The Federal Courts Junior Scholars Workshop

This is an unusual entry for JOTWELL, because it presents an event rather than a published work of scholarship. But, I think, it’s appropriate for JOTWELL because the event is indeed something I liked (lots). The Federal Courts Junior Scholars Workshop, now an annual event, is representative of an important recent development in legal scholarship—the proliferation of venues for the presentation of work-in-progress by relatively junior scholars. They supplement faculty-organized research workshops, which typically involve the presentation by one scholar (not always junior) to a group of faculty and students at the host institution, but with few or no other junior scholars in the field present. Faculty-organized research workshops seem to me to operate on a catch-as-catch-can basis: the people in charge of the workshops contact people they know to locate scholars with work far enough along to be worth presenting. And, finally, these workshops are sometimes try-outs for permanent faculty appointments at the host institution.

The newer junior scholars workshops are different. They are usually, though not always, self-organized (the Harvard-Stanford-Yale junior faculty workshop is an exception, to which I’ll return) by younger scholars in the field. They seek submissions, usually abstracts, for the longer papers that will be presented at the workshop. My guess is that these workshops in their early years may not be all that selective, but as each workshop becomes established selectivity increases. These workshops have multiple purposes. First, at least in self-understanding and advertising, is giving junior scholars the opportunity to present their work before it is finished, to an informed audience whose comments might improve its quality. This is enhanced by the presence of senior faculty in the field as commenters. The senior faculty can sometimes become (unexpected) mentors for the junior faculty, and their commitment of time suggests that they might be available as outside reviewers in tenure and promotion processes. And, of course, the events build a community of junior faculty members in the field, particularly important to a junior faculty member who may be the only scholar in her field at her home institution. The host institution, which has to provide at least a modest subsidy for the workshop, gets some visibility in the legal academy as well. (This has some implications for issues of design, as I’ll note.) Continue reading "The Federal Courts Junior Scholars Workshop"

 
 

Hypothesizing Regulatory Instability

Erik Gerding’s recent book, Law, Bubbles, and Financial Regulation, is an ambitious and fascinating project that seeks to explain how asset bubbles—a perennial staple of economic history—lead to and, in turn, are exacerbated by financial regulation. Gerding makes it clear from the outset that his goal is to move beyond “fixing immediate symptoms” of a financial crisis and try to uncover the fundamental factors that explain how disasters happen. To this end, he advances what he calls the Regulatory Instability Hypothesis, a conceptual framework for explaining how financial markets (traditionally, a realm of private ordering) and financial regulation (the public sphere) get locked into a deadly spiral leading to a crisis. Gerding identifies five key dynamics that define this interaction: the regulatory stimulus cycle, compliance rot, regulatory arbitrage frenzies, pro-cyclical regulation, and promoting of investment herding. His Regulatory Instability Hypothesis holds that these five distinct dynamics pose danger to financial stability by undermining laws and regulations designed to protect it.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting and novel elements of Gerding’s argument is his concept of the “regulatory stimulus cycle.” Various scholars before Gerding wrote about the multiple causes and consequences of various deregulation campaigns, including privatizations of previously public functions and repeal of specific laws viewed as constraining private markets. In the aftermath of the latest financial crisis, in particular, many were searching for specific legal mechanisms that enabled unsustainable growth in risk and leverage within the financial system in the pre-crisis decades. For example, some scholars argued that the latest crisis could be traced directly to the partial repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 and/or the passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000—the two most significant deregulatory legislative acts in recent times. Others (including myself) have focused on specific regulatory or legislative actions enabling financial institutions to conduct business activities that fed the pre-crisis asset bubble. Continue reading "Hypothesizing Regulatory Instability"

 
 

We Found Out That Counting Lizard Poop Is Not A Good Way To Count Lizards: Now What?

Adrian Vermeule, Rationally Arbitrary Decisions (in Administrative Law), Harv. L. Sch. Pub. L. & Legal Theory Res. Paper Series (2013), available at SSRN.

Professor Vermeule has a knack for giving irresistible titles to articles that ask deep questions about administrative law—as demonstrated by the essay that is the subject of this little jot, Rationally Arbitrary Decisions (in Administrative Law). The apparent oxymoron grabs attention: Aren’t arbitrary decisions, by administrative-law hypothesis, irrational? Where reasoned decision-making stops, there arbitrariness begins, no?

