Is Tax Transparency A Panacea for Popular Discontent with the Tax System?

Joshua D. Blank, The Timing of Tax Transparency, 90 S. Cal. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2017).

Tax transparency is all the rage these days. The brouhaha around the disclosure (or, in one instance, the non-disclosure) of presidential candidates’ tax returns during the 2016 presidential campaign brought the matter of tax transparency to the front and center of public discourse in the United States. Around the world, recent revelations that multinational corporations dramatically reduced their tax bills by securing secretive rulings from tax authorities, and that billionaires are able to use intricate offshore shell structures to evade taxation, are causing major popular uproar and a demand for increased transparency on tax matters. The demand is heard by intergovernmental as well as national bodies. For example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently adopted country-by-country reporting standards, which would require multinational corporations to disclose to tax authorities their activities and tax payments in each country in which they operate. Remarkably, some countries have announced they are considering making the reports public. Another example is Luxembourg, which—responding to international criticism—recently announced it will start publishing redacted versions of advance tax agreements with taxpayers. This represents a dramatic shift in Luxembourg’s usual secretive tax stance.

Against this background, Joshua Blank’s article—The Timing of Tax Transparency—is both perfectly timed and profoundly instructive. Policy choices about whether to disclose tax return information as well as tax administrators’ enforcement actions to increase public scrutiny have generally been viewed as a balancing act between competing values. Increased transparency may improve tax authorities’ accountability and encourage taxpayers to avoid aggressive planning for fear of public backlash. On the other hand, increased transparency hurts taxpayers’ privacy and may provide aggressive taxpayers a clear picture of tax authorities’ inner workings, which in turn may impede tax authorities’ enforcement efforts. The main innovation in Blank’s paper is his abandonment this binary approach towards tax transparency (increased tax transparency: yes or no) in favor of a time-dependent approach (increased tax transparency: when?). Blank argues that the balancing act between the competing values involved plays out differently depending on when—during the administrative tax process—disclosure is made. Continue reading "Is Tax Transparency A Panacea for Popular Discontent with the Tax System?"

Of Persons, Property, and Frozen Eggs

William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England bifurcated the physical universe into persons and property. In Blackstone’s description of English law, there were categories of persons (just as there were categories of property)—freemen, slaves, and wives “protected” by coverture. But each of those categories of persons consisted of whole, living natural persons. Blackstone recited the prevailing scientific and theological view of the day, that life began upon the “quickening” of “an infant … in the mother’s womb.” Blackstone similarly recited the prevailing legal view of when personhood ended—upon death. But while Blackstone clearly set forth the parameters of personhood, he failed to acknowledge that the borders of “property” did not neatly correspond, leaving the possibility of physical objects that were neither persons nor property.

This gap in English and American common law first caused problems when medical schools began to teach through anatomical study. Medical students needed cadavers to dissect, but prevailing Christian belief in literal resurrection discouraged voluntary donation. As a result, a market in fresh cadavers, rudely disinterred from their graves, emerged. Although these corpses had a market value, English and American authorities were frustrated that grave robbers could not be prosecuted for conversion and related crimes because of the clear common law doctrine, articulated by Blackstone, that human remains are not property.

Medical and scientific advances in the past century have expanded our understanding of the common law gap between persons and property and challenged us to reassess those boundaries, particularly with respect to human tissue with value for transplantation, therapy, or research. Professor Browne Lewis, The Leon and Gloria Plevin Professor of Law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, adds to this emerging niche of scholarship at the intersection of property law and bioethics by analyzing the legal status of frozen human eggs. Continue reading "Of Persons, Property, and Frozen Eggs"

Calculating Damages in an Uncertain World

Tun-Jen Chiang, The Information-Forcing Dilemma in Damages Law (Wash. U. in St. Louis Legal Stud. Research Paper No. 16-08-03, 2016), available at SSRN.

There is a rule in the world of remedies that has always struck me as unfair. The rule, generally speaking, is that damages are not available unless they can be proven with certainty. For example, suppose that I own a pub and hire a karaoke DJ for Friday night. Karaoke is popular in my town and I advertise the event widely. On Friday afternoon, however, the DJ breaches and I’m left without entertainment. During the night, patrons show up and ask about the DJ. Many of them express disappointment; some decide to remain and have a couple drinks but some leave right away. I bring suit for $1,000 in damages. Even though liability is clear in this case, I am not likely to recover a dime in damages because my estimate of damages is, in the eyes of the law, little more than conjecture. If this seems unfair to you, you’re in good company. In fact, some courts see it the same way and have tried to soften the “certainty” requirement by awarding damages that seem like a “good guess.” But the “good guess” approach has its own downside. Guesses are sometimes wrong—especially when the guesser stands to benefit from guessing too high. So what is a court to do?

