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May 11, 2013

Privacy and the Surveillance State

According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, Americans by a large margin favor installing video surveillance devices in public places in order to provide greater security, with 78 percent of participants saying such surveillance is a good idea.

The poll was taken in the wake of the bombings in Boston on Marathon Monday and the results likely reflect the very real anxiety that such horrific events can produce. The positive reaction to greater surveillance is natural and understandable. But that does not necessarily mean that it will lead to sound public policy.

It remains that it is always easier to give away someone else's privacy interests, especially hypothetically. Most people cannot imagine ever being the target of government surveillance—for them, the potentially ubiquitous video recording devices will be aimed at someone else.

That is fine as far as it goes, but the fact is that, under the Fourth Amendment doctrine for determining whether you have a protectable privacy right as against the government, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said that any expectation of privacy you assert must be objectively reasonable. We all do lots of things in public that we assume to be private—like talking on cell phones, text messaging, and even having a conversation with the person walking next to you, and believe the assumption to be reasonable because we do not really expect anyone nearby actually to listen to what we are saying or texting. But the fact that someone could do so, according to the Court, eliminates any true expectation of privacy. And even if that were not the case, could we say any of these communications reasonably should be deemed private when the government has the capacity to record and review all of them?

It could be argued that the problem lies not in our actual expectations but in Fourth Amendment doctrine itself. But despite noises from some justices in recent years—like Justice Sotomayor's concurring opinion in the GPS case from last year, United States v. Jones—it's far from clear that a major doctrinal shift is coming.

What is interesting, though, is that just as we seem willing to allow the government greater surveillance capabilities, we balk at the potential of new technology like Google Glasses to allow people to accomplish a similar end, by surreptitiously taking photos and short videos of anyone who happens to be nearby. Perhaps it is the fact that this technology allows our privacy to be invaded without our knowledge or consent that so bothers us. Whatever the reason, legislators in many state and local governments have begun exploring efforts to regulate these Google devices, which are not yet on the market.

Such regulation would seem to indicate that people are at least somewhat concerned to maintain some degree of privacy in public. But more than anything it reveals our ambivalence about privacy. Trading privacy for security seems like good policy to many, but it's worth remembering that the constitutional expectation of privacy test historically has functioned as a one-way ratchet, with the scope of privacy as against the government continually being diminished as it becomes more difficult to maintain that expectations of privacy are reasonable.

Lawrence Friedman

March 27, 2013

Reflecting on Gideon at 50

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Gideon v Wainwright, the Supreme Court’s celebrated decision establishing the constitutional right to counsel for indigent criminal defendants. The occasion provides much to commemorate, but also reminds us how far there is to go. Indeed, it has become commonplace to note that “Gideon’s Trumpet” (the title to the wonderful book by Anthony Lewis, who just passed way) has been “muted” by widespread violations of the right to counsel. Blame rests primarily with persistent underfunding of the defense function and the excessive caseloads that result. An assembly line of routinized pleas, in which lawyers engage in little or no advocacy on behalf of their clients, too often is the norm in courthouses across the country.

The extent of the problem is well-documented. According to the Constitution Project’s exhaustive study, Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel, underfunded and overworked public defenders:

"[A]re constantly forced to violate their oaths as attorneys because their caseloads make it impossible for them to practice law as they are required to do according to the profession’s rules. They cannot interview their clients properly, effectively seek their pretrial release, file appropriate motions, conduct necessary fact investigations, negotiate responsibly with the prosecutor, adequately prepare for hearings, and perform countless other tasks that normally would be undertaken by a lawyer with sufficient time and resources."

Nor is the problem new. Ever since Gideon was rendered, a parade of studies has documented continuous underfunding of indigent defense services and the problems that result. And while each report provides its own perspective, invariably the conclusion is the same: criminal defendants are represented too often by lawyers -- whether public defender, appointed counsel or otherwisewhose capacity to render adequate representation is severely limited. As Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, has recently stated, “The representation received by most poor people accused of crimes -- if they receive any at allis a far cry from the constitutional requirement of ‘the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings’” contemplated by Gideon and its progeny.

