Category: General Law

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Is This Your Brain on Politics?

Yesterday’s New York Times had an op-ed describing brain imaging results that purportedly “reveal some voter impressions on which [the 2008 Presidential] election may well turn.” In fact, however, there’s quite a bit of skepticism about the interpretation and meaningfulness of these results. Of course, lots of people watch hours and hours of speculative television news commentary that is no more scientific. Yet the talking heads, except perhaps when they present survey data, do not purport to offer scientific analyses the way the “scanning heads” do.

Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, offers her insightful analysis of the op-ed at the Neuroethics & Law Blog.

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Veterans Day, World War I, Land Mine Legacy

Mines_warning_sign.jpgToday is Veterans Day. The day started as a way to honor the end of World War I and those who fought in it and now honors all veterans. World War I ended almost 90 years ago. Nonetheless, as NPR reports people in France still encounter unexploded, active mines some with mustard gas and sometimes deminers die trying to remove the dangers. The story focuses on the Western Front. People living in the area near places like where the Battle of the Somme occurred still find remnants of the war: “There’s not many places you can’t walk out … and pick up old rifles, munitions, shells of all types, grenades, [and] bodies. Sadly, we’re still digging up a lot of bodies.” Perhaps most amazing is the following:

“About 1.5 billion shells were fired during the war here on the Western Front. Colin and his colleagues bring in between 50,000 and 75,000 tons of them a year. At that rate, they’ll have enough work to keep them busy for the next 500 years.”

Using the law to limit the effects of war poses odd questions. The idea of a law of war that seeks to have humanitarian limits on conflict can appear oxymoronic. Still, considering the lasting effect of World War I in just one area, the idea behind the U.N. efforts and treaties to eliminate old mines and end the use of them in the future offers the possibility that if conflict occurs societies can try and maintain some semblance of mitigating effects on civilians.

Given the use of homemade mines in Iraq and the possibility that the United States will face similar encounters in the future the United States’ position on mines is ironic.

image source and license information: wikicommons

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Grow Some Hair on Your Chess

kasparov photo.jpg Some people have an image of chess players as geeky, meek introverts. There’s little to truth to it, and some recent developments may (or may not) change perceptions: (1) Garry Kasparov, quite possibly the greatest living chess player, has raised his profile among non-chess-players by becoming a candidate in the 2008 Russian presidential race. Kasparov has never been geeky or meek, but he now has a political voice that makes that loud and clear. Here’s a link to Kasparov’s interview with Stephen Colbert. (2) In an apparent bid to help make chess an Olympic sport, the World Chess Federation is requiring some players to be tested for steroids. See here and here. (3) As Eugene Volokh notes, there is now a sport of chessboxing. Competitors alternate between rounds of speed chess and boxing. The idea arose from a plot line in a comic book–a fact that is, admittedly, unlikely to boost the sport’s street cred.

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Bad Boys, Bad Boys, Here’s How to Hide Your Stash? Ex-Texas Officer Sells DVD About How To Avoid Drug Arrests

USBP-SRT-New_Orleans.jpgLast December MSNBC reported that Barry Cooper, a former police officer who handled drug enforcement planned to sell a video called “Never Get Busted Again.” One former colleague said Cooper might have been “the best narcotics officer in the state.” Cooper claimed to think that the U.S. marijuana policy was foolish and that his video would be a way to show people how to protect civil liberties and to reveal injustice in the system. Maybe. Today, NPR has a story about the release of the video. It is called “Never Get Busted Again” and apparently uses the film style of reality cop shows. The article details how Cooper used indicators such as college bumper stickers, Vietnam veteran stickers, and race to decide whom to pull over and search for marijuana. He even trained police departments about the technique. So perhaps he really wants to show how the system is unjust. The motivations behind that goal are, however, not necessarily about legalizing marijuana and improving civil rights.

NPR noted that Cooper’s personal experiences fueled his current activities. He moved to east Texas and arrested a mayor’s son and city councilman which apparently upset local authorities. After he left law enforcement, a divorce followed. He was arrested for late movie rental returns and “His ex-brother-in-law, a constable, showed up with an order to remove his two girls. They put up such a fight, the effort was abandoned.” Those events are at least partially behind his decision to make the film which covers topics such as “Search and Seizure,” “Hiding Your Stash,” “Narcotics Profiling” and “Canines.”

Cooper plans a follow-up called “Never Get Raided Again.” The new movie idea has upset law enforcement as it could endanger officers on a raid. Given that some argue that books like the Anarchist’s Cookbook should be banned or for example in England ownership of the book is a enough to bring terrorism charges, it would not be surprising if someone tries to stop Cooper’s films from being published based on a public safety or terror claim.

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Dancing in the Stacks: Could a Law School Be Like This?

This is adapted from an earlier post on Moneylaw and is my swan song Concurring Opinions post. Thanks for having me. I have enjoyed the discussions. After complaining for a month about law schools, law faculties and administrators, here is my idea of a great law school. You might score your own school to see where it stands.