Scholars and jurists have wrestled with this problem for some time but nobody, to my knowledge, has done so as successfully as Tun-Jen Chiang in his new article, The Information-Forcing Dilemma in Damages Law. Unlike prior scholars, Chiang does not attempt to find the sweet spot between the “certainty” and “good guess” approaches. Instead, he takes a step back and tries to understand the problem. The problem is not simply that we have yet to find the sweet spot; it’s that information deficits force courts to fall back on a general sense of fairness. This sense of fairness will, of course, skew different ways in different cases. Chiang helpfully illustrates how courts oscillate between “certainty” and “good guess” approaches as they attempt to implement vague notions of fairness. In one case (or perhaps one period of time), courts move from “certainty” to “good guess” to ameliorate the unfairness to plaintiffs, but then move from “good guess” back to “unfairness” to ameliorate unfairness to defendants. And then the process starts all over again. Continue reading "Calculating Damages in an Uncertain World"

Legal Ethics After Liberalism

David Luban and I just finished a paper celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics. It recounts the history of the subfield of philosophical legal ethics, organized around two generations of scholarship.1 The first generation located legal ethics within moral philosophy, seeking to connect the lawyer’s role with values such as autonomy, loyalty, and human dignity. First-generation scholars tended to agree with Arthur Applbaum that conventional and institutional considerations, such as social roles and rules of professional conduct regulating professions, did not relieve lawyers of the burden of articulating a justification, in ordinary moral terms, for their actions.2 The second generation, by contrast, regarded legal ethics as a branch of political philosophy, and the central problem not being individual moral agency, but the fact of a society characterized by a plurality of reasonable moral, religious, and political beliefs. A commentator challenged us to anticipate what themes the third generation of legal ethics scholarship would develop, and it occurred to us that we should add a fourth possibility, namely a radical position that is critical of the apparatus of positive law and liberal rights, perhaps as a kind of throwback to Critical Legal Studies.

Canadian legal theorist Allan Hutchinson’s recent book, Fighting Fair: Legal Ethics for an Adversarial Age, is just such a contribution to the debate. It is a fascinating combination of radical and old-school, with its reliance on virtue ethics and traditional conceptions of professionalism. Hutchinson rightly points out that the justification for the so-called standard conception of legal ethics, with its familiar tripartite structure of partisanship, neutrality, and non-accountability, is borrowed from liberal political and legal theory. (P. 43.) The problem with it, in a nutshell, is that the standard conception gives priority to the interests of clients over the public interest. (P. 53.) Of course, calling upon lawyers to pay more attention to the public interest has long been a staple of anguished reflections by lawyers and academics on the woeful state of the legal profession. Consider much-discussed books such as Mary Ann Glendon’s A Nation Under Lawyers and The Betrayed Profession by Sol Linowitz from the 1990’s, and more recent work such as Deborah Rhode’s The Trouble with Lawyers. What is distinctive about Hutchinson’s proposed reform of the standard conception is his analogy with the ethics of warfare. He anticipates that readers may blanch at that comparison. Doesn’t the legal profession need less adversarialness, not encouragement to think of litigation as war? Readers old enough to remember Sylvester Stallone action movies from the Reagan years will recall that an unethical style of practice was often referred to a “Rambo lawyering.” The so-called professionalism movement, which was active in the 1990’s, sought to restrain adversarial excesses and restore a spirit of cooperativeness and civility to litigation. Moreover, most lawyers are not litigators, and while it is true that transactional practice can be adversarial, in business practice there is at least the theoretical possibility of obtaining a good deal for all the parties. And what about lawyers who advise clients and bring them into compliance with the law? The warrior ethos central to Hutchinson’s book seems an inexact analogy for what many lawyers do in practice. Continue reading "Legal Ethics After Liberalism"

Dynamic Democratic Dialogue

In recent years, the cornucopia of academic commentary on dialogic constitutionalism (or cognate terms like democratic dialogue) has been one of the richest and most creative in constitutional theory and comparative constitutional law. The debate has benefited from celebrated contributions from some of the world’s best-known constitutional thinkers, as much as from fresh thinking by younger scholars. The current debate began as a response to the institutional innovation, and later as a theoretical discourse, within some Commonwealth countries that adopted parliamentary bills of rights, although arguably the embryo of the model has an older pedigree in the Commonwealth tradition (e.g., the “manner and form” provisions of s.5 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 or s.29 of the Ceylon (Constitution) Order in Council 1946). The development of the dialogic model has since also engaged distinctive practical challenges of different global regions, from North and South America, to Europe, Africa, and Asia. Within its broad rubric therefore it has not only embraced both common law and civilian systems as well as the developed and developing worlds, but also found diverse theoretical articulations serving a wide range of quite different constitutional challenges and contexts. Professor Alison L. Young’s recent book, Democratic Dialogue and the Constitution, is the latest and one of the most rigorous contributions to this already highly sophisticated debate over dialogic constitutionalism.