Changing course after decades of neglect is not easy, although important efforts at reform are underway. They include litigation to produce greater compliance with Gideon’s demands. Currently pending before the Supreme Court of Florida, for example, is a case that, if successful, will permit public defenders in Miami-Dade County to decline new appointments and to withdraw from existing ones when caseloads, which can exceed 500 cases per attorney, become intolerable. Other efforts include promoting the independence of defense lawyers through the creation of statewide indigent defense commissions. New Mexico’s voters, for instance, recently approved a constitutional amendment creating an independent commission to oversee the provision of defense services to indigent clients and to promote a robust defense function. State bar associations have also taken a leading role. For example, Washington’s highest court recently adopted recommendations authored by the state’s bar association to cap caseloads at levels that, while still high, comply with national recommendations. Such efforts make meaningful contributions and must be encouraged.

Lasting solutions, however, will require resetting the political calculations that drive funding decisions, which in turn depend upon raising and sustaining public consciousness about the critical importance of adequate defense. Here, some feint glimmers of hope can be detected. For example, a new award-winning documentary that will premiere this summer on HBO, Gideon’s Army, tracks the stories of three brave public defenders in the Deep South who fight for justice for their clients despite the long odds against them. Also profiled in the film is an innovative Atlanta-based organization, called Gideon’s Promise, which works with public defense organizations and others to train and support frontline defenders. Other notable efforts to build public awareness include a new film by the Constitution Project narrated by Martin Sheen, Defending Gideon, and recent books on the importance of effective criminal defense (including Amy Bach’s excellent investigative account detailing the failings of the criminal justice process, Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court, and the just released book on Gideon itself, Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People's Justice by Karen Houppert).

Time will tell whether these and other efforts can change the narrative about Gideon’s legacy. Optimists will view them as part of the arc toward ensuring a meaningful right to counsel, while pessimists may see them as part of the same story often retold. But all should agree that the time is long past to make Gideon’s promise a reality.

Tigran Eldred

September 27, 2012

Stakes are high for Abbas’s statehood gamble

Earlier today, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced his intention to press ahead with a bid for UN affirmation of the statehood of Palestine.  He recalled last year’s unsuccessful application for UN membership, and has chosen instead to seek a General Assembly resolution recognizing Palestine’s Observer Mission as that of a state observer, as opposed to its current status as an observer 'entity,' as I predicted last fall. 

Abbas is taking a huge gamble. 

While he is very likely to receive the General Assembly affirmation he seeks, he risks losing hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid, particularly having announced this intention prior to November’s U.S. presidential election.  He may be able to mitigate that risk by not pushing for the adoption of a resolution by the General Assembly (GA) until after the election.  At the same time, he has made clear that he expects a resolution affirming Palestinian statehood to be adopted during the present GA session, which runs until next September.

Major developments have occurred in the past year with respect to the question of Palestinian statehood.  The most significant development since the November 2011 admission of Palestine into the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (“UNESCO”) was the release of a statement earlier this year by the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court by which he essentially punted the issue of Palestinian statehood to the political organs of the UN and the ICC Assembly of States Parties.

One of the more sensitive issues implicated by Palestine’s UN bid is the question of whether Palestine can consent to the exercise of ICC jurisdiction over conduct that took place in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead – the 2008-09 armed conflict between Israel and Hamas.  Article 12(3) of the ICC Statute allows for a “State which is not a Party to this Statute” to accept the exercise of the Court’s jurisdiction over crimes committed by its nationals or within its territory. 

After the Palestinian Authority lodged its declaration with the ICC Registrar, the ICC Prosecutor reported that he was examining “first, whether the declaration accepting the exercise of jurisdiction by the Court meets statutory requirements, and second, whether crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction have been committed.”  The phrase “statutory requirements” presumably includes the question of whether or not Palestine is a “state” for the purposes of Article 12(3).

On April 3, 2012, the ICC Prosecutor released a statement referring, inter alia, to the practice of the UN Secretary-General as treaty depositary.  The statement also implied that his office, for the moment, would not be considering allegations of crimes committed in Palestine. 

The Prosecutor’s reference to the treaty practice of the United Nations may add some weight to the significance of the UNESCO vote.  As with UN membership, the issue of treaty participation is distinct from the question of statehood.  Negotiating states can decide to make treaty participation available to entities other than fully independent states.  Even where the text of a treaty limits participation to states (as does the ICC Statute), there may be a grey zone in which the treaty depositary is afforded a degree of discretion.  On this latter point, the Prosecutor’s statement refers to an understanding adopted by the General Assembly at its 2202nd plenary meeting on 14 December 1973.   

In the 1970s, the UN Secretary-General, concerned about purported treaty actions by entities whose status in international law was unclear, brought this issue to the attention of the General Assembly.  The General Assembly adopted an understanding that “the Secretary-General, in discharging his functions as depositary of a convention with an ‘all States’ clause, will follow the practice of the Assembly in implementing such a clause and, whenever advisable, will request the opinion of the Assembly before receiving a signature or an instrument of ratification or accession.”  The Prosecutor essentially used this understanding as a justification for placing the issue before the political organs of the United Nations. 

However, the Summary of Practice of the Secretary‐General as Depositary of Multilateral Treaties, to which the Prosecutor cites, also includes reference to the so-called “Vienna formula.”  The Vienna formula is drawn from the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.  According to Article 81 of that instrument, “[t]he present Convention shall be open for signature by all States Members of the United Nations or of any of the specialized agencies or of the International Atomic Energy Agency or parties to the Statute of the International Court of Justice, and by any other State invited by the General Assembly of the United Nations to become a party to the Convention…” 

The Summary of Practice seems to indicate that the Secretary-General will only seek the guidance of the General Assembly where a purported state does not fall within this formula (i.e. that a treaty open to participation by “all states” will presumably be open to any purported state that falls within the Vienna formula).  Following its admission into UNESCO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, Palestine arguably falls within the Vienna formula.  Admittedly, however, UN practice on this point is somewhat ambiguous.

In any event, if the General Assembly does indeed affirm the statehood of Palestine, it would be very difficult for the ICC Prosecutor to decline to investigate the allegations of international crimes committed during Operation Cast Lead, as alleged, for example, in the Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.

John Cerone

July 18, 2012

How To Succeed in Law School?

I received an interesting question recently from an incoming student: “How does a student get through New England Law successfully?” In thinking about how to answer this question, I decided to articulate the most common early mistakes that I see students make. So, for the benefit of students starting law school this fall, here’s the list:

1. Not using time wisely: underworking. Some of the students who suffer from the "not using time wisely" problem simply don't spend enough time on law school. Often, these students think that law school is like undergraduate study, where some students could put in maybe four hours a day during the semester on classes and/ or studying, and then cram for finals at the end. It just doesn't work like that in law school, because there's so much material that you have to comprehend immediately. I recommend that first semester students assume that they need to put in 40 hours a week during the semester, and about 60-80 hours a week during and just before finals. I've found that students who work hard during the semester on fully understanding the law as they learn it have more time before exams to focus on exam prep (i.e. how to write a law school essay, etc.)

2. Not using time wisely: overworking. Some students who don't use time wisely are not working efficiently. A lot of times, these students are diligent, hard-working students who have the exact right attitude for law school, but they try too hard to do EVERYTHING. Students who do well in law school know their limits and are able to prioritize the important things and de-prioritize the less important things. So, what are the important things? That's my next point....

