Category: Sociology of Law


An Interview with Pat Rothfuss

rothfuss.jpgI’m very pleased to bring you the first-fruits of the Law and “Hard Fantasy” Interview Series: a talk with author Pat Rothfuss.

Pat is the author of the new epic fantasy trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicle. Book one, The Name of the Wind, follows the adventures of a boy named Kvothe as he learns to be an arcanist, something like an alchemist mixed with a wizard, at the “University.” The story is largely told by Kvothe in retrospect. It’s autobiographic fantasy, if such a genre existed. The book has been highly praised, and for good reason. I read it early in the fall, and liked it more than any fantasy debut I can remember picking up in several years.

I hope you will find the interview interesting. I’ll warn you: Pat has a flair for … earthy … language, so you are on notice if that kind of thing offends you. My questions are in bold.

I’ve claimed elsewhere that most “high fantasy” – multi-volume books that intend to tell large stories about pre-modern worlds – contains remarkably little civil law. The agents of the criminal system, like the hangman and the sheriff, are present, but not the civil law courts. Do you agree with this basic description?

Yeah. That’s pretty fair.

Can you imagine creating and writing explicitly about a world where magic and a litigation-based, common-law system, co-existed?

Absolutely. In fact, I’ve written such a world. You don’t see much of it in this first book, but there is a working common-law system in my world. I don’t think that the rule of law and magic are mutually exclusive at all.

The problem I’m thinking of is that law really self-conceives as a scientific, proof-based, system. Even in rules-based magical system, reality inevitably gets warped.

Hmmmm….. Good point. But honestly, I think that when that happens in most books, it’s because the writer is being lazy. Think about England in the 1500’s. People believed in magic and the courts still churned along. John Dee claimed to talk to angels. Alchemists were everywhere. People really believed they could transmute metal, and hell, maybe some of them could. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still laws against fraud or theft…

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Introducing: The Law & “Hard Fantasy” Interview Series

Matteson-witch.jpgEarlier this summer, I wrote a post titled Fantasy’s Apocalyptic Turn, about the development of the “hard fantasy” movement in modern fiction. As I commented:

[I]t is worth briefly thinking about the relationship between epic fantasy and law. Although the legal aspects of fantasy role playing games are now well-marked out, there has been little work (outside of the Potterverse) on how fantasy authors imagine legal rules’ role in society. If epic fantasy is read largely by adolescent boys, this missing attention makes a great deal of sense. You don’t see law review articles about Maxim. But, if fantasy, or hard fantasy, has become a literature for the rest of the population, it is worth thinking about the complete and total absence of civil law in these books, and the light touch of criminal law more generally. Is it impossible to imagine lawsuits and magic coexisting in the same society?

This post got some folks blogging – in agreement and dissent.

I’m still interested in the relationship between epic fantastic fiction and law, and I realized that if I really wanted to know about how law makes it way (or doesn’t) into fantasy novels, I might as well ask some actual authors about it. So, I got in touch with a few writers who I consider to be among the best practitioners of “realistic” epic fantasy, and I’ve put questions to them. Now in doing so, I realize that I’m in danger of over-intellectualizing books that require a certain amount of suspended belief to be digested. Worse, really digging into these stories calls to mind E.B. White’s quote about frogs and humor. Indeed, as the picture to the right illustrates, law’s relationship to magic has the potential to be pretty gruesome.

But it’s worth a try. Over the next several months, I’ll be bringing you several author responses. Some terrific folks are already on board, including the reigning king of the movement, George R. R. Martin, and I’m hoping for more responses to trickle in. But our first guest is a newcomer to the genre, Pat Rothfuss, author of the new, acclaimed, novel The Name of the Wind. I’ll be posting my interview with Pat (hopefully) later on in the weekend.

(Image Source: Examination of a Witch, Thompkins H. Matteson, Wikicommons)

Why did the US try to Undermine EU Safety Regulation?

