NewYorkUniversity
LawReview
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Volume 89, Number 1

April 2014
Articles

Accidental Inheritance: Retirement Accounts and the Hidden Law of Succession

Stewart E. Sterk, Melanie B. Leslie

Americans currently hold more than $9 trillion in retirement savings accounts. Those accounts, together with the family home, are the principal source of wealth for most working and retired Americans. But when a retirement accountholder dies prior to exhausting retirement savings, what governs the distribution of the account? Most often, not the accountholder’s will or trust, but a one-page fill-in- the-blanks beneficiary designation form that the accountholder filled out, typically without advice of counsel, when she or he opened the account.

When accountholders fill out beneficiary designation forms, they are focused on starting a new job or beginning to save for retirement, not on estate planning. Yet the accountholder’s beneficiary designations often trump express provisions in a will, trust instrument, prenuptial agreement, or divorce decree—documents prepared with inheritance in mind. Moreover, the accountholder may neglect to change the beneficiary designation to take account of changed life circumstances, causing his or her retirement assets to pass to a beneficiary he or she never would have chosen later in life. To make matters worse, although wills doctrine has developed a set of constructional rules to deal with changes of circumstance, those rules do not generally apply to beneficiary designation forms. The current legal framework often frustrates the intent of the accountholder.

This problem, which has already spawned a significant volume of litigation, will become exponentially worse over the coming decade, as more holders of substantial accounts reach the end of their life expectancy. Reform is critical. The financial intermediaries who currently draft beneficiary designation forms have little incentive to improve them because accountholders and employers are unlikely to choose providers based on the quality of their forms. Federal and state legislation is necessary to ensure that these assets are distributed consistently with accountholders’ intentions.

Sex-Positive Law

Margo Kaplan

Sexual pleasure is a valuable source of happiness and personal fulfillment. Yet several areas of law assume just the opposite—that sexual pleasure in itself has negligible value, and we sacrifice nothing of importance when our laws circumscribe it. Many laws even rely on the assumption that sexual pleasure merits constraint because it is inherently negative. These assumptions are so entrenched in our law that they remain largely unquestioned by courts, legislatures, and legal scholarship.

This Article exposes and challenges the law’s unspoken assumption that sexual pleasure has negligible or negative value and examines how rejecting this assumption requires us to reconceptualize several areas of law. Until now, legal scholarship has lacked a robust analysis of how deeply this assumption runs through various areas of law and how fundamentally the law must change if we reject it. This Article fills that gap and provides a framework for “sex-positive” law that appropriately recognizes the intrinsic value of sexual pleasure. Such an approach transforms the debate surrounding several areas of law and requires lawmakers and legal scholars to undertake a more honest assessment of what we choose to regulate, what we fail to regulate, and our justifications for those choices.

The Blacks Who “Got Their Forty Acres”: A Theory of Black West Indian Migrant Asset Acquisition

Eleanor Marie Lawrence Brown

The impediments to property acquisition and market success among African Americans are a significant area of inquiry in legal scholarship. The prevailing narrative on the historical relationship between Blacks and property is overwhelmingly focused on loss. However, in the political science, economics, and sociology literatures there is a countervailing narrative of successful property acquisition and retention among what might be termed a “market dominant” subset of migrant Blacks. The most successful subset of Black property owners in the United States today are descendants of Black migrants who were enslaved outside the United States. These free Black migrants, overwhelmingly British subjects originating from the West Indies, are largely invisible in the legal scholarship. Questions have arisen in other disciplines about what differentiated this subset of Black people. Why was their experience of property ownership so different?

Debates in the sociology, political economy, and political science literature have often focused on what Francis Fukuyama has controversially termed “cultural questions,” namely, the view that early West Indian migrants—like Korean or Japanese migrants—possessed a particular set of cultural traits that were distinctly well suited to asset acquisition. This Article focuses on a far more prosaic rationale, contending that the success of West Indian migrants may be rooted in the early grant of what I term “de facto property and contract rights” to West Indian slaves, which allowed their freedmen descendants to become the largest independent Black peasantry in the Americas. Between 1880 and 1924, U.S. immigration officials may have inadvertently selected for propertied migrant “types” when admitting immigrants. Through their own historical exposure to property and contract rights frameworks in the West Indies, as well as internal communal networks which supported informal banking schemes, these Blacks were particularly well placed to take advantage of opportunities for home and business ownership upon arrival in the United States.