There is a problem with this neat dichotomy. If you will forgive a tautology, a reasoned explanation for an action, if actually reasonable, shouldn’t depend on reasons that can’t reasonably be given. Sometimes, agencies must act, and they must do so in the teeth of genuine uncertainty. Embedded in the preceding claim is a distinction often drawn between risk and uncertainty. Risk allows for rational assignment of probabilities to outcomes (e.g., there is a 50% chance that a fair coin will turn up heads). Where genuine uncertainty exists, no such assignment of probabilities is possible—e.g., “[no] human actor … has any epistemic justification for attaching probabilities to events that may or may not occur eons in the future.” (P. 4.) When confronting uncertainty, “reasons run out and a relentless demand for further reason-giving becomes pathological.” (P. 2.) Continue reading "We Found Out That Counting Lizard Poop Is Not A Good Way To Count Lizards: Now What?"

 
 

The Heir Who Laughs, Laughs Last

John V. Orth, “The Laughing Heir” What’s So Funny?, 48 Real Prop., Tr. & Est. L.J. 321 (2013).

Professor John V. Orth takes a look at the limitations of intestate succession in his recent article, “The Laughing Heir” What’s So Funny. Unless an individual is the last human being on earth, when he or she dies, a surviving relative will exist. How closely related should the relative be to the decedent in order to inherit the decedent’s estate through intestate succession?

Common law canons of inheritance did not include a decedent’s ancestors as his or her heirs. Surviving spouses were also excluded. If a decedent had no descendants, his or her nearest collateral relatives inherited the estate. As long as there was proof of a blood relationship, a remote collateral could inherit the decedent’s estate. Continue reading "The Heir Who Laughs, Laughs Last"

 
 

Jotwell Winter Break 2014

Jotwell is taking a short winter break. Posting will resume Monday, January 5, 2015.

Happy Holidays! Thank you for reading, and for your support.

(If you have a moment, please could you vote for Jotwell at the ABA Law Blog 100 competition (look under “profs”)? Do it now, before you forget.)

Update: You may need to Login or register before you can vote.

 
 

Does Tort Law Empower?

Ori J. Herstein, How Tort Law Empowers, 64 U. Toronto L.J.___ (2014) (forthcoming), available at SSRN.

Ori Herstein’s How Tort Law Empowers takes on the question of whether and how tort law empowers victims. Herstein presents himself as a friendly critic of civil recourse theory, and offers an amendment that he claims makes the theory both more plausible and less interesting. Like many friendly amendments, it is an offer that must be carefully examined before it is accepted.

Herstein begins by noting that one of the most important and interesting contributions by civil recourse theory is the idea that tort law empowers tort victims. This contribution comes from the work of John Goldberg and Ben Zipursky, and has been embraced by others as well, either within tort law or in other parts of private law, such as contract theory (see, for example, the work of Nate Oman and Andrew Gold). Continue reading "Does Tort Law Empower?"

 
 

The Relevance of Professionalism in a Post-Legal Services Act World

Nick Robinson, When Lawyers Don’t Get All the Profits: Non-Lawyer Ownership of Legal Services, Access, and Professionalism (Harv. Law Sch. Prog. Legal Prof., Research Paper No. 2014-20)available at SSRN.

To what extent lawyers should control their own profession, determine its rules, and be the arbiters of who should deliver legal services is a question that is increasingly subject to intense scrutiny. More jurisdictions are considering whether to follow the leads of Australia and England and Wales in liberalizing their legal professions. Canada, for example, is one of the most recent.

The American legal profession expresses significant concern about non-lawyer ownership of law firms. Both the American Bar Association and the New York State Bar Association have dealt with the issue and will probably continue so to do. Continue reading "The Relevance of Professionalism in a Post-Legal Services Act World"

 
 

The IRS as Tax Law Nonenforcer

Lawrence Zelenak, Custom and the Rule of Law in the Administration of the Income Tax62 Duke L.J. 829 (2012).

In a recent essay, Custom and the Rule of Law in the Administration of the Income Tax, Larry Zelenak examines what he calls “customary deviations,” or “established practice[s] of the tax administrators . . . that deviat[e] from the clear dictates of the Internal Revenue Code.”  Even though the IRS makes decisions every day about when not to enforce the tax law, tax scholarship does not typically examine this phenomenon systematically. By focusing on an aspect of IRS nonenforcement, Zelenak shines a much needed light on the topic. The essay, and the topic generally, should garner the attention of tax scholars, as well as scholars of enforcement discretion more generally.