1. Hiring is designed to create an intellectual and philosophical balance so faculty can debate and hone their ideas about important issues. (At many schools, intellectual diversity is threatening.)

2. In hiring, performance, diversity, and energy are valued over credentials.(Most schools place high value on credentials even though they are as reliable as cubic zirconium as an indicator of value.)

3. Discussion can be had about everything – class, race, sexuality, the Middle East – without the discussion becoming personal, or people pouting, or stomping out of the room. (At most schools these matters are taboo because of faint hearts, fears of being labeled, and wanting to avoid complex issues.)

4. There is real collegiality as opposed to facial collegiality. (At many schools the appearance of being “nice” is sufficient and can be used to mask a great deal of self-dealing, free riding, externality production, and closed-door mischief.)

5. The administration and faculty announce and internalize goals and stress accountability. (At some schools, the administration takes whatever happens and spins it in order to claim success.)

6. There is an on-going effort to match the efforts – courses offered, degrees offered, foreign and domestic programs — of the school with the needs and expectations stakeholders. (At other schools, there is no on-going assessment if someone’s turf would be disturbed.)

7. The faculty abide by the real NYT rule: Don’t do anything you would not want reported on in the NYT. (Many faculty, including some on my faculty, go by the “other” NYT rule: Don’t put anything in writing that you would not want reported in the Times.)

8. The ideal curriculum is planned and professors make sure it is offered even if it means extra effort. (At some schools, teachers are asked what they are “willing” to teach and when and that is what is offered.)

9. The dean has principals and principles. He or she considers the best interests of students and shareholders and does not comprise with self-interested faculty to achieve those ends. (At some law schools, deaning means displeasing the fewest number of faculty.) (Remember the old saying “It’s not a revolution if you ask permission.” How about, “It’s not deaning if you ask permission.”)

10. There is a sense movement, excitement, intellectual ferment, and even some dancing Monday – Friday throughout faculty offices. (Some schools have gone to a Tues – Thurs schedule, faculty are elsewhere, or suffer from the institutional Valium effect.)

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The path to academia — is practical experience disqualifying?

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr writes about an interesting talk recently given by Harvard Law professor Darryl Levinson to aspiring law professors. Like Orin, I was particularly struck by the following remarks from the article: “practical legal experience is not a good predictor of scholarly ability, and, Levinson noted, ‘is pretty nearly disqualifying.’ Levinson pointed out that today’s younger professors have no significant practical experience, and that if they tried to become involved in the world, ‘the world would probably recoil in horror.'” Since today is the start of the infamous meat market, I don’t want all those aspiring law professors with practical experience to be discouraged! First, I think that many, although certainly not all, younger professors do have significant practice experience. I worked for a long time as both a defense attorney and as a prosecutor, and I know that both my teaching and my scholarship are far richer for the experience. At least in the criminal field, I can think of numerous colleagues who have experience on either the prosecution or the defense side (or both). Second, if we are indeed moving to a world where new professors do not have any practical experience, I think that would be a tremendous loss for students, for law schools, and for the profession. We are after all training most students to be lawyers, not academics. I wish that we could move away from this view that having practice experience, in other words being a good attorney, and being a great scholar are incompatible. I believe that it is eminently possible to be both.

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Gun control and the District of Columbia

The Supreme Court should be deciding in the next couple of weeks whether to grant cert in the case challenging the District of Columbia’s law in essence banning residents from possessing handguns. (Michael O’Shea has done an admirable job over at Prawfs collecting various materials related to the cert petition). As a former assistant U.S. attorney in D.C., I’ve been following the case with interest, and I do expect that the Court will grant cert. I think it’s worth acknowledging the primary functions of the law as it’s used by prosecutors in DC: the gun ban is both a preventive detention statute and an intelligence-gathering tool. At one time when I was a prosecutor, we were prohibited from extending a plea offer in gun cases unless the defendant agreed to come into the office (with his attorney, of course) and be “debriefed” about his knowledge of criminal activity in the city. The statute was also a mechanism for locking up individuals perceived as violent, but against whom other cases could not be brought for whatever reason. It’s pretty simple to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an individual was in possession of a gun without a license and a lot tougher to prove that he committed a violent crime. These functions may not be relevant to the question whether the statute is constitutional, but it’s worth acknowledging that invalidating the gun ban will surely have a tremendous impact on crime-fighting in the District.

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Law Porn and Spending the Money of Others

When a public law school distributes law porn, I assume the logic goes like this. Advertising leads to a better ranking that leads to more revenue that leads to a better experience for the students that leads to a higher payoff on the public investment made by the state. Think of how tenuous the connections are. Has any school moved up by virtue of better advertising or lost ground due to its absence? Has the movement of a slot or two increased donations? Have those donations been put to good use in order to increase the return to the public investment in legal education – whatever that is? I challenge any public school dean to prove that he or she has made an effort to track through this in even a semi rigorous way. Of course, in a rational and non shirking world, he or she would have before pissing away the money. The problem is that public law school deans and their faculties get to spend the money of others. Thus, it is doubtful they go through the calculations that they would go through with their own money. And it often means spending the money of others to preserve their own positions and status whether or not the stakeholders in the law school are better off. Of course, the spending the money of others problem extends way beyond the law porn. I wonder how many of these free spenders when it comes to the money of others then turn around and buy a car only after consulting Consumer Reports, make sure no frequent flier mile goes unused, select their credits cards on the basis of the best rebate, and check several places before buying anything that costs over $100.