For those for whom at least the more extreme claims of the two counterposed models of legal and political constitutionalism hold little attraction and practical utility, dialogic constitutionalism has an almost intuitive appeal as a modus vivendi. In forcing institutional parity and dialogue between the judiciary and the political branches—rather than the supremacy of one or the other—it seems to both meet the requirements of representative democracy and the protection of normative principles, when societies are confronted with legitimate and reasonable but deep disagreements over matters of constitutional significance. It empowers the judiciary adequately to make authoritative statements about the scope of constitutional rights, while simultaneously maintaining the role of legislatures as forums of democratic deliberation and decision-making. The dialogic model also enhances the scrutiny of elected executives, by demanding equal emphasis on parliamentary as well as judicial forms of accountability. In eschewing strong-form judicial review, it addresses the democratic deficit of legal constitutionalism (the counter-majoritarian difficulty), and in abjuring the untrammelled parliamentary supremacy of political constitutionalism, it accommodates liberalism’s counter-majoritarian principles in the protection of individuals and minorities. In short, it sets to work the ideal institutional model for the principled negotiation of constitutional disputes in democracies, whether over rights or questions of a more general nature. Continue reading "Dynamic Democratic Dialogue"

Erie and Equity

Michael T. Morley, The Federal Equity Power (March 1, 2017), available at SSRN.

Michael Morley has many skills we admire in a scholar: he is doggedly productive; he has an easy command of the established authorities; and he typically identifies sources that shed new light on the problem he has chosen to tackle. Perhaps best of all, Morley has a canny eye for the kind of project that has become ripe for careful exploration. His new article on the federal equity power confirms this.

We have enjoyed something of an equity renaissance in recent years. The Supreme Court has been busy, fashioning a body of federal equity law for application to a diverse array of problems. To be sure, the Court’s handiwork has drawn its share of criticisms, perhaps most pointedly from John Langbein. But it also has its share of defenders. In an elegant piece of writing (reviewed in JOTWELL), Sam Bray celebrated the Court’s new equity jurisprudence as a flexible body of principles drawn from the days of the divided bench. While Bray recognized that the Court’s equity might not pass muster as good history, he argued that it might nonetheless provide the foundation for a supple body of law. Continue reading "Erie and Equity"

Dismantling Mass Incarceration

Michael Tonry, Making American Sentencing Just, Humane, and Effective, 46 Crime & Justice: A Review of Research (forthcoming 2017), available at SSRN.

The US incarcerates a greater percentage of its people than any other country in the world—by a wide margin. Even though we have heard the statistics enough to have become inured, they still manage to shock us: more than 2 million people are behind bars and more than 5 million more live under the daily supervision of the criminal justice (on parole, probation, etc.). There have been some promising events in recent years: bi-partisan Congressional support for sentencing reform, though still no enacted legislation; state voter referendums such as California’s Proposition 47 that roll back sentences for low-level non-violent offenses; former Attorney General Holder’s directives on federal charging; both the liberal Soros Foundation and the conservative Koch Industries are funding sentencing reform initiatives.

But still, as Michael Tonry argues in his detailed and sobering policy article, these reforms are mere “nibbles at the edges” of mass incarceration and will not make a significant difference in our outrageously high prison rates. While prison rates have dipped, much of that decline is not because of meaningful sentencing reform, but rather because of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata requiring California to release 35,000 prisoners to remedy overcrowding. Continue reading "Dismantling Mass Incarceration"

The Science of Sexuality

Marie-Amélie George, The Custody Crucible: The Development of Scientific Authority About Gay and Lesbian Parents, 34 Law & Hist. Rev. 487 (2016), available at SSRN.

Marie-Amélie George’s meticulously researched, provocative study of early gay-and-lesbian custody cases focuses on the power of social science research to reshape both the law and the larger society. George takes us inside the courtroom fights, landmark parenting studies, and conservative strategies that have defined debates about the meaning and origins of homosexuality. Using published opinions, rare trial records, oral histories, personal correspondence, and social-movement records, The Custody Crucible describes how social-science arguments made the difference to gay and lesbian parents seeking to prove that their sexual orientation in no way harmed their children.