Like other administrative agencies as well as prosecutors, the IRS has to make decisions all the time about when not to enforce the tax law. These decisions raise important questions about the legitimacy of different types of decisions not to enforce the tax law. For instance: Is it more or less legitimate for the IRS to decide not to enforce the law through a clear, customary deviation, or through a more opaque policy?  If the IRS is somehow curtailed in its ability to use customary deviations, what alternatives might it use and would these be better or worse?  By raising questions about customary deviations, Zelenak’s essay provides a jumping off point for a broader examination of tax law nonenforcement. Continue reading "The IRS as Tax Law Nonenforcer"

 
 

Breaking the Deadlock in Bipartisan Election Administration

Jennifer Nou, Sub-Regulating Elections, Sup Ct. Rev. (forthcoming 2014), available at SSRN.

What should courts do when bipartisan agencies deadlock on an interpretation of a statute? That conundrum recently arose when the Election Administration Commission (EAC) addressed the meaning of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Specifically, the EAC had to decide whether an Arizona requirement that voter registrants provide proof of their citizenship violated the NVRA, as a refusal to “accept and use” the federal mail-in registration form. The two Democrats on the four-person Commission found that the proof-of-citizenship requirement constituted a refusal to use the federal form while the two Republicans found that it did not. When the federal Court of Appeals reviewed the agency action, the judges seemed to have three options: Defer to the interpretation of the Democratic commissioners; defer to the interpretation of the Republican commissioners; or defer to neither and independently construe the statute. In this context of deadlock, there was no clear justification for deferring to either interpretation. Choosing to defer to one partisan interpretation over the other might subject the court to a Bush v. Gore-like charge of bias. But the decision to independently construe the statute would have had costs as well. It would have denied the court expert guidance in its determination of the meaning of the statute. None of the three options were particularly appealing.

In her innovative and illuminating article, Sub-Regulating Elections, Professor Jennifer Nou engages this problem of deadlock in election administration, and suggests a broad, creative solution. The two principal election agencies, the EAC and the Federal Election Commission (FEC), have similar designs in that they both have even numbered commissioners (four for the EAC and six for the FEC) with the two major political parties equally represented. In the current context of political polarization where decisions about the meaning of election statutes often have high stakes, the problem of deadlock has become endemic to election administration. One response would be to change the design of these commissions by making them odd-numbered or eliminating the requirement of partisan balance. But as Nou correctly notes, these design changes are unlikely anytime in the near future. Continue reading "Breaking the Deadlock in Bipartisan Election Administration"

 
 

The Past and Future of Copyright Politics

In The Fight Over Digital Rights, Bill Herman, a professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies at Hunter College, explores the changing landscape of political debate over digital rights management between 1980 and 2012. This is a book about copyright, but it is also a book about political science and legislation.

You don’t need to know anything about copyright to read this book and learn new things about how the process by which legislation is formed and amended dramatically affects substantive and procedural rights. Herman’s book is about the rights and opportunities that copyright laws provide. And it traces the shape of those rights and opportunities as the legislative process has been affected by the rise of Internet activism since 1980. Continue reading "The Past and Future of Copyright Politics"

 
 

The First World War: International Law Mattered More Than You Think

All schoolchildren—even American ones—know that the First World War began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 2014. Not so, according to Isabel V. Hull, a distinguished historian of modern Germany. “The First World War,” she explains, really “began with an international crime: Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality.” (P. 16.) In her masterful new book, A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War, Hull retells the history of the First World War as a series of breakings and makings—or remakings—of international law. This is a breathtaking study that may well be the best book ever written about international law in times of war.

The “scrap of paper” in Hull’s title refers to Britain’s 1839 treaty promise to defend Belgian neutrality, dismissed in a conversation on August 4, 1914, between German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg and British ambassador Edward Goschen. “[J]ust for a scrap of paper,” Goschen recalled Bethmann saying, “Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her.” (P. 42.) That scrap of paper—and the system of international law it reflected—mattered to actors at the time and should concern historians today. It was not simply that Germany or the Allies used international law as a post hoc justification for military actions (although, of course, they did that). Rather, Hull says, from beginning to end, “international law was central to how and why the Great War was fought.” (P. x.) Continue reading "The First World War: International Law Mattered More Than You Think"