As a website relates, “Mark Schapiro’s new book Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products investigates how corporations intent on thwarting stricter environmental and health guidelines here in the U.S. are forced to meet new demands by the European Union.” An excerpt from the book compares the U.S.’s oft-toothless Toxic Substances Control Act to the EU’s scheme for Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH). Schapiro notes that “REACH amounts to a revolution in how chemicals are managed, and in how production decisions around the world will be made from now on.”

As REACH was being crafted, the U.S. decided to intervene decisively:

[A]s REACH was being debated in the European Parliament from 2003 to 2006, the U.S. government and the nation’s industries teamed up to undertake an unprecedented international lobbying effort to kill or

radically weaken the proposal. The assault came from an assortment of government and industry offices.

A memo that circulated at the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs denounced REACH as too “costly, burdensome, and complex” for industry to follow. . . [A] Commerce Department brief warned, “hundreds of thousands of Americans could be thrown out of their jobs.” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick submitted a protest to the World Trade Organization asserting that REACH amounted to a “non-tariff” barrier to foreign exporters.

Though REACH promises to become a world standard, the U.S. may soon see itself in the position that Larry Summers recommended for LDC’s: “our nation’s steady retreat from environmental leadership means it may soon become a dumping ground for chemicals deemed too hazardous by more progressive countries.” Schapiro suggests that the bottom line will be an relative increase in European power and quality of life: “American consumers are more at risk than their European counterparts[;] the European Union is . . . gaining the upper hand in regulating the behavior of multinational corporations; and [the EU] is thus amassing more economic power.”


Corporate Governance, the Rule of Law, and Glimpses of the Infinite

Non-sequitur alert. Try to figure what the next two segments have to do with each other. I will get back to you about it below the fold.

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The other day I posted what at the time I thought was a grumpy comment to a post by Jennifer O’Hare of Villanova over at Conglomerate. The gist of her post was whether the failure of a corporation to have a “succession plan” for the CEO position could be laid at the doorstep of the board of directors in the form of liability for breach of fiduciary duty – I suppose either the duty of care or the duty of loyalty in the sense of the more recent Delaware decisions. The genesis for Professor O’Hare’s post was a report in the Wall Street Journal that only 50% of public and private corporations had “succession plans.” I remind my students from time to time that I’m an ex-corporate shill, and to take any view I profess with that in mind, so readers here are advised similarly.

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I seem to have gotten fixated over the last few weeks on the words “Justice” and “Rule of Law.” This all started back in July at the Law & Society Association annual meeting in Berlin, first at an “Author Meets Readers” session about Brian Tamanaha‘s Law as a Means to an End, and later at a roundtable on which I was honored to participate about the New Formalism. Larry Solum organized both sessions, so it’s appropriate to hearken back to my paraphrase at the time of his words capsuling the issue: “We grapple with an antinomy between a sense of permanence or immanence or determinacy in the legal rules by which our social relationships are regulated or constituted, on one hand, and our manipulation of those rules to achieve individual purposes on the other – in a word, instrumentalism.” Or to put it in the context of the sociology of Niklas Luhmann (about which there was a concurrent series of sessions going on): it’s only within the legal system that the participants operate under the delusion there is Justice or Rule of Law. From the outside looking in, the paradox is obvious: we want to believe there is either a transcendent or immanent, but more importantly, objective right answer, even while we argue from subjective and instrumental positions. The only way the legal system works is with a kind of doublethink; believing in this dialectic that objective truth can somehow arise out of the clash of instrumental interests (to which, of course, Brian Tamanaha objected).

We are, like everyone else, in the faculty appointment job talk part of the year, and I have now heard the idea of Justice and Rule of Law discussed several times in different contexts. One set of job talks had to do with the idea of juvenile justice. Juvenile lawyers (and in our case, juvenile legal clinicians) have to deal with two competing concerns, the best interest of the child, and the obligation of zealous representation in delinquency trials. To put it more plainly, confession may be good for the soul, for healthy development, and for the making of good citizens, but it’s bad for the juvenile defendant and his lawyer.