But the relationship between scientific research and litigation that George excavates is complex. She convincingly argues that courtroom battles sparked new research about the impact of gay or lesbian parenting on the sexual orientation and gender identity of children. As importantly, the progress made by gay and lesbian parents helped set the agenda of conservative organizations intent on demonstrating that homosexual parents were often sexually abusive, impoverished, and unable to stop their children from becoming deviant. Nuanced and thoughtful, The Custody Crucible contributes to a rich literature on the relationship between cause-lawyering and social change. However, George breaks out of the framework often governing these studies, looking beyond the overall benefit a movement can expect from winning or losing in court. The Custody Crucible illuminates how litigation can help frame scientific questions that resonate well beyond the courtroom. Continue reading "The Science of Sexuality"

Law and Virtue

Kimberley Brownlee, What’s Virtuous About the Law?, 21 Legal Theory 1 (2015).

In this interesting and clearly argued article, Kimberley Brownlee investigates the extent to which the law can serve as a model of virtue. She rightly points out that many ethicists understand law deontologically, as a set of principles that determine rights and duties: in other words, that for law to embody a morality, this morality must be essentially law-like. The article observes that the law’s various concerns cannot be entirely reduced to deontology (P. 5), but there is in any case room for dissatisfaction with the idea that deontology and “virtue ethics” are opposing conceptions of morality. Aquinas, for example, devotes the entire secunda-secundae of the Summa Theologiae to a discussion of the virtues, but does not hesitate to identify duties to be performed (including the human being’s duties to God).1

One interesting observation at the outset of the article is that the law “tends toward injustice.” This is a very arresting comment, and it is a shame that there is no discussion of it. For one thing, it runs contrary to the much-repeated idea of Lon Fuller that the law “works itself pure,” that is, tends toward justice over time, or to the classical common law philosophies of writers such as Hale or Coke, which regarded the law as the accumulation of reason. One could also point to the natural law content of positive law: the suppression and punishment of criminality, maintenance of the inner tranquility of the state, the restraint of fraud, sexual crimes and civil wrongs, regulation of contracts and so forth. In all such cases the tendency of the law seems to be toward justice rather than its contrary. Continue reading "Law and Virtue"

Is It Time to Examine the Concept of Originality in Musical Works?

Emma Steel, Original Sin: Reconciling Originality in Copyright with Music as an Evolutionary Art Form, 37 Eur. Intell. Prop. Rev. 66 (2015).

Copyright often makes little sense, particularly when you explain it to people who are not familiar with its concepts. Jessica Litman expresses this problem well in her book Digital Copyright by stating that people “find it very hard to believe that there’s really a law out there that says the stuff the copyright law says.” Anyone who has had to talk to members of the public about copyright will have similar experiences.

One area of copyright that has been receiving quite a lot of coverage recently is originality of music, especially in various high profile cases in which famous artists have been sued for copyright infringement. The most visible perhaps is the recent case of Williams v. Bridgeport Music, Inc, in which the estate of Marvin Gaye sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for copyright infringement in the hit song “Blurred Lines,” alleging that the music was too similar to that of Gaye’s famous “Got to Give It Up.” The jury decided in favour of Gaye, and the estate was awarded $7.4 million in damages. That ruling is on appeal at the time of writing, and it has proven controversial amongst copyright experts and music industry insiders. Some have argued that the ruling could have a negative effect on musicians trying to explore music from previous eras, incorporating sounds and styles from famous artists. Similarly, over 200 musicians have supported the ongoing appeal, arguing that the decision could have a chilling effect on creativity.

In Original Sin: Reconciling Originality in Copyright with Music as an Evolutionary Art Form, Emma Steel does not address the case of Williams v. Bridgeport Music as such, but she explores the question of originality in music in an interesting and noteworthy manner that is relevant to that litigation. Steel first describes the evolution of music’s component elements, paying special attention to the evolution of rhythm and melody as the basic building blocks of musical creations. Rhythm takes the form of tempo, metre, and rhythmic pattern. These provide a repetition of timing that tends to be common in various styles and genres. For example, the 4/4 metre is the most popular timing, while 3/4 is found in waltzes and country music. Melody, on the other hand, is where most of the originality in music is manifest, and it is “the relationship between musical tones of various pitch and duration.” Steel comments that in Western musical traditions melodies tend to be repetitive in nature and shared across music genres. Continue reading "Is It Time to Examine the Concept of Originality in Musical Works?"