the couple still proceeds to break up, then the relationship work would focus on helping the couple remain friends while ending their romantic relationship.

This obligation would not be enforced by a third party, but one parent-partner could seek a court order to enforce the obligation against the other parent-partner. A court could not require a resistant parent to engage in the actual relationship work but could order the parent to attend an educational session touting the benefits of relationship work. Weiner believes creating an enforceable legal obligation does not necessarily mean parties will flock to the courts to seek enforcement but rather that it “should help couples internalize the value of relationship work and the social expectation of participation.” (p. 358)

Weiner claims that the “proposal is not as radical as it may sound” (p. 352). It is true, as Weiner notes, that both the federal and state governments are already involved in some form of relationship work: mandating mediation for custody and visitation disputes, requiring co-parenting education classes for separating and divorcing couples, and funding programs designed to strengthen family relationships, such as the federal Responsible Fatherhood program.

As I elaborate below, her proposal differs from these kinds of programs in meaningful ways, and therefore I think it is a significant departure. But audacity alone is not a problem. The real question is whether the proposal is good policy.

I am not so sure. In my own work, I, too, have argued that if the law wants to improve the vertical relationship between a parent and child, it needs to focus on the horizontal relationship between the two parents. Whether and how the parents get along deeply affects the ability of each parent to provide a child with the time and attention needed for healthy child development. Further, I have argued in favor of the kinds of programs that Weiner’s proposal builds on, particularly co-parenting classes for parents at the end of a romantic relationship. (I have also proposed a legal status that would attach at birth, which I called co-parent status, but whereas I dedicated a short section of a long law review article to the idea, Weiner has dedicated an entire book; therefore I want to focus on her proposed status, not mine.)

So why am I resistant to Weiner’s proposal while seeming to promote many of the same ideas? Read More