Thursday, July 30, 2015

Disability Constitutional Law

By Professor Michael Waterstone
This was originally posted on American Constitution Society for Law And Policy

This week is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, government programs and services, and privately owned places of accommodation. It was and remains an ambitious law, requiring employers and business owners to make reasonable accommodations, at their own expense, to be more accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities. And although there is still a long way to go, the ADA should be celebrated for its role in moving people with disabilities into the mainstream of society.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Closing Thoughts on The Science of Learning

By Professor Aaron Caplan

This post is part of the Strange Bedfellows series at Prawsblawg.

In this guest blogging series, I’ve had fun identifying connections between canonical cases not ordinarily taught together.  But is it any more than a parlor game?

For a teacher with years of familiarity with the cases, it can be invigorating to rearrange the furniture—and students always benefit from an invigorated teacher.  The fear is that giddily wandering away from the orthodox doctrinal silos might create an obstacle for students who need to know and apply the orthodox solutions to problems.  I’m convinced that when handled properly, exposure to these strange bedfellows actually leads to better comprehension of the orthodox approach.  This is primarily because a semester with a healthy amount of unexpected (but valid) juxtapositions will inevitably take advantage of two strategies favored by researchers into the science of learning: interleaving distinct but related topics, and repeated exposures spread over time.

The silo approach (a unit on the Commerce Clause, followed by a unit on the Spending Clause, and so on) presumes that it would be unduly confusing for students to shift gears, hurting their comprehension. But studies show the opposite: interleaving the presentation of related but distinct topics results in better mastery of each topic. Learners understand the relationships among silos better, and also—perhaps unexpectedly—they understand each silo better.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Subsequent History Surprises

By Professor Aaron Caplan

This was originally posted on PrawfsBlawg as part of the Strange Bedfellows series.

Most Constitutional Law classes discuss how the system can correct its mistakes. If one branch or level of government errs, others can respond, pushing the substance of the law to a new equilibrium. Teaching the subsequent history of anti-canonical cases is one good way to demonstrate this point. Constitutional amendments erased Dred Scott and Pollock, later court decisions overruled Lochner, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act made Geduldig largely irrelevant, and the Georgia Supreme Court held that the sodomy statute upheld in Bowers v. Hardwick violated the state constitution. To show how SCOTUS does not always have the last word, my casebook includes short units called “Flash-Forwards” that tell the rest of the story (or at least some of it). Once students are attuned to possibilities outside the courtroom, they can have a good classroom discussion about what a concerned citizen, legislator, or executive branch official might do in response to a troubling court decision.

It is less common to spend time on the subsequent history of cases that are canonical—the ones considered good law, never overruled. As usually presented in casebooks, Cooper v. Aaron (1958), Palmore v. Sidoti (1984) and United States v. Carolene Products (1938) are all cases where the Court got things right, guiding the system to a proper equilibrium. But in each of these cases, the victory promised in the canonical opinion played out differently on the ground, with the results for the prevailing party being less than advertised. The subsequent histories of these canonical cases could in theory be as deserving of class time as the subsequent histories of anti-canonical cases—the basis for a discussion about the value of a court victory.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

U.S. DOJ criticizes DEA informant program

 By Professor Alexandra Natapoff

This was originally posted on 

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Justice has just released this report, Audit of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Confidential Source Policies and Oversight of Higher-Risk Confidential Sources.

This is an important report for a number of reasons.  The press and the public have had trouble getting basic information from the DEA about its informant policies and usage: this audit fills in some of those informational gaps. The audit identifies numerous troubling practices within the DEA and offers new insights into the kinds of risks that are routinely run by federal officials who rely on criminal informants.  The audit also strengthens the case for a pending bill in Congress entitled "The Confidential Informant Accountability Act," H.R. 2985, introduced by Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA). That bill would require the DEA, along with the FBI and other federal investigative agencies, to report to Congress the serious crimes committed by their informants, as well as their payments and rewards.  As described in greater detail below, the OIG found that the DEA was seriously deficient in documenting and controlling the crimes committed by its informants.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Why So Tense?

By Professor Aaron Caplan

This was originally posted on PrawfsBlawg as part of the Strange Bedfellows series.

A few blockbuster cases remain for SCOTUS to decide this term, and given the current make-up of the Court, this means a high likelihood of fire-breathing dissents. Teachers—and particularly casebook authors—need to decide which lessons, if any, to draw from these dissenting opinions. For myself, I always like to spend some time on at least a few throughout the semester, for what they teach us about the substance of the law and about the art of advocacy.

The substantive lesson comes in large part from considering which cases provoke verbal fireworks and which do not. At the outset, constitutional law is more likely than other legal subjects to provoke heat, and within the Con Law canon some topics provoke more flame wars than others. The flamer is trying to signal that something important is happening, so a suitable question for the class can be “why are they so upset?” This is especially valuable when a case that seemingly involves low stakes provokes what seems like a rhetorical overreaction, as in Caperton v. Massey Coal (2010) (judicial recusal) or BMW of North America v. Gore (1996) (punitive damages).

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Frame Game

By Professor Aaron Caplan

This was originally posted on PrawfsBlawg as part of the Strange Bedfellows series.

The Con Law canon contains many opportunities to teach how the choice of frame greatly can affect the outcome of a case. In many cases, an advocate’s first and most important task is to convince the judge properly fill in the blank in the following sentence: “This is a case about ____.”

My favorite example is Johnson v California (2005), where a prisoner objected to a state department of corrections policy to house inmates with cellmates of the same race. The majority filled in the blank by concluding that “This is a case about race,” which meant that strict scrutiny applied. The dissenters filled in the blank by concluding that “This is a case about prisons,” which meant that a standard much more deferential to governmental decisions would apply. Nothing in existing law forced the court to choose one frame or the other, making Johnson a great opportunity to explore methods of persuasion with students. What would you say to convince the judge to use your frame instead of your opponent's?

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Precedential Floors and Ceilings

By Professor Aaron Caplan

This was originally posted on PrawfsBlawg as part of the Strange Bedfellows series.

The strange bedfellows presented so far in the series have been pairings of cases that reveal something interesting or unexpected about the substance of constitutional law. But as we all know, courses in Constitutional Law are required at most schools only in part for their substance. Since the substance is subject to (comparatively rapid) change, much of the value in the course is in how it can teach the set of legal skills necessary when dealing with a controlling text that where “majestic generalities” predominate. The next few posts looks at cases that could be taught together (or at the very least, linked together orally if not taught the same day) for their similarities of legal reasoning.

A recurring issue in any young area of law—and US Constitutional Law is young when compared to the common law topics like contracts and property—is how to reason from sparse precedents. Specifically, in an area with only a handful of decisions on point, do those precedents represent a ceiling or a floor?