The idea surfaced again in a job talk about school desegregation, and the fact that Brown v. Board of Education (Brown I) was cited in support of three different positions in the recent Supreme Court case on school desegregation (i.e. colorblindness, integrationist, and a hybrid view). The candidate had an interesting thesis: that Brown has a colloquial or popular meaning apart from its technical legal holding. I like that idea, but it seems to me all it is saying is that Brown has become a shorthand reference for “Justice” or the “Rule of Law” in the context of racial equality. So it’s no more surprising that everybody cites Brown than than everyone insists, in an instrumental way, that its view is the one consistent with justice or the Rule of Law.

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Well, I have some street cred on the subject of corporate governance, and almost none on juvenile justice or school desegregation, but I am still fixated on these paradoxes in the ideas of Justice and the Rule of Law. So below the fold, I’m going to ramble a bit about corporate governance, the paradoxes of the Rule of Law, and glimpses of the Infinite.

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Gallacher on Cite Neutrality

The law should be freely accessible to all, but in many ways it is not. Ian Gallacher’s Cite Unseen is a brilliant piece that works to solve this problem on two levels: 1) it offers keen insights about the legal profession, and 2) exposes an easily avoidable injustice perpetuated by the legal system’s inertia and neglect. It turns out that 1) explains a lot about 2), as I’ll try to show below.

1) I believe Richard Posner has called the Bluebook a “hypertrophy of ritual”–an elaborate manual of propitiation as involved (and useless) as the pyramid tomb of a Pharaoh. Given the near-universal availability of hyperlinking and searchable texts, why does anyone still bother with figuring out whether a committee report needs to be in small caps or italics? Gallacher suggests that the answer may by psychological:

Law school is place of almost existential doubt, a world in which the Socratic teaching method replaces knowledge with questions and understanding with incomprehension. For many law students, The Bluebook is a binary state refuge in the dismal swamp of hypothetical ambiguity that can be law school classes, replacing . . . blurred doctrine with a sharp focus, and principles with rules.

An almost Linnaean taxonomy (reflecting Langdell’s geological approach to precedents) vests law with the trappings of science. Just as a posh Etonian can spot a Cockney pretender on the basis of any one of thousands of well-trained social gestures, the elect can instantly identify the work of an outsider who writes “F. 3d” instead of “F.3d”.

Many of us are annoyed by this aesthetic tic masquerading as scientific precision. But where’s the injustice?

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The Care/Profit Tradeoff in Nursing Homes

We’re often told that inequality helps keep the US economy efficient. Cut regulation and give high rewards to those at the top, and they’ll work hard to cut costs and compete on quality, providing better and cheaper goods and services for all. Private equity firms like Carlyle Group might be considered the apotheosis of such a market-based approach, taking over companies and forcing them to meet market imperatives.

Here’s a fascinating NYT study of their influence on the nursing home industry, which “compared investor-owned homes against national averages in multiple categories, including complaints received by regulators, health and safety violations cited by regulators, fines levied, [and] the performance of homes as reported in a national database known as the Minimum Data Set Repository.” The findings describe an extraordinary combination of business efficiency and deflection of legal responsibility:

The Times analysis shows that . . . managers at many . . . nursing homes acquired by large private investors have cut expenses and staff, sometimes below minimum legal requirements. Regulators say residents at these homes have suffered. At facilities owned by private investment firms, residents on average have fared more poorly than occupants of other homes in common problems like depression, loss of mobility and loss of ability to dress and bathe themselves, according to data collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The typical nursing home acquired by a large investment company before 2006 scored worse than national rates in 12 of 14 indicators that regulators use to track ailments of long-term residents.

The law plays an important role in preventing accountability here; “private investment companies have made it very difficult for plaintiffs to succeed in court and for regulators to levy chainwide fines by creating complex corporate structures that obscure who controls their nursing homes.” So perhaps the key “innovation” here was the decision to aggressively reduce care and skillfully deploy legal strategies to prevent any liability for injuries that reduced care caused. It certainly worked well for investors; “A prominent nursing home industry analyst, Steve Monroe, estimates that [one investment group’s] gains from [its sale of a nursing home chain] were more than $500 million in just four years.”