The broader point is that there is a glaring omission amidst the “cultural” controversy: What about law? I use the term “law” in this context as it is used by many proponents of new institutional economics, as a proxy for an institutional frame- work that supports property acquisition, regardless of whether this framework is formal (state-supported) or customary. Moreover, the law and economics scholar- ship has focused extensively on institutional frameworks that allow certain religious and ethnic groups to dominate particular sectors, such as Orthodox Jews in the diamond industry or Koreans in the grocery sector. The insights of this literature allow us to interrogate whether Black West Indians had early access to institutions that facilitated contracting and property ownership and if so, whether this institutional history might contribute to their long-term asset acquisition patterns. The question necessarily arises: Why would we think of Black migrants any differently from the way we think of other ethnic and religious minorities who have been successful asset acquirers?

Notes

Designing Related-To Bankruptcy Jurisdiction

Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld

This Note offers a framework for analyzing related-to bankruptcy jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1334 that courts can implement immediately within the bounds of the statute and case law. It argues that that the current requirements for related-to jurisdiction should be better deployed in accordance with the relative merits of jurisdictional rules and standards, and proposes a broad threshold inquiry back-stopped by a robust abstention doctrine, which will allow courts to both define bright-line boundaries where possible and fulfill the policy objectives of bankruptcy jurisdiction on a case-by-case basis.

Durbin’s Defect: The Impact of Post-Recession Legislation on Low-Income Consumers

Arin H. Smith

In 2010, the economy was reeling from an economic recession that particularly affected low-income consumers. One law, known as the Durbin Amendment, sought to protect consumers by regulating the fees that financial institutions charge merchants each time a customer uses a debit card. This Note examines the amendment’s effects, arguing that it has ultimately raised the costs of banking for low-income consumers. Due to complex banking disclosures and the structure of the regulations, these increased costs have not been offset by increased transparency or lower retail prices. This Note recommends specific changes to the Durbin Amendment that will better support its stated goals. However, because these changes cannot entirely mitigate the negative effects, this Note recommends that Congress also pass legislation to improve access to banking for low-income consumers.

Defining Gant’s Reach: The Search Incident to Arrest Doctrine After Arizona v. Gant

Anthony M. Ruiz

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Arizona v. Gant, lower courts continue to debate whether Gant represents an overhaul of the search incident to arrest doctrine or is instead a minor tweak. This Note argues that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. It proposes that courts conduct a more searching inquiry into whether an arrestee has a reasonable possibility of access to the area searched at the time of the search, rather than apply the more lenient standard that some courts have adopted. This middle ground is more faithful to the policy considerations underpinning the search incident to arrest doctrine, while additionally providing the proper balance between officer safety and defendants’ rights.

Anti-Subordination in the Equal Protection Clause: A Case Study

Abigail Nurse

In recent years, many scholars have argued that the U.S. Supreme Court has moved away from following an anti-subordination approach to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and toward an anti-classification approach. In turn, advocates have shied away from anti-subordination arguments in the equal protection cases that are brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. Discussing the briefs and oral argument from Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin as an example, this Note argues that underemphasizing anti-subordination principles is detrimental to equal protection doctrine because these arguments help steer the Court in the right direction. When historical context and ongoing inequitable realities are not incorporated into the doctrine, equal protection moves further from its core mission—ensuring equal treatment under the laws. In addition, the gains for people of color and other marginalized communities will be on tenuous ground without full emphasis on inequality. Advocates must use anti-subordination arguments in order to engage the Court and Justices in the slow process of struggling for a more just world.

We Tried to Make Them Offer Rehab, but They Said, “No, No, No!”: Incentivizing Private Prison Reform Through the Private Prisoner Rehabilitation Credit

Cassandre Monique Davilmar

Mass incarceration in the United States has led many state governments to hand over the management and construction of prisons to private corporations, which are able to meet demand more quickly and are perceived as more cost-effective. There are approximately 100 private prisons housing about 62,000 inmates today, and this number is expected to increase to 360,000 in the coming decade. Unfortunately, private prisons have failed to effