The Curmudgeonly Clerk
Thursday, July 31, 2003
Our Work Really Is Cut Out for Us:One of my favorite sources of news is the weekly feature News of the Weird. This week, editor Chuck Shepherd passes along this tidbit, among others:
On May 25 in the town of Baqubah, Iraq, Ms. Iman Salih Mutlak, 22, was gunned down by U.S. soldiers, who said she relentlessly charged at them, despite orders to halt, intending to explode the 10 grenades she was carrying. While some Iraqis treated her as a courageous martyr, her family in Zaqaniyah, Iraq, was disgusted with her, not because they are pro-American, but because she shamed them by leaving home without permission. Said her father, to an Associated Press reporter in May, "Had she returned home, I would have killed her myself and drunk her blood." [Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle-AP, 5-31-03]
Nation-building? How about civilization-building?
On a more serious note, it does seem that our work really is cut out for us in Iraq.
For readers desiring a brief explainer of the forces that led to our pre-Iraq predicament, I recommend Bernard Lewis's The Crisis of Islam. Under two-hundred pages in length, Lewis's pithy tome provides a great deal of information and food for thought. And, on an entirely egocentric note, I was gratified to see my own analysis of the Crusades confirmed:
The same period saw a first awakening of interest among Muslims in the Crusades, which had aroused remarkably little concern at the time they occurred. The vast and rich Arabic historiography of the period duly records the Crusaders' arrival, their battles, and the states that they established but shows little or no awareness of the nature and purposes of their venture. The words Crusade and Crusader do not even occur in the Arabic historiography of the time, in which the Crusaders are referred to as the infidels, the Christians, or most frequently, the Franks, a general term for Catholic—and later also Protestant—European Christians, to distinguish them from their Orthodox and Eastern coreligionists. Awareness of the Crusades as a distinctive historical phenomenon dates from the nineteenth century, and the translation of European books on history. Since then, there is a new perception of the Crusades as an early prototype of the expansion of European imperialism into the Islamic world. A more accurate description would present them as a long-delayed, very limited, and finally ineffectual response to the jihad. The Crusades ended in failure and defeat, and were soon forgotten in the lands of Islam, but later European efforts to resist and reverse the Muslim advance into Christendom were more successful, and initiated what became a series of painful defeats on the frontiers of the Islamic world.
Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam 50-51 (2003).
And, while I am recommending books, for those interested in first-hand accounts of the Crusades, allow me to commend two to your attention: Odo of Dueil's chronicle of the Second Crusade and Joinville's account of the Seventh Crusade.
Wednesday, July 30, 2003
The Prison Rape Elimination Act Is a Poor Substitute for Real Reform:Professor Reynolds has compiled an informative set of links regarding prison rape. He also notes recent efforts to eliminate this despicable feature of incarceration. The good professor writes that:
. . . until recently prison rape was the subject of late-night comedy and jokes about dropping the soap. But that’s changing now. Congress has passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which—while not really living up to that rather grandiose name—does suggest that someone is beginning to take the problem seriously. Joanne Mariner has written a column explaining the act, and I agree with her that it’s really a fairly modest piece of legislation whose real significance is in its acknowledgment of the problem. But it’s hard to do anything about a problem until you acknowledge it.
Mariner relates that:
Notwithstanding its ambitious title—an improvement over its previous, dismayingly modest title of Prison Rape Reduction Act—the new law will not put an end to rape in prison. The main focus of the legislation is on studying prison rape, collecting statistics relating to the problem, and developing national standards for the prevention and punishment of prison rape. Its enforcement mechanisms are relatively weak. (Indeed, the fact that the bill passed Congress unanimously should be proof enough that it lacks vigorous enforcement mechanisms, a failing that the text of the bill confirms.)
To the extent that the problem is the lackadaisical attitude of correctional authorities themselves—and Mariner’s pithy article suggests that this at the very least an aggravating factor—this legislation may prove significant. However, I am less than optimistic for several interrelated reasons. Bear in mind at the outset that the problem is already a full-blown crisis. Richard D. Vetstein, Note, Rape and AIDS in Prison: On A Collision Course to a New Death Penalty, 30 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 863, 863 (1997) (“In United States’ correctional institutions, instances of sexual violence occur at a staggering rate. Some researchers estimate that of the forty-six million Americans who will enter the criminal justice system at some point in their lives, ten million will be raped while in custody.”)
The prison population is expanding. Much of the expanding prison class is made up of nonviolent criminals who will have to coexist with far less savory offenders. The profile of the average prison-rape victim isn’t really a matter of dispute: the weaker, less violent offenders generally serve as the prey of larger and more antisocial convicts. Thus, present demographic trends in incarceration are a formula for even greater tragedy. See Vetstein, supra, at 864 (“Statistics suggest that the rise in our nation's incarceration rate will increase violence inside prison walls . . . .”).
I have no idea how the legislation in question intends to reliably gather statistics. Mariner writes of the state of denial (or dissemblance) in which the prison establishment dwells on this issue. Given the legal standard for recovery against prison officials for turning a blind eye to prison rape, see Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834-847 (1994), it is hardly likely that prison authorities wish to be made aware of the full extent of the situation or to assist in the creation of the sort of documentary evidence that would prove detrimental (to the institution or its employees) at trial. Moreover, there are serious disincentives to self-reporting of sexual assaults that occur behind bars quite apart from the usual shame and self-loathing that frequently accompany an attack. See Vetstein, supra, at 870 (noting that “few victims of prison rape report these offenses in fear of retribution from their attackers”).
In addition, while the complacency (or complicity) of prison authorities is an aggravating factor, it is hardly the cause of most inmate-on-inmate sexual violence. As Justice Thomas has noted:
Prisons are necessarily dangerous places; they house society's most antisocial and violent people in close proximity with one another. Regrettably, "[s]ome level of brutality and sexual aggression among [prisoners] is inevitable no matter what the guards do . . . unless all prisoners are locked in their cells 24 hours a day and sedated."
Farmer, 511 U.S. at 858-59 (Thomas, J., concurring in the judgment) (quoting McGill v. Duckworth, 944 F.2d 344, 348 (7th Cir. 1991)).
Hence, in some measure, prison rape is a consequence of the embrace of penological alternatives to more extreme forms of punishment. Regarding the advent of America’s preference for incarceration, see Jon M. Sands, Book Review, Federal Lawyer, June 2003, at 50 (reviewing Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (Harv. Univ. Press, 2002)); see also The Honorable Stephen N. Limbaugh, Jr., The Case of Ex Parte Lange (Or How the Double Jeopardy Clause Lost Its “Life or Limb”), 36 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 53, 77 (1999). Ironically, incarceration—a departure from the European legal tradition of capital punishment—was originally conceived as a more humane manner of dealing with offenders. Now, given the rates of HIV in our nation’s penitentiaries, a term of imprisonment may well amount to a death sentence for many due to the prevalence of prison rape. See Vetstein, supra, at 865 (“The rate of HIV infection continues to rapidly increase among our country's incarcerated. . . . When AIDS and rape converge within our prisons, many inmates face an unintended form of capital punishment . . . .”).
Perhaps, I am unduly pessimistic, but I see little promise in the present legislation. Systemic reform of our prison system, and our approach to crime and punishment in general, is required.
Tuesday, July 29, 2003
Moral Dilemmas in Adjudication:Introduction
With reference to my prior posting on the Pryor nomination and the role of personal morality in judging, a reader writes in with the following observation:
. . . One may as well wonder whether Mr. Pryor has any genuine beliefs if he is willing to uphold law on abortion when he thinks it murder.
I have previously criticized this view, and I continue to think that it is deeply mistaken. The truth is that judges must routinely uphold laws that they find to be less than desirable. It is also not uncommon for judges to be faced with situations in which they must vindicate either (a) laws that they consider immoral, or (b) particular applications of the law that they regard as leading to an unjust result.
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines and Other Thought Experiments
The same observations could be made with reference to statutorily mandated minimum sentences. See United States v. Harris, 536 U.S. 545, 570 (2002) (Breyer, J., concurring) (“During the past two decades, as mandatory minimum sentencing statutes have proliferated in number and importance, judges, legislators, lawyers, and commentators have criticized those statutes, arguing that they negatively affect the fair administration of the criminal law, a matter of concern to judges and to legislators alike.”). Indeed, the Sentencing Guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences are sometimes thought to interact in a less than benign fashion. See Shepherd, 857 F. Supp. at 108 (“As indicated above, the interplay between the statutory minimums, the sentencing guidelines, and the actions of the law enforcement officer in this case lead to an entirely unjust result, and one that, in practical terms, leaves the determination of the defendant's sentence in the hands of police officers.”).
Nonetheless, there is no question that individual judges may not reject the results dictated by the Guidelines on the basis of their own personal sense of justice:
While we find much to agree with in the District Court's general sentiments regarding the inflexibility of the Guidelines, we cannot let stand the District Court's patent rejection of the appropriate Guideline provisions. "[T]he Guidelines, having the force and effect of law, are to be construed as if they were a statute." A district court has no authority to disregard or fail to apply a Guideline provision, even if it believes that they dictate an unjust result. As we stated in United States v. Koczuk, . . . "dissatisfaction with the available sentencing range or a preference for a different sentence than that authorized by the guidelines is not an appropriate basis for a sentence outside the applicable guideline range."
United States v. Reynolds, Nos. 01-1202L, 01-1253XAP, 2001 WL 1486198, at *3 (2d Cir. 2001) (unpublished opinion) (internal citations omitted); see also United States v. Blackwell, 127 F.3d 947, 957 n.9 (10th Cir. 1997) (“Although the district court now feels its original sentence of Mr. Blackwell was unjust, the district court's subjective opinion of justice and fair play do not allow it to evade the requirements of the sentencing guidelines.”).
So what is a district judge to do? Resign? Recuse himself (or herself) in cases that are morally objectionable?
But the problem is broader than even the Sentencing Guidelines suggest. Many, including sitting judges, find various substantive federal criminal laws to be morally offensive. Are serious libertarians precluded from being nominated to the federal bench due to their objections to the Drug War, for example?
Perhaps, one might distinguish such moral conflicts from the one supposedly faced by Pryor on the ground that abortion concerns a matter of life and death, whereas mere sentencing issues do not. However, I do not think that such a distinction is very tenable. Sentencing a defendant to incarceration is among the gravest functions of the judiciary. Our penal institutions are grim facilities in which the coarsest brutalities are a way of life. I take it that liberals and conservatives alike are ready to concede that the modern prison system is almost entirely bereft of rehabilitative value, that penitentiaries are little more than dehumanizing warehouses. For those who value life, the sentencing of even a single individual is a grave matter, one fraught with moral content.
Perhaps, one might concede that such a distinction is untenable and instead distinguish Pryor and his abortion views as a matter of scale. That is, one might contend that whatever decisions Pryor might make regarding abortion might affect millions, whereas sentencing issues are less far-reaching. However, as an empirical matter it is not clear to me that Pryor, as a circuit judge, will have the opportunity to have such far-reaching influence over abortion policy. All serious abortion issues ultimately lie with the Supreme Court. Moreover, the statistical likelihood of Pryor, as one circuit judge out of many, hearing such a case is attenuated. Whereas, it is far more likely that one (or more) of the innumerable criminal sentencing appeals will reach any Eleventh Circuit panel that he happens to sit on. In short, the likelihood that Pryor will even be in a position to be morally conflicted regarding abortion while on the bench is not overly great.
But, of course, one need not rest content with the Sentencing Guidelines as an example. If one requires an issue that more immediately involves issues of life and death, one might also consider issues like the death penalty. Under the present regime, the death penalty remains perfectly constitutional under the federal Constitution. Are those who are morally disquieted (especially those who are very disquieted) to be excluded from the federal bench?
The Stricter Scrutiny Counterargument
It is not my view that moral disagreement with law should preclude service as a judge. . . . I do think that a nominee who sincerely believes that abortion is murder is faced with a very difficult choice, as is a nominee who believes capital punishment is immoral. It is appropriate to subject such persons to more searching questioning because they come into the process announcing that they believe that there are compelling claims against enforcement of the law. But that is a very long ways from disqualification or presumptive disqualification.
This is a much more nuanced view than the aforementioned notion that moral conflicts pose a bar to confirmation. However, I nonetheless think that it entails a flawed conception of what the confirmation process ought to consist of. First, this sort of stricter scrutiny, when filtered through the politics of the present incendiary nomination and confirmation process is likely to be strict in theory and fatal in fact. Second, as a practical matter, every judge has such conflicts. No serious lawyer cannot point to a statute or bit of the common law that he (or she) does not find morally repugnant. Every judge faces moral conflicts on the bench, inasmuch as no single judge concurs with the entirety of the United States Code, the federal rules of evidence and procedure, or the present state of constitutional law. Only an amoral judge would be altogether free of such conflicts. I take it that no one is suggesting that an amoral judiciary is possible let alone desirable.
Will Baude has a nice post on this subject in which he concurs, in part, with my sentiments. He offers the following choice anecdote:
. . . [L]ast Spring, an interviewer asked me, "You write on your application that you want to be a Federal Judge, but as a Libertarian you must believe the drug war is immoral. So how would you be able to sentence non-violent drug-users to ten, fifteen-year minimum sentences?" I replied with an answer a lot like The Clerk's, about the interest of the rule of law and the fact that every judge had to put aside some of his beliefs. The interviewer shot back, "Well what if the penalty was death?" Immediately, I responded, "If the law imposed the death penalty for non-violent drug possession, it would be time to resign my judgeship."
No doubt, every individual (even Pryor) has such a moral breaking point, a point at which their own moral values compel dissociation from an enterprise that runs afoul of said judgments. However, I do not think this fact is particularly useful in the confirmation process precisely because of its universality. That is, this is a facet of character that all nominees possess. It is only, perhaps, an issue if and when one can establish that a given nominee's breaking point lies at an unacceptably low threshold (i.e., that a given nominee will generally allow his personal moral judgments to outweigh legal considerations).
Therefore, it is, perhaps, valid to inquire as to whether the empirical evidence demonstrates that Pryor has such a low threshold, though any past conduct qua evidence is of limited probative value given that he has never occupied the judicial role and been subject to its obgligations in his past legal decision-making. But it is not valid to assert that the mere existence of moral misgivings about the state of the law is itself suspicious or evidence of a character defect that disqualifies one from judicial service.
Moreover, I think it is telling that Baude's unidentified interviewer had to resort to a counterfactual and highly implausible hypothetical scenario in order to elicit Baude's concession that there is a point at which he would be forced to resign due to personal moral judgments. It is telling because of the interviewer's apparent need to manufacture circumstances other than those prevailing in the present legal order. That is, most nominees, being creatures of their time and place, are sufficiently at peace with the prevailing state of affairs that present circumstances do not compel them withdraw from governmental roles in order to preserve their own sense of moral integrity.
With the foregoing observations in mind, I get the sense that what is driving much of the suspicion regarding Pryor's nomination is the perception that his views on abortion are extremist in nature. While his rhetoric on the topic has, perhaps, been immoderate, his actual position is shared by a significant minority of our polity. Three members of the current Supreme Court would overrule Roe v. Wade today, if they could. And a majority of the Court seems to embrace the notion that some regulation of abortion rights is constitutionally valid, a position that also enjoys much support among the populace. Hence, it is difficult to view Pryor's personal moral position itself as cause for concern.
Finally, for those not yet sufficiently convinced, I would like to suggest two analogies for examining the issue of personal moral conflicts with public and professional duties:
First, consider, the recent military campaign in Iraq, which roused considerable moral objection from a sizable minority of the populace. No doubt, this moral disapproval was shared by some members of the armed services and members of the professional government bureaucracies (e.g., State Department and Department of Defense personnel). Were such dissenters all morally bound to refuse to obey orders or resign in the face of war? Are those who failed to do so morally suspect or worthy or condemnation?
Second, consider the moral worth of lawyers, a case that is particularly relevant to the topic at hand. Lawyers frequently represent clients and positions with which they disagree on ethical or moral grounds (e.g., Federal Public Defenders) Although this sometimes leads to accusations that attorneys are mere mercenaries or hired guns, zealous advocacy of a client is one of the touchstones of the Anglo-American legal system. Is the whole enterprise amoral or outright immoral? Are attorneys who subordinate their own sense of right and wrong, which is generally all attorneys at one time or another, amoral or immoral? Doesn't it say something about the nature and validity of the Pryor-is-morally-conflicted-and-therefore-suspect argument that all lawyers and judges are so conflicted, and that our very legal and governmental systems are built on foundations that contemplate and legitimate these very conflicts?
Many Thanks:Thanks to After Abortion, The Agitator, Bag and Baggage, The DC Law Experience, Legal Theory Blog (links here and here), Marstonalia, and Three Years of Hell (links here and here).
I make it a point to thank those who link this site, because I'm always flattered by the praise that a link represents, even when criticism is involved. I feel privileged that others find my musings here worth reading and commenting on. The same goes for e-mail correspondence. I genuinely appreciate the feedback. Thanks to all.
Monday, July 28, 2003
Six Feet Under & Abortion Revisited:Radley Balko, the proprietor of The Agitator, has an interesting guest comment over at National Review Online today about the moral disquiet evinced regarding abortion on HBO's hit show Six Feet Under. Although Mr. Balko and I do not share the same political orientation, his comment is very similar in its conclusions to something I wrote on the topic awhile back.
Sunday, July 27, 2003
The Travails of Being a "Lady Lawyer":People who use phrases like "lady lawyer" express contempt for their subject, unwittingly or not. Ms. Morality, who came to my attention by way of Denise Howell, effectively relates how she was treated as a "lady lawyer" by an unnamed big firm:
“Well, you did take time off to get married, and then you came back pregnant,” responded the managing partner when I asked why I hadn’t received any new assignments in eight months. I appreciated the frankness, but found it hard to believe that a large New York law firm could be so blatantly negative towards a pregnant associate. What of the firm’s promises that retention of women associates was a priority and indeed the subject of a new and improved “diversity committee”? This story has no happy ending. My experience as a second-year pregnant associate was akin to that of a leper in a public square – ignored, shunned, rejected.
It doesn't surprise me that a large firm might fail to treat a female associate like a human being. Treating any associate like a human being seems to pose an insurmountable challenge for the big firms. I worked for a large firm before attending law school, and notwithstanding the fact that many partners were excellent attorneys and fine human beings, the firm as a whole was completely tone deaf on matters of effective personnel management. The willful cluelessness of my law firm interviewers during my second year is what originally got me interested in applying for a federal clerkship; I figured that any fate was preferable to being a first-year associate—no matter what the pay differential might be.
Side Note to Law Firms:
Ms. Morality, I think, nicely sums up to impossible position that women occupy in the professional workforce. I can understand why male co-workers might grimace at any perceived "special treatment" afforded to female attorneys. And, as a practical matter, it does seem improbable that many women can carry a full associate workload and simultaneously successfully carry their responsibilities as new mothers. (Law firms are certainly skeptical in this regard. Several female law students related to me that their marital status and plans to have children were frequent topics of interest during interviews.) But presumably these same professional males, often increasingly married to professional women, want to enjoy the benefits of family life without necessarily consigning their wives to involuntary domesticity too.
I do not know how to reconcile the competing tensions involved here. But a nice start might be to (a) lower the oppressive billable hours requirements that associates are currently subject to, and (b) lower the ridiculously inflated starting salaries that, in part, are used to justify the oppressive hours imposed on new attorneys. If more reasonable hours and salaries were part of the bargain for all associates, then it would not be nearly as difficult to be flexible with new mothers.
Thanks:Thanks to Matt Conigliaro and James Dedman for adding me to their blogrolls. Dedman is a Baylor University School of Law graduate; Conigliaro is a Florida appellate attorney whose blawg focuses on Florida law and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
I have begun to notice that I am more and more frequently being included on very short lists of blawgs, listed with blawgs that inspired me to set up my own shingle on the Internet. I'm not sure that I have done anything to deserve such esteem, but whatever it is that I have done, I will endeavor to keep doing it.
Thanks also to Collabowrite for linking to my previous commentary on the ethical issues of blawgging and blogging by federal law clerks.
Friday, July 25, 2003
Principles, Religious and Otherwise, In the Confirmation Process and On the Bench:Some consider the controversy over Bill Pryor’s nomination to the federal bench to be a consequence of anti-religious bigotry. Or, at the very least, some maintain that the views of Pryor’s critics preclude the confirmation of sincere conservative Christians, Catholics in particular. Professor Adler and Ken Lammers, among others, have espoused this latter view.
Professor Marston employs remarks made Justice Scalia in an attempt to discredit the notion that there is anything anti-Catholic about the opposition to Pryor’s nomination:
Is Scalia "anti-catholic"? In a speech at Georgetown last year that I attended, Justice Scalia said that if he thought that it was against his Catholic beliefs to support the death penalty, then the only honorable course would be to resign from the bench. This statement elicited a round of criticism of Scalia's understanding of Catholicism. This is predictable given the contentiousness of the issue and the mutually incompatible stances that self-professed Catholics take on the question of capital punishment.
I do not think that this characterization does Scalia’s position any justice, however. Scalia wrote a piece in First Things back in May of 2002 that clarified when he thought a Catholic who accepted the Church’s supposed anti-death penalty teaching ought to resign:
I pause here to emphasize the point that in my view the choice for the judge who believes the death penalty to be immoral is resignation, rather than simply ignoring duly enacted, constitutional laws and sabotaging death penalty cases. He has, after all, taken an oath to apply the laws and has been given no power to supplant them with rules of his own. Of course if he feels strongly enough he can go beyond mere resignation and lead a political campaign to abolish the death penalty—and if that fails, lead a revolution. But rewrite the laws he cannot do. This dilemma, of course, need not be confronted by a proponent of the “living Constitution,” who believes that it means what it ought to mean. If the death penalty is (in his view) immoral, then it is (hey, presto!) automatically unconstitutional, and he can continue to sit while nullifying a sanction that has been imposed, with no suggestion of its unconstitutionality, since the beginning of the Republic. (You can see why the “living Constitution” has such attraction for us judges.)
Antonin Scalia, God’s Justice and Ours, First Things, May 2002, at 17-21.
In other words, Scalia does not think that sincere practicing Catholics are unfit for the bench. He merely thinks that such Catholics cannot let their private moral views serve as a substitute for the Constitution. Judges may not abrogate laws on the basis of their religious beliefs; they must subordinate their beliefs to the law. Those who cannot bring themselves to abide by this principle must resign. The nub of Scalia’s argument appears to be the rather non-controversial observation that this is a nation of laws and not of men.
Professor Marston believes that Pryor is not capable of subordinating his personal beliefs while on the bench, and that it is this view among Democrats that has led them to oppose Pryor’s nomination:
If you believe that abortion is murder, that there is a God who will punish murderers, that U.S. law permits abortion, that U.S. law binds judges, that judges must permit abortion in order to "follow the law," and thus that judges are morally co-responsible for abortion, then you should not sit on the federal bench. If Pryor really wants to be a judge, one of those things has to give. It is entirely appropriate for Democrats to believe that one of them will give—namely, that Pryor's professed ability to "follow the law" will prove to have been an overstatement. The interesting thing is that the Democratic position actually takes Pryor’s religious commitments seriously: if Pryor really holds the beliefs on abortion that he says he holds, and if he is really a pious, anti-abortion Catholic, then he would have to be sophistic, hair-splitting, or lack integrity in order to serve on the federal bench.As with Scalia’s views, I am not certain that Professor Marston has characterized Pryor’s opinions on this matter in the most accurate fashion. Whatever the case may be, I am flummoxed by the notion that Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are particularly concerned with the rule of law. As related by Timothy Sandefur:
When President Carter appointed Judge Pregerson to the bench, [he] was asked whether he would follow his conscience or the law, if the two came into conflict. He replied, “I would follow my conscience.” (See John Johnson, Judge Harry Pregerson, Choosing between Law And His Conscience, Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1992 at B5.) Sure enough, in 1992, when California tried to execute Robert Alton Harris, Pregerson issued a stay of execution—the fourth such stay entered that night. The Supreme Court finally had enough of Pregerson, and specifically ordered that “no further stays of Robert Alton Harris’ execution shall be entered by the federal courts except upon order of this Court.” Vasquez v. Harris, 503 U.S. 1000 (1992). This was quite unprecedented. (See further Charles Fried, Impudence, 1992 Sup. Ct. Rev. 155, 188-92).
Not only was Pregerson confirmed, Democrats seem not to have questioned whether he should remain on the bench in the wake of the Harris matter. And this was hardly the last act of judicial rebellion by Judge Pregerson in the name of conscience.
So my question is this: if Democrats are, in fact, acting out of principle in the manner suggested by Professor Marston, why is it that their “principle” only seems to compel them shoot down judicial nominees put forward by the other party? From my vantage point this looks more like politics than principle.
Professor Marston writes to clarify his views on the matter, and offers this bit:
The choice for the judicial role (and against what is perceived to be the moral evil) is a choice that is bound to be psychologically burdensome, however, and it is one that a devout person might feel some regret over at some point in his or her career. And I think that we are justified in questioning the moral integrity of someone who is willing to subordinate (avowedly) deeply held religious beliefs to some concept of the judicial role for the purposes of maintaining this particular secular government. This world—and its courts and judges—will pass away, but you've got to live with God for eternity.
Although I am not inclined to generally accept the criticism that opposition to Pryor amounts to opposition to any sincere Catholic, I think that Professor Marston's clarification verges on such a position, because Marston's view transforms the religious beliefs of judicial nominees into a test of their integrity—where willingness to subordinate their own private beliefs to the rule of law is viewed as a vice. In practice, I think that Marston's thesis is utterly unworkable. By his standards, no one who possesses a strong moral conviction contra the death penalty is fit to serve on the bench given the present state of the law. Notwithstanding my many disagreements with the jurisprudence of erstwhile Justice Brennan, I thought he was eminently qualified for the bench.
I think the willingness to follow the law in the face of one's own moral misgivings is a virtue, not a vice. It does not signal a lack of integrity, so much as intellectual and moral modesty. These forms of modesty are not just virtues really, but rather prerequisites. They are, in some measure, what stands between us and government by Platonic guardians.
Mike at Begging to Differ is not having any of this business, insisting that there are very good reasons for opposing the Pryor nomination on the merits. Meanwhile, Ken Lammers is standing by his judgment that practicing Catholics need not apply where federal judgeships are concerned.
Thursday, July 24, 2003
The Nature and Origin of Ethics:Matt Evans writes:
In his column urging his fellow atheists to unite under the more attrative name of Brights, Richard Dawkins offered an example of how a bright might explain his world view to the uninitiated:A bright is a person whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic world view.
This sounds an awful lot like the position of adherents of natural law with reference to legal positivism.
Although it is a law school verity, I am somewhat reluctant to unqualifiedly embrace the premise that an ought can never be derived from an is. Much of Burke’s horror at the French Revolution was premised on its unthinking destruction of venerable practices and institutions. See generally Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke did not abjure reform, but thought that it ought to be enacted cautiously, deliberately, with due respect for tradition. Although this is not quite the assertion of an ought from an is, the notion that longstanding sociopolitical arrangements recommend themselves somewhat by sheer virtue of their longevity comes close to the sentiment. Burke’s circumspect approach to change suggests that the present order at least deserves the benefit of a doubt and amounts to a presumption that what is says something about what ought to be.
Of course, there are some very real limits to such a presumption. The institution of slavery enjoyed a substantial historical pedigree. Yet few today would argue that its lengthy existence is an argument in its favor.
I take it that Evans is contending that (a) arguments contra genocide, like arguments against slavery, must ultimately rest on some appeal to truths that exist separate and apart from ourselves, something apart from man-made enactments; and (b) positivistic systems of right and wrong are not ethics in some sense. Both contentions leave me a bit perplexed. What of utilitarianism? See John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1863). Is not utilitarianism the essence of Martin Niemoeller’s oft-quoted rationale for resisting the Nazis?
In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations 684 (John Bartlett & Justin Kaplan eds., Little, Brown & Co., 16th ed. 1992). What is it about such utilitarian considerations that Evans believes disqualifies them from constituting a moral philosophy?
Timothy Sandefur, much at variance from my utilitarian approach, argues that, “an ethics of reason is, indeed, possible.” I find the argument that Sandefur cites for this proposition to be somewhat inscrutable, however. Consider, for example, this bit from Ayn Rand:
My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these. To live, man must hold three things as the ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem.
If you can make much of this quote or the essay on objectivist ethics that follows, then you are a better man than I. Sandefur himself is more clear, but, in the end, Sandefur’s disquisition on reason qua ethics sounds much like Rene Descartes’s view that mathematical truths are innate to mankind and need only be unlocked from the prison of the human mind. Sandefur writes:
Human freedom can indeed be deduced from human thought; it is a self-evident truth. All human beings are equally human beings; they all possess the quality (rationality) which makes them human. That quality is incompatible with coercion, and, more importantly, that equality means that no human being is naturally entitled to dominate over other human beings. At the very least, one who claims that right must prove his assertion that he has that right. . . .
Like all versions of natural law, I find this one unsatisfying for the reason specified by Ely. See John Hart Ely, Democracy and Distrust: A Theory of Judicial Review 50 (1980) (“The idea is a discredited one . . . and for a good reason. ‘[A]ll theories of natural law have a singular vagueness which is both an advantage and disadvantage in the application’ . . . The advantage . . . is that you can invoke natural law to support anything . . . [t]he disadvantage is that everybody understands that.”).
Will Baude on the other hand views all moral claims as relative or arbitrary:
When I say "such and such is (morally) wrong," I don't mean to be attributing an empirical quality to it, like when I say "such and such is French." I also don't mean to be defining such and such or wrongness, as when I say "a bachelor is an unmarried man." Because of this, moral statements occupy an unusual realm. Sometimes, when people say "Such and such is wrong," they mean "such and such is contrary to the moral authority to which I subscribe." This might translate as "such and such is against the teachings of the bible as I understand them," or "such and such is against the teachings of John Stuart Mill as I understand them," or "such and such is against the teachings of my great aunt Kelly, as I understand them." Very well. But I don't particularly mean any of those things when I use moral phrases. There's nothing wrong with importing arbitrary premises into ones ethics, but one should be clear that that's what one's doing.
I also find Baude’s position to be untenable. Baude would have us believe that ethics, or morality, is a matter of mere opinion. Baude says tomāto; Sandefur says tomâto.
Professor Leiter once used ice cream as a vehicle for explaining this theory during my law school days. According to Baude's theory, moral propositions are like opinions on ice cream. Baude likes vanilla. Sandefur likes chocolate. Each marshals arguments for why one is better than the other. Baude cites the crispness, the refreshing quality of vanilla; Sandefur alludes to the comparative richness and creaminess of chocolate. Even if one structures these contentions like rational arguments, they are not. They are irrefutable and irrational feelings. Moral inclinations, like preferences in ice cream flavors, are matters of taste.
This argument is not altogether without appeal. However, it is has its limits. Let’s take a more extreme example. Let us suppose that Baude asserts the virtues of vanilla, Sandefur sings the praises of chocolate, and I trumpet the taste of feces. No, you didn’t read that wrong. Suppose solely for purposes of this very hypothetical scenario that yours truly is a coprophiliac. Is my preference equal to those of Baude and Sandefur? The mind bridles at such an assertion does it not? Can we truly say that there is no real difference between these three assertions? Doesn’t such a highly counterintuitive proposition require some sort of overriding rationale? That is, when a contention runs afoul of our instincts, much as when a reform runs counter to received custom, isn’t the burden of explanation that much heavier? I do not think that Baude has carried this burden.
Professor Solum has weighed in with one of his characteristically lengthy and thoughtful posts. In particular, Solum notes the rather limited nature of Hume's original distinction between is and ought, and further notes that "Hume's is/ought argument is no longer taken as a settled point in metaethics."
Professor Solum continues to speak ex cathedra on this issue. He has two more masterful posts here and here. The second of these posts contains numerous links to the observations of others. In addition, Solum helpfully points out a symposium on Hume and relays the thoughts of John Bogart on Hume as well. In yet another, Professor Solum directs readers to Brian Weatherson's remarks. In short, Legal Theory Blog is the place for one-stop reading on metaethics.I must confess that, having read the thoughts of numerous others on this topic, I feel compelled to make a tactical withdrawal from this debate. As the great moral philosopher Harry Callahan once observed, "A man has got to know his limitations." And it's clear that I am a bit out of my depth, so I am just going to wade back into the shallow end of the intellectual pool. The debate is interesting (and terribly important), however. I wish that there was a primer on this field of inquiry.
Wednesday, July 23, 2003
Modified Blogroll:Well, I have been around long enough now to have compiled a rather unwieldy blogroll. Accordingly, I have modified the layout of my permalinks in an attempt to add some semblence of order. I have subdivided the blogroll into multiple categories:
(1) The Morning Papers: These are the blawgs that I read at the first available opportunity each day. They unfailingly keep me informed and entertained.
(2) Other Clerks: Self-explanatory.
(3) Notable Blawgs: These sites are all excellent and are frequently consulted by myself and others. The only thing that really separates these from the first category is the order in which I peruse them.
(4) Recent Additions: These are blogs that have recently come to my attention through their blogrolling of The Curmudgeonly Clerk. I'm not yet familiar enough with these to figure out where they belong yet, if indeed they belong in any of the foregoing categories.
(5) In Memoriam: This category is reserved for fallen comrades. May they rest in peace.
I'm not sure that I am completely satisfied with this arrangement. As with everything on this site, it is subject to further modification at the whim and caprice of yours truly.
Tuesday, July 22, 2003
Sin City:When I was in Vegas, I saw Dennis Miller and these guys. But I could have been doing this instead:
George Evanthes has never been hunting.
(Link via The LitiGator.)
And the story is not any more edifying in full. Read it for yourself. Ought there to be a law that forbids such enterprises? Presumably, as a commercial endeavor, it falls well outside of any potential protection afforded by Lawrence. But can my sheer moral distaste for this consensual business venture form a valid basis for prohibiting it?
Now that's not to say I don't periodically find the "The Jerry Springer Show" intellectually stimulating. Indeed, how many times have I been walking through the parking lot of a laundromat and seen two obese women in halter tops slap fighting and thought, Wow . . . I wonder what the back story is on that?
(Link via Pejmanesque.)
A regular reader who helps keep me honest (and accurate) helpfully informs me that the report discussed above about hunting vixen may be a hoax:
Now, a man has stepped forward to say the story was a hoax designed to get free advertising to sell the videos.
So, it's not quite the story that I thought it was, yet it remains completely reprehensible.
Many Thanks:Thanks to Larval Lawyer for linking to The Curmudgeonly Clerk. Larval Lawyer is keeping an amusing running log of his daily caffeine intake and contact with live human beings as he prepares for the bar exam.
Thanks also to the following folks who blogrolled my humble blawg: Le-Gal, Peccavi, and Three Years of Hell to Become the Devil. Three Years has actually syndicated my blog entries on his site. A link to one of my blog entries also appeared on Juriblog due to its syndication of Net.Law.Blog's posts.
At the rate that I am linking/being linked these days, I am going to have to devise some appropriate manner of organizing my blogroll. Any suggestions?