3. Understanding what law school is actually about. Many students underperform because they misconceive what they're supposed to be learning and how they're supposed to demonstrate it on final exams. This problem actually falls into two categories....

a. Understanding what you're supposed to do during the semester. Law school is odd in that we seem to send the message that the cases are the most important thing you're studying. Because most classes use the Socratic method and the case method, the implicit message is that you will be tested on cases. When I was an undergrad, I took a Constitutional Law class in which the final exam simply asked us to EXPLAIN ten cases we'd read. Law school is NOTHING like that. Although the cases "matter," what they matter FOR most is not what many students think. What the cases matter for is: (1) the legal rule (i.e. what the law is); and (2) how the facts apply to that rule. The legal rule is important because that's the blackletter law that should go into your outline; it's the "stuff" you need to know. How the court applies the facts to the law is important as an example for you of how to DO legal analysis. And, that leads to the second category....

b. Understanding what's expected of you on exams. On essay exams, you are graded mostly on your legal analysis. Most 1L students think that you're graded on your ability to recite the rules of law that you learned from the cases and to determine the outcome of hypotheticals "correctly." While you DO need to know and express those rules on exams, that counts for maybe 10% of your grade. The other 90% is based on your legal analysis. So, what's the difference? Here's an example:


Bad essay answer: The Issue raised in this problem is whether D is guilty of murder. Murder is the premeditated killing of another person. Because D premeditated, he's guilty of murder.


Good essay answer: The Issue raised in this problem is whether D is guilty of murder. Murder is the premeditated killing of another person. The prosecution will argue that because D and victim had recently had an argument, that shows that D had the motive to kill victim and thus he likely premeditated. D will argue, though, that this killing occurred in the heat of passion, because of the recent disagreement where insults were exchanged, and he can therefore only be convicted of manslaughter. This case is similar to State v. Jones where D was in a heated exchange with victim and ultimately killed him. The court held that "mere words are not enough" to allow a finding of "heat of passion." Like Jones, this case involves only mere words. These words were insufficient to permit a finding of "heat of passion," and therefore D is guilty of murder.

The "Bad" example is an extreme version of an inclination I see often; students think that they need to say the rule and say the result -- almost like a written version of a multiple choice question. By contrast, in the “Good” answer, the student not only stated the law but also applied it in an almost dialectical fashion. This shows that the student will be a good attorney because not only can she represent her client, but she can also foresee and rebut her adversary’s arguments.

So, there you have it. Those are, in my humble opinion, probably the biggest and most common mistakes that I see. I invite comments from current students on their perceptions and experiences, too. If my ideas on this are controversial, I certainly welcome other thoughts. I think the more information we can provide to incoming students, the better prepared they will be to succeed.

June 29, 2012

Health Care and the Commerce Clause

A friend asked me, in all sincerity, how I plan to teach National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius—the Health Care Cases—in my constitutional law class next spring. It’s a good question. Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion discusses and alters commerce and spending clause doctrine and elaborates on the taxing power—the case could be its own course in Congressional authority under Article I of the Constitution. (My friend also said she’s still trying to figure out whether Roberts actually called balls and strikes in Sebelius or “if he took the ball away from the pitcher and told everyone to go home because the game was over”).

What may pose the greater challenge is how to incorporate into discussion of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate some sense of the decision’s political dimensions. Democrats have praised the decision and commentators have expressed respect for the Chief Justice’s decision to side with the so-called liberal justices. But at a certain level his decision appears motivated less by fidelity to constitutional principles than a desire to protect the integrity of an institution—the U.S. Supreme Court—that has surprisingly often in the past decade paid slight deference to the work of the elected and politically accountable branches of the federal government.

Indeed, as my colleague Louis Schulze has noted, in this case there were five votes for the proposition that an individual decision to freeload when it comes to health care, which has a demonstrable—and profound—impact on interstate commerce, is somehow not activity within Congress’s reach. This conclusion, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg notes in her opinion in Sebelius, is hardly self-evident in light of the Court’s commerce clause precedents, and it arguably fails to respect the legislature’s competence to make judgments about the aggregate effect of economic decision-making. Given that, as one appeals court judge noted, “it is possible to restate most actions as corresponding inactions with the same effect,” the Court’s new activity-inactivity distinction may simply be an invitation to judges to engage in subjective assessments about the validity of a wide range of federal regulations.

As discussion begins about the long-term implications of this new commerce clause principle, it would be good to remember that experiments with formalistic constitutional doctrines that effectively cabin the federal government’s ability to regulate have been relatively short-lived. For instance, in the 1995 case United States v. Lopez, the Court held that Congress can only regulate activity that is inherently economic under the commerce clause—and then ten years later concluded in Gonzales v. Raich that Congress may regulate even non-economic activity when it is part of a broad effort to regulate a national market, effectively embracing a means by which Congress can get around Lopez. The Court may soon discover that in order for the federal government to address some of the truly national problems the country now faces, it will have to develop a way for Congress to get around its new activity-inactivity distinction, too.

Lawrence Friedman

June 28, 2012

The Health Care Cases: “Democrats Win the Battle, but Lose the War … and Don’t Even Seem to Know it Yet” or “How Chief Justice Roberts Got to Have his Cake and Eat it, Too"

I’m baffled by the reaction to today’s ruling in National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius (which is quickly attaining the nickname “The Health Care Cases.”).  Democrats seem to be rejoicing “a win,” in that the Affordable Care Act was upheld.  What everyone seems to be ignoring is the fact that the Court also held that:  (a) Congress lacked the power to enact the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause; and (b) it also lacks the power under the Spending Clause to withhold Medicare funding to states who refuse to participate in the Medicare expansion.  In crowing about this “victory” for the President, I honestly don’t think that Democrats have quite figured out the long-term consequences of what Chief Justice Roberts just pulled off today.  But, know this:  his feat today is downright historic…

Most people probably don’t care about the Commerce Clause or the Spending Clause.  These were just some words of jargon that lawyers were throwing around, and what people really cared about was whether Obamacare would still exist.  The elation to be heard outside the Supreme Court building seems to confirm this, and even the commentary by talk radio pundits in the first hours after the decision seemed to focus only on the survival of the ACA.  What folks are missing is the fact that the Supreme Court just fundamentally altered (or put back into place, depending upon where you’re standing) the balance of power between states and the federal government.

To be clear, the Commerce Clause is the source of power for the vast majority of federal social legislation.  Georgetown Constitutional Law Professor Randy Barnett, the architect of the challenge to the ACA and longtime advocate for curtailing federal power has stated that the original meaning of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause is that it only extends to “trade in things – goods” and that it merely creates a free-trade zone among the states with Congress regulating matters within the stream of commerce.  Barnett’s theory on the ACA is that even if insurance can be deemed a “good,” it still is beyond the reach of the Commerce Clause because the individual mandate compels citizens to enter into commerce rather than merely regulating what is already in it.  By seemingly agreeing with this theory today, the Supreme Court arguably calls into question such fundamental social reforms as the Civil Rights Act, workplace safety laws, and minimum wage laws … and yet Democrats are celebrating.

Despite the impact of today’s ruling on the Commerce Clause, Democrats seem just about ready to canonize Chief Justice Roberts, given that he – and not Justice Kennedy, as had been widely expected – provided the swing vote for saving the ACA.  Little to do they know, apparently, that what the Chief Justice pulled off today was nothing short of a masterstroke.  As a longtime advocate of a conservative approach to interpreting the constitution, the Chief Justice no doubt seeks to reinforce the power dynamic between the states and the federal government.  As a former law clerk to then-Associate Justice Rehnquist, he no doubt relishes the opportunity to complete the federalism revolution his former boss started.  At the same time, though, Chief Justice Roberts also appreciates the impact of the Court’s actions on its legitimacy and has openly strived to avoid closely-divided or blatantly partisan rulings from the Court.