I have to confess that I’ve always wondered what business practices could “create the value” that’s resulted in such extraordinary gains at the top of the income scale. The Times has done us a great service by putting a human face on some of them. . . and on the legal strategies that make them possible.

Financing Arms Races, Health Edition

As the subprime mortgage meltdown continues, we’re seeing the ugly side of credit expansion. Consider how Countrywide approached its customers:

[T]he company’s commission structure rewarded sales representatives for making risky, high-cost loans. For example, according to another mortgage sales representative affiliated with Countrywide, adding a three-year prepayment penalty to a loan would generate an extra 1 percent of the loan’s value in a commission. While mortgage brokers’ commissions would vary on loans that reset after a short period with a low teaser rate, the higher the rate at reset, the greater the commission earned, these people said.

Though many celebrated ever-rising home prices, more discerning commentators (like Schiller, Frank, and Warren) saw the run-up in paper wealth in a darker light. Buyers may be getting a bit more house for their money, but they were also fiercely competing in an auction for space and position. The gap between housing haves and have-nots widened, giving the latter ever more worry about their chance of owning a piece of the American dream.

Now we might be seeing a similar dynamic in cosmetic health interventions. As patients turn to no-interest loans for health care, we can expect ever more demand for “$3,500 laser eye surgery, $6,000 ceramic tooth implants or other procedures not typically covered by insurance.” Just as the leverage behind a 30-year mortgage accelerates a bidding war for houses, this new frontier of financing will increase the social pressure to conform–to ditch those glasses, get rid of even minor dental imperfections, etc. As the article notes, “consumer debt experts warn that as more people try to bridge widening gaps in their health insurance, paying for medical care on credit could plunge the unwary into a financial crisis.” But as more begin to do so, the phenomenon becomes self-reinforcing: physical imperfection starts to signal financial distress and thus becomes ever more stigmatic.

Though the loans described in the article are small, I have a sense they are part of a larger trend in the marketization of health care. Presently, US health expenditures are much higher than other countries’ due to (inter alia) extraordinary administrative costs, doctors’ political power to limit their supply, and a third-party payment system that obscures costs for patients. If “consumer-directed” health care manages to shift those costs directly to patients, health providers may well turn to financing options to “spread the pain” of a big bill over five, ten, or even thirty years.

Moreover, libertarians who want to get rid of Medicare might see the financing plans as an ideal way of moving responsibility for health care finance from the state to individual families. As parents enter retirement, they could set up a reverse mortgage on their house to pay for health care. If those assets run out, I assume libertarians would want to see the parents turn to their children for help–say, asking each to take out a $300,000 health care mortgage for their parents’ care. Perhaps big finance can perfect the libertarian dream of complete personal/familial responsibility for health care.


Shunning Duke’s Faculty

listening_statement_p.jpgA little while back, former Judge, and law school Dean, Joseph Bellacosa (St. John’s) proposed that members of the public shun the 88 Duke faculty members who sponsored an advertisement in the early days of the Nifong investigation implicitly condemning the accused lacrosse players. Bellacosa argued that

[A]lthough the group [of faculty members] can’t technically be charged with crimes – though abandoning your young and endangering youth sure do come close to real definable crimes – there are ways these professors can be held accountable. The identities of the 88 professors should be posted in significant ways and places, including in the media and on the Internet, so that they may be known for what they have done.

The likely howls of protest from the tenure police, university guild apologists and free-speech absolutists notwithstanding, the professoriat should not be shielded from appropriate public condemnation for their misconduct. Their dormant consciences and sensibilities should be reawakened to the abhorrent nature of the actions they inflicted on their own students.

I am regrettably late commenting on Judge Bellacosa’s article, and so this post may be stale. But still. What the heck is going on here?