The Right to Keep and Bare In a recent post, Professor Barnett asks, "What are reasonable regulations of gins?", and my instinctive response was: well, whatever keeps liquor stores well-stocked with Bombay Sapphire. Upon reading the fine print, however, it appears that Barnett has just made a typo and is instead writing about some obscure constitutional provision. There is no indication when the good professor will move on to more serious issues, like the role of alcohol in good governance. But for those who insist on reading about this Second Amendment business, you may as well check out Mr. B's interesting take on the matter as well.
|Rank||Law School||% Clerks||Raw #|
|18*||Washington & Lee||27.0%||37|
It is interesting to see the wide variation in the percentage of law students who decide to clerk after graduation among the top tier law schools. The fact that nearly half of Yale's (relatively small) class clerks is nigh astounding! I am also surprised that Northwestern and UCLA have such a small comparative percentage of clerks. One wonders what accounts for such phenomena. Doubtless, there are inumerable variables.
That chart also excludes significant data. For example, the data from the BCG Attorney Search Guide regarding percentages of students who clerk after graduation does not distinguish between federal and state clerkships; nor does it differentiate between trial court and appellate clerkships. Given that federal clerkships are (rightly or wrongly) perceived as more prestigious, one wonders what the percentages woud look like if this data were available. The same could be said regarding federal appellate clerkships, which are generally regarded as more prestigious than clerkships in the district courts. One also wonders what percentage of the total judicial clerkships available in the United States are filled by students from the "Top 20," and where the remainder of judicial clerks come from.
I'm also somewhat amazed that of the raw number that clerked from my alma mater after graduation, I know only a handful by name. I guess that I was even more antisocial than I previously reckoned.
If possible, could you stop making paragraph long text links? The reason has to do with the way the blind listen to web pages.
Our text-to-speech readers speak the entire text of a link when we encounter it. We go through a page with a down arrow key. Your multiple line link/paragraphs result in our hearing the word "link" followed by the entire text of the paragraph each time we down arrow through any line of the paragraph.
The material is excellent and fun to read, but not if you have to put up with this distortion caused by the speech software.
I wonder if corporate or government sites have linking guidelines in order to render content intelligible/readable via text-to-speech readers. Anyone know if there is any ADA-related law on this front? For that matter, is there a disability law blawg?
. . . When Richard Posner (my former boss, though not in a clerk capacity) spoke on a panel here on the ethics of clerkships, he said he was astonished to learn all the rules they're supposedly required to obey. He asks them not to speak about pending matters and leaves it at that—partially because he's concerned with the spread of ideas, but also because he suspects they won't obey the rules otherwise.
It now appears that those who do not wish to obey the rules (i.e., the Code of Conduct For Judicial Employees) will not lack the means of evading them. Via Invisiblog, those who wish to blog completely anonymously may do so unhindered. The product's website states that:
invisiblog.com lets you publish a weblog using GPG and the Mixmaster anonymous remailer network. You don't ever have to reveal your identity - not even to us. You don't have to trust us, because we'll never know who you are.
So the judiciary and the federal government can impose blogging bans, but it does not appear that they will be able to enforce them. My own take is that federal employees generally ought to comply with whatever rules the government lays down in this area. But, like Judge Posner, I cannot help but think that others will feel differently, particularly given the fact that almost no one considers this a matter of ethics, notwithstanding the phraseology of the Code.
Hooker attempted to file the suit last week, charging the mayor had violated state and federal provisions against providing food and drink to prospective voters. Hooker’s suit attempts to address what he says is an election process that “is corrupt at the core and deprives voters of a ‘free and equal’ . . . election.”
Although doling out foodstuffs may be illegal, and doing so in sufficient quantities might even manage to corrupt the electoral process at the margins, I find it hard to get very worked up about such accusations. The Republic has a venerable tradition of such campaigning. To wit:
When [George Washington] ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses from Fairfax County in 1757, he provided his friends with the 'customary means of winning votes'; namely, 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, and 2 gallons of cider royal. Even in those days this was considered a large campaign expenditure, because there were only 391 voters in his district, for an average outlay of more than a quart and half per person.
George Thayer, Who Shakes the Money Tree? American Campaign Financing Practices From 1789 to the Present 25 (Simon & Schuster, 1973).
And despite this incredible largesse, Washington's only regret was that he had not distributed even more aqua vitae! Richard Brookhiser puts Washington's tactics in context:
In those days, in elections in colonial Virginia, the voters expected to be treated to drinks by the candidate. This was technically illegal, but it was universal. Everyone did it; voters expected their drinks on Election Day because it was like a holiday. Everyone would go to the polling place. It was a daylong affair. You would cast your vote in public, and you expected your drink. Washington could not be at the hostings on the day of his election but he had a friend who was, in effect, his campaign manager who was there. We have their correspondence, so we know what drinks Washington bought for the voters in his first election. He bought them twenty-eight gallons of rum, fifty gallons of rum punch, thirty-four gallons of wine, forty-six gallons of beer, two gallons of cider. This adds up to 160 gallons of liquor. There were 397 voters. You do the math. That is a little less than two quarts per voter. Washington won. His only complaint to his campaign manager was that he had not spent enough.
And this practice did not pass with the father of our country:
During the presidential campaign of 1840, William Henry Harrison's campaign spin doctors offered free cider to supporters of the Harrison-Tyler ticket. The "free-cider" strategy proved so successful during campaigning that the tactic was employed again at the polls on election day for all that voted for Harrison. It became known as the "cider campaign" and Harrison won the election by a landslide.
Now I ask you, which is the better system: the present one, in which members of the electorate may purchase seats at $x,xxx.xx per plate dinners for the privilege of hearing candidates mouth pablum and twaddle; or the "corruption" of yesteryear, in which candidates were at least gracious enough to provide we, the people, with a refreshing beverage in recompense for tolerating their prattle? Let me get this straight. It's perfectly ethical, legal, and seemly for candidates to promise voters that, once ensconced in office, they will redistribute as much of my money to their voters as they can get their hands on, but if they dare provide some victuals and a lager on the campaign trail a line has been crossed? Aristotle noted the danger of the first possibility, but no where suggested in his writings that one of the defects of democracy was the potential for vote-buying via beer.
And let's face it, if the current primary season is any indication, we are going to need a lot of beer or beer-like beverages. John Adams apparently preferred cider, writing in his diary that he began each day by drinking a tankard of it to put his stomach at ease and alleviate gas. I concur with the estimable Mr. Adams; candidates may feel free to buy me my favorite cider at will. It'll be our little secret.
Timothy Sandefur has added a wonderful colonial vignette about James Madison and his unfortunate decision to abandon tradition on the campaign trail.
Professor Solum is aghast. But I am confident that this initial impression is nothing that a cider cannot remedy.
 A blogger over at The Academy informs the blogosphere that I am mistaken regarding the number of federal law clerk blawgers. Apparently, “Mindse” and one other person at that group blog are finishing up federal clerkships just now.
Mindse makes some very interesting observations. I have made much of the virtue of anonymity for law clerk blawgers. Mindse is less optimistic on this score:
I realized early on that anonymity is a crock, and code names do not work. Smarties will know where you work and who you're talking about right away. This finally dawned on me during one of my law firm interviews. At the end, the interviewer leaned in confidentially and said, "I love your Blog." This stunned me. But, she put two and two together. It's a small legal world, folks.I have to admit that I find that ever so unsettling.
Mindse also offers the following thought:
. . . I think it's very challenging to be an ethically secure federal judicial law clerk blogger. I think discussing matters that can reflect on your employment is no good. I think discussing the size of my ass, my saucy convertible, and (to a certain degree) Supreme Court cases is okay. To answer the most important question: do I think it's okay for people to know that I think Pat Robertson is an a-hole? As long as he's not a party to a matter on my desk, Yes.
I am not so sure. First, might it be possible to compromise the integrity of the judiciary or sully the reputation of the third branch of government in blogging about purely personal matters? Would this be too much? Second, can clerks indiscriminately blog on political issues? While Canon 4A allows for writing on legal matters, Canon 5A counsels that judicial employees “should not make speeches for or publicly endorse or oppose a partisan political organization or candidate,” for example. Thus, there seems to be some limitation on the political remarks of law clerk bloggers. It’s just a matter of determining the proper scope of that limitation.
 Speaking of law clerk blawggers, another informs me via e-mail that he blogs anonymously—completely anonymously. That is, this particular clerk runs a blawg but does not acknowledge his status as a judicial employee at all. This particular clerk retroactively sought his judge’s permission to blawg after Canon 4A came to his attention, and the judge signed off on the idea.
A second clerk informs me that she maintains a personal weblog on an anonymous basis, one that is entirely devoid of legal commentary. This latter blogger also owns/moderates a fan-type bulletin board as well.
 Others clerks (and judges) are apparently more risk averse. “CY”, a fellow Texan, at Cyoes reveals that at least one law clerk has been discouraged from setting up a blog due to the potential consequences.
Another clerk wrote in, saying that he once ran an anonymous blog during his clerkship on the assumption that it was perfectly kosher to do so, but later abandoned the project. He does not specify the reason for discontinuing the blog. But he indicates that his judge would have likely not approved such an endeavor:
. . . I generally agree with . . . your assumption that few judges would allow their clerks to have blogs if (a) they were asked and (b) they understood what their clerk was talking about. I expect that the response from my own judge, who is [older], would be lack of comprehension and deep suspicion.
 Aside from Mindse, see above, many (including me) have made much of the virtues of anonymity. One non-clerk e-mailer goes so far as to assert that:
Blogging truly anonymously should steer you clear of any rule problems. After all, the clerk is not the one doing the writing or speaking in that instance—the rule simply does not apply.
Howard Bashman has rejected this position, and I agree with this assessment.
As a practical matter, one might generally eliminate any possibility of detection by blogging under a cloak of total anonymity. In addition, one also likely precludes damaging the dignity of the court by refraining from self-identification. However, the Canons appear to apply to the conduct of judicial employees whether or not they disclose their status. By my e-mailer’s reasoning, it would be perfectly acceptable to “public[ly] comment on the merits of a pending or impending action” so long as it was done without attribution, notwithstanding Canon 3D. That can’t be right.
 Finally, one e-mailer writes in to contest the notion that there is anything impenetrable or mysterious about the “appearance of impropriety” standard articulated in Canon 2:
The "appearance of impropriety" and the "calling into question the integrity of the judiciary" prohibitions are judged under a reasonable-man standard. Thus, the fact that some unreasonably believe that a lawyer who is unabashedly proud of his Southern ancestors is undignified, is irrelevant.
In obvious cases this may be helpful. But in general, I think it is somewhat question-begging to define the “appearance of impropriety” with reference to reasonableness, particularly with regard to political and legal issues—about which reasonable people sometimes heatedly disagree. Consider matters of race or sexuality and their intersection(s) with the law, for example. Debate concerning these issues is often extremely contentious, and people frequently deny that their opponents are sane let alone reasonable. Indeed, such debates often devolve into assessments of the moral shortcomings of one’s adversaries. So what does a reasonable-man standard of ethics mean when reasonableness itself is often a matter of debate?
One of the great advantages of electronic communication is its sheer speed, the ability to span great distances in almost no time and at little cost. Notwithstanding these virtues, sometimes e-mail just increases the speed at which we miscommunicate. My correspondent who wrote in regarding the "appearance of impropriety" and other vague ethical standards has written in once again to let me know that just such a misunderstanding is afoot:
My previous e-mail must have been ambigious because I was not "contest[ing] the notion that there is anything impenetrable or mysterious about the “appearance of impropriety” standard articulated in Canon 2. I was merely pointing out that the standard applied by Committee is a reasonable-man standard and thus the fact that some believe that blawging creates an appearance of impropriety is not controlling.
But I do agree that reference to reasonableness doesn't really help much, for the reasons you noted. However, that IS the standard, so in response to your question: "So what does a reasonable-man standard of ethics mean when reasonableness itself is often a matter of debate?" It means whatever the Committee "feels" it means if you seek an advisory opinion, although that opinion can be disregarded by a judge, and then it means whatever a clerk or judge believes it means. And reasonable men may disagree with either assessment, as the numerous exchanges you highlight demonstrate. So in the final analysis, other than the outright prohibitions established by the Code (maintaining confidentiality, prohibittng comments on pending cases), the Code leaves it is up to the individual blawger (in consultation with his judge) to determine whether he believes his conduct is unreasonable.
Well, that sounds like a reasonable reading to me.
Will Baude relates some very interesting comments made by Judge Posner:
I don't have much to add to the analysis, except to note that different standards satisfy different folks. When Richard Posner (my former boss, though not in a clerk capacity) spoke on a panel here on the ethics of clerkships, he said he was astonished to learn all the rules they're supposedly required to obey. He asks them not to speak about pending matters and leaves it at that—partially because he's concerned with the spread of ideas, but also because he suspects they won't obey the rules otherwise.
I'm not sure whether that reflects poorly on clerks, or the rules, or both. Having recently re-read the Canons, I am not sure what to make of them. I understand the concerns that underlie them. But I am unconvinced that the strictures of Canon 4A are necessary. It seems that Judge Posner is likewise unconvinced. One wonders how many members of the federal judiciary have even read the Code of Conduct For Judicial Employees, and what their opinions would be if they did so. At present, it appears that much more depends upon the individual hiring judge than the provisions of the Code.
And it goes without saying that the increased traffic is partly (and, perhaps, largely) attributable to postive word-of-mouth from distinguished bloggers. Many thanks to the folks who have been linking to me lately: Blawg.Org, Corante On Blogging, How Appealing, Legal Theory Blog, Marstonalia, Memeufacture, and Southern Appeal.
And a special thanks to Mellow-Drama for linking and blogrolling The Curmudgeonly Clerk with the observation that my site is “a good read even despite the fact that he's from Texas.” Yes, it's a backhanded compliment, but I'll take 'em any way I can get 'em. (But what's wrong with the Lone Star State?)
I would also like to thank Publius Minor for privileging my site with a permalink on its blogroll.
In addition to addressing the issue in general terms, I focused on the propriety of blogging by federal law clerks. Given feedback that I have received via e-mail and through responses on other sites, I thought the issue was worth returning to with some additional commentary.