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Second Life and Cyber-Activism

burma_second_life.jpgI have always been more than a bit skeptical about cyber-protests and virtual demonstrations. Among other things, it does not seem to me that virtual contention is very, well, contentious. Nor does it seem that participants will gain the same sort of emotional and other solidarity benefits sometimes associated with physical activism. Further, insofar as intended audiences are concerned, cyber-protests seem even easier to ignore than most “meatspace” protests. Who is the intended target of the contention? Where is the disruption? The volume? The effect of waves of people massing in one space to vent frustrations and demand change? As ineffective as the “meatspace” protest can often be, these and other physical elements seem at least to increase the chances that participants and audiences will be affected by the experience.

Perhaps, though, I have been undervaluing protests that occur in spaces like Second Life. The image is from a recent Free Burma event, which featured a “human chain” in which 500 people from 20 countries joined, as well as vigils and meditations in support of this cause. (Thanks to my colleague Chris Borgen for bringing this to my attention.) Admittedly, this was not an enormous protest. But I am more interested in the possibilities generally than in this one example. The avatars seem to add a form of physicality and personality to such events. The contention looks similar to physical activism — at least insofar as there are “people” assembled in “places” waving placards and listening to speakers. A participant can tell who she is standing next to and with. The organizer can assemble mulltitudes quickly — as the human chain shows, even across continents. The audience problems remain, of course — how do protesters ensure that intended listeners and viewers experience them? Can they interfere in some way with everyday Second Life functions? Can they invade spaces in which others do not wish them to be?

Rather than replace real-space activism, perhaps this sort of cyber-activism will lead to greater social and political activism in existing “meatspace.” As one commenter to the Free Burma event reflected:

So what is it with virtual worlds, that made me join now? Was it the fact someone on my friend-list made me aware of the demonstration and asked me to join? So did the social network [do] what it was supposed to? Was it the fact that [the] request might have been triggered by the media attention regarding Burma? Could it be just the ease of access that made me join? So did it just provided me a way to compensate for being lazy not going out and make an effort in real life? And if that is true, is that a good or bad thing? I think the fact I joined by itself was good. The confrontation with my non-participation in real life made me think, and I guess that is good too since it might even change my social behavior in real life for the better.

I would be interested to hear from any Second Life inhabitants who have been involved in this sort of activism. What motivated your participation? What were your own impressions of the experience? Will it likely have any effect on how or whether you participate in such events in “meatspace”? I would be interested to hear from those who are skeptics as well — of cyber-activism of this form, or without regard to the type of space.

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The New Do Not Mail List

About once a month either my wife or I call the retailers who stuff our mailbox with catalogues and say “Stop.” For some period we do not get the catalogues. It’s not that we will not buy from them. We might, but when we do we will look the same thing up online. Far more offensive than the latest LL Bean, Bullock & Jones or Chiasso, is the decanal glossy or law porn as it is also called. You know, that oversized postcard in the mail from another law school announcing that this year the Benjamin Robinson speaker will be Horst S. Butt from Harvard or Yale. Or the glossy announcing who is visiting that year. You can bet that I was just wondering about that. Or the big juicy glossy listing faculty publications right down to every op-ed piece, one-page introduction, tape-recorded commentary and speech to the Elks Club that every law faculty member insisted was scholarship and worthy of publicity and that every dean could not have been happier to add to list. Most of these come off a negative advertising both for the schools and for many of the faculty — and I do not mean just those with very short lists.

Each day it comes and, like other matter, is shoveled from the mailbox to the trashcan. Yet, no matter how much you throw away, it comes again. It’s like the scene in Sleeper when Woody Allen is still pretending to be a robot and does something in the kitchen – I’ve forgotten what — and it keeps expanding and expanding – and he is left to try to beat it to death with a broom. I do not recall if of prevails because at about this point in the film he discovers the orgasmatron.

Where does this stuff come from? No, I know who mails it: Panic-stricken law school administrators afraid their schools will drop a slot in USN&WR and the faculty, students for alums will be up in arms. I mean the paper, the ink, the labor, the money to pay the salaries of those assigned to prepare and mail it. Also,where does it all end up once it is carried away, largely unread, by the trash person? Could I pleeeeeeeeze get on a do not mail list? Why not do something more useful like, for example, digging holes in the sand and then filling them back up and then using the money to put back together some 19 year old that Bush and Cheney sent to Iraq to be blasted apart.