Finding the original ad put up in 2006 isn’t so easy. A follow-up statement by Concerned Duke Faculty member has dead links, and Duke’s African-American studies department has removed the page from its server. Fortunately, this blog post pdf’d the ad, which I’ve copied to the right. Unfortunately, Bellacosa doesn’t say, and I don’t understand, exactly what was so wrong about this statement. There are some rumors that the students whose voices are being spotlighted are composites. That would be bad, but not a deadly sin. And the heart of the ad – the statement by the professors themselves – seems to me to consist of a set of vague generalities that verge on truisms, and aren’t objectionable:

“Regardless of the results of the police investigation, what is apparent everyday now is the anger and fear of many students who know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism, who see illuminated in this moment’s extraordinary spotlight what they live with everyday.”

Regardless, we’re supposed to shame and shun the signatories to the ad. Why?


Rosen’s Crabbed View of Judicial Temperament

RosenBook.jpgI recently finished Jeffrey Rosen’s The Supreme Court (can you say “read” if you listened to it on your iPod?), and I found myself rather underwhelmed with Rosen’s analysis of what he took to be his central theme: judicial temperament. In many ways Rosen’s book is very good. It makes the springes of constitutional law approachable for a general audience, and provides a chatty and gossipy look at the Supreme Court that manages to provide a real sense of some of the personalities of the justices, as when he describes William O. Douglas as “a judicial lounge act.”

Rosen presents us with a white hats vs. black hats vision of the Supreme Court. The good guys are genial institutionalists like John Marshall, Hugo Black, William Rehnquist, and — most of all — John Roberts. The bad guys are brilliant loners like Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William O. Douglas, and Antonin Scalia. In Rosen’s book judicial temperament refers to the ability to husband and increase the legitimacy of the Supreme Court by behaving in a statesman like way and refusing to allow abstract philosophies dictate imprudent results.

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Beware of Geese Bearing Gold

goldenegg.jpgThe NYT Mag. had a tricky dilemma yesterday: how to devote an issue to rising inequality without spooking the advertisers who hock multi-million-dollar vacation condos with space for “mega-yachts.” An old bromide came to the rescue: don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Echoing Arthur Okun, Roger Lowenstein warns us of a tragic choice: “how can you promote equality without killing off the genie of American prosperity?” He reminds us that the most egalitarian time in American history was that quagmire of stagflation, the seventies:

Remember that while the decade may have been a high-water mark for American egalitarianism, the country was also in its worst economic funk since the Great Depression. Unemployment and inflation were raging, growth was tepid and the stock market was depressed. An economist named Alan Greenspan termed it “the Great Malaise.”

Lowenstein argues that the “cures” for the seventies (deregulation, free trade, and financial speculation) all accelerate inequality. And if we try to look a bit more like a European social democracy, watch out: “the price for being Belgian is steep: [its] median disposable income — what people have left to spend after they pay taxes and collect welfare-type payments — is only 72 percent as high as ours.” But don’t worry–we can educate ourselves out of the gap, since “college grads make more than 40 percent more than high-school grads[, and] those with postgraduate degrees earn twice as much.”

The NYT editorial page, under a bit less pressure to sell ultraluxe adspace, has a more sober view:

New college graduates . . . have been told repeatedly that a college degree is an open sesame to the global economy. But that’s not necessarily so, according to new research by two economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Frank Levy and Peter Temin. . . . [A] college degree does not ensure a bigger share of the economic pie for many graduates. . . . [Rather,] an outsized share of productivity growth, which expands the nation’s total income, is going to Americans at the top of the income scale. In 2005, the latest year with available data, the top 1 percent of Americans — whose average annual income was $1.1 million — took in 21.8 percent of the nation’s income, their largest share since 1929.

That’s income, not wealth–and the latter measure is far more skewed. Moreover, asset inequality has grown since the housing boom put a chasm between families who bought last century and those who have to face the market now.

I’ve got a few more bones to pick with Lowenstein beneath the fold. . . .

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