Today, he somehow was able to achieve those two seemingly incompatible results simultaneously.  By narrowing the Commerce Clause, he has substantially undermined the federal government’s power to involve itself in citizen’s lives; but, by casting the deciding vote to uphold the ACA’s individual mandate as a permissible “tax,” he achieves the pragmatic goal of deferring to one of the elected branches of government and showing that the Court is still above politics.  He literally got to have his cake and eat it, too, and it shouldn’t be too long until the cognoscenti begin to recognize the sage brilliance of this maneuvering.

So, for now, Democrats are celebrating.  Hopefully, the Affordable Care Act will work as advertised and provide health insurance to millions of people who otherwise would have suffered.  But, in the not too distant future, we will certainly have to reckon with the real results of today’s decision:  “The New Commerce Clause.”  Whether that occurs when the Supreme Court invalidates some crucial social policy or whether it occurs when Congress is too timid to legislate, one thing is certain: Chief Justice John Roberts will be in the SCOTUS Hall of Fame, because this guy just pulled off the Kobayashi Maru of constitutional adjudication.

Louis Schulze

June 4, 2012

The Constitution, Congress, and the Repeal Amendment

When Congress acts pursuant to its enumerated powers and does not infringe upon an individual right or liberty, the U.S. Supreme Court has traditionally treated the legislation with deference. This approach lately has come under fire. Randy E. Barnett, who teaches constitutional law at Georgetown, has endorsed the enactment of the so-called “repeal amendment” – an amendment to the Constitution which would provide for the repeal of a particular federal law or regulation “when the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states approve resolutions” favoring the same.

Such an amendment is contrary to the intentions of the framers as reflected in the text and structure of the Constitution itself. They met in Philadelphia in 1787 to address the inadequacies of government under the Articles of Confederation, finally recognizing that, in order for the young nation to move forward – for its economy to thrive, for its borders to be protected, for its people to be secure in the world – it needed a government to both represent and speak for all citizens – a government of the United States, supreme by design in matters of national policy both domestic and foreign. 

By subjecting every national policy to review by the people acting through their state legislatures, the repeal amendment would threaten the most vital aspects of the governmental plan adopted by the framers. As my late colleague George Dargo put it, “[t]o provide states with a mechanism for disapproving of federal laws would not only undermine the institution of Judicial Review, but it would fundamentally alter the architecture of American government as we have come to know it in the past two hundred years.”

Of course, altering the architecture of the American government is the point of the repeal amendment. Which begs the question whether our constitutional architecture, as understood by the Supreme Court, has truly failed us.  Proponents of the amendment assert that the federal government is out of control – an assertion that assumes the federal government is divorced from the people it serves. Indeed, Professor Barnett has argued, in the context of the challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, that, “[i]f Congress can mandate that citizens do anything that is convenient to its regulation of the national economy,” then sovereignty lies with the federal government rather than the people and “Congress has the prerogative powers of King George III.”

But that is not right: unlike an unelected king, Congress is not an entity separate from the people – it is the people. And if the people don’t like the individual mandate, or indeed any federal policy, they have ample means at their disposal to make that view known to their congressional representatives, as indeed many have since the Affordable Care Act became law.

The people, moreover, cannot reliably be expected to enforce the Constitution. When the Court reviews a Congressional enactment, it is engaged in the process of determining the law’s constitutional validity, a process dictated by established doctrines that describe the boundaries of acceptable Congressional action and at the same time respect the limits of the judiciary’s institutional role in our governmental system. These doctrines serve to direct and constrain judicial discretion, to push judges to exercise legal rather than political or emotional judgments about the action Congress has taken.

The repeal amendment, by contrast, invites the exercise of political and emotional judgments. People will favor the repeal of particular federal policies simply because they don’t like those laws. State legislative resolutions favoring repeal accordingly will be the result of passion, not reasoned judgment about the national policies Congress is constitutionally authorized to pursue.

In the end, then, proponents of the repeal amendment seek to achieve political and not necessarily constitutional goals. Luckily for them, we already have at hand the means through which we can control our representatives in Congress, and thereby control the reach of the federal government: they are called elections, every two years for Representatives, every six for Senators.

Lawrence Friedman