The Rules As a Descriptive Matter
Remarks elsewhere indicate that others have interpreted a post authored by Howard Bashman to be in conflict with my observations. However, having conferred with Mr. Bashman, I believe that he and I are actually in almost total agreement. I think that the confusion arose as a result of my not being as clear as I had hoped in my initial post.
Assuming that the Canon’s grant of permission to “write” extends to virtual writing (i.e., blogging), my reading of Canon 4A of the Code of Conduct For Judicial Employees leads me to believe that blogging by federal law clerks is “ethical” (i.e., permissible) so long as it does not:
(1) “detract from the dignity of the court”;
(2) “interfere with the performance of official duties”;
(3) “adversely reflect on the operation and dignity of the court”; or
(4) violate any of the other provisions of the Code, with likely provisions being Canon 1 (requiring clerks to safeguard “the integrity and independence of the Judiciary”), Canon 2 (admonishing clerks to avoid the appearance of impropriety, lending “the prestige of the office to advance . . . private interests,” and employing “public office for private gain”), Canon 3D (forbidding public comment on pending and impending actions and disclosure of confidential information obtained via one’s official duties), and Canon 5A (regarding “partisan political activity”).
In addition, if one’s blogging “concern[s] the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice, the judicial employee should first consult with the appointing authority to determine whether the proposed activities are consistent with the foregoing standards and other provisions of this code.” In other words, if clerks blog about the law, they must first consult their employer (i.e., the judge for which they work) and obtain permission.
The Rules in Practice
Howard Bashman thinks that the aforesaid preapproval requirement amounts to a prohibition of law clerk blogging as a practical matter inasmuch as most judges are unlikely to grant their clerks carte blanche to hold forth online. That may well be true. Sitemeter informs me that many of the folks viewing my page in the last day or so were doing so via uscourts.gov internet addresses. I would be interested in hearing from any clerks and/or judges as to whether this is true in their particular case. I can be e-mailed here. Your anonymity is assured.
Of course, even if Bashman is mistaken, there are other potential obstacles to blogging. For starters, my assumption that the “write” language of Canon 4A is equally applicable to online writing is possibly mistaken. Denise Howell apparently shares my view that there is no principled basis for distinguishing between traditional and internet mediums. However, at least one e-mailer seems to think that there is at least a colorable basis for distinguishing the two, and suggests that the matter be broached by requesting an advisory opinion from the Committee on Codes of Conduct.
Finally, there is the matter of the other admonitions in Canon 4A and the additional prohibitions in the other Canons. Some, like the guidance to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, are so nebulous as to be mere Rorschach blots. They are akin to Caesar’s desire that his wife not “‘be so much as suspected.’” 2 PLUTARCH’S LIVES 1368 (Thomas North trans. 1941). How does one interpret them, let alone enforce them? Is Southern Appeal’s unabashed admiration for the Old South, as some see it, an affront to the dignity of the court for which that blogger works? Some would undoubtedly regard it as such.
Denise Howell suggests that such provisions be ignored. Howard Bashman advocates that the rules are the rules, and that clerks of all people ought to abide by them. I agree with both sentiments. To the extent that we know what the rules are, I am generally for obeying them. But, in part, I have no idea what the rules are, and neither does anyone else. Almost no case law touches upon the Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees. It is my sense that equivalent provisions regarding impropriety in lawyer codes are invoked either in easy cases (i.e., when the circumstances are obviously egregious) or as a supplement to more specific code violations.
I also highly doubt that the Committee on Codes of Conduct could do much to clarify such vague prohibitions. However, a fellow law clerk blogger points out a prior bit of potentially helpful general guidance offered by the Committee:
I would like to point out this odd selection from the Compendium of Selected Opinions of the Judicial Conference Committee on Codes of Conduct (Part Four of the Compendium contains selections relevant to law clerks culled from the first three parts of the Compendium, which in turn summarize principles derived from the Committee's Advisory Opinions; the selections were excerpted by the Hon. David M. Ebel, a Tenth Circuit judge and member of the committee). Section 4.3(h) (sorry, link unavailable) reads:(h) A law clerk may establish an online discussion forum on legal issues, for compensation and outside of working hours, but should not be identified as a law clerk and should not provide information about cases pending or likely to arise before the court[.]
Is a blog an "online discussion forum"? Does the rule have any applicability if the clerk is not compensated? Is there some value in anonymity after all? Oddly, I can't find the actual published advisory opinion from which this principle is derived (maybe it's an unpublished opinion?), which would shed at least a little more light on this subject. Any thoughts?
The non-profit nature of the ruling no doubt stems from Canon 2. Elimination of any monetary profit in conjunction with anonymity, which ensures no possibility of personal gain, appears to resolve the concern that Judge Ebel sought to address. Absent these concerns, the advisory opinion seems to indicate little concern regarding online activities.
Carolyn Elefant seems to counsel non-compliance with even obvious provisions of the Code. At a minimum, she advises that government employees who wish to continue blogging ought to take measures to alter whatever rules are ostensibly prohibitive. The upshot of her post seems to be that she considers any prohibition to be ridiculous. Will Baude’s preliminary assessment of a potential conflict between the Canons and the Free Speech rights of government employees lends some credence to the notion that the rules might be successfully resisted.
Nonetheless, I have my doubts about the wisdom of such resistance—even if the rights are there to be claimed, at least as far as law clerks are concerned. Were the Judicial Conference of the United States to decide that law clerks should under no circumstances blog—even with preapproval from the judge who hired them—I would readily comply. I would not do so out of intellectual agreement, but out of desire to spare my individual employer any public embarrassment. I blog on a quasi-anonymous basis out of prudence, so as to shield my employer from any association with this site. It would hardly do to embroil the court in a controversy regarding the ethical conduct of its clerks.
Personal Blogging Versus Blawging
To my knowledge there are only three law clerks who blog on legal issues at present: Stick Bug Blog, Southern Appeal, and myself. However, there are other law clerks who maintain sites of a more personal nature; Bag and Baggage lists some such "vanity" blogs. See, e.g., Lane McFadden. In addition, a potential third category is occupied by clerks whose sites are not strictly personal, yet also seem to avoid discussions of legal (but not necessarily political) topics. See, e.g., Trivial Pursuits. Different rules appear to apply to each type of blog. Although Canon 4a's other prohibitions (e.g., appearance of impropriety) apply to even sites of a personal nature, the preapproval mandate (i.e., the requirement that clerks obtain their employer's permission) extends solely to those who blog about legal matters. Strangely enough, Will Baude observes that First Amendment law indicates the exact opposite (i.e., the personal sites of government employees are subject to greater regulation than those devoted to matters of public interest like the law). Yet again the rules seem awfully unclear, if not just plain awful. What is one to make of the situation?
Thus far, it seems to me that both blogging and blawging are permissible activities for law clerks. However, both are subject to certain limitations, some of which are indeterminate, perhaps indecipherable. This matter is actually far more complex than I first imagined when I embarked on this venture. Greater clarity would be a boon to all, but I must admit that I lack confidence in the rulemakers. Like many in the blogosphere, I find that many often have no understanding of new technologies. Neither do I for that matter, but at least I recognize my limitations. Further, in-depth consideration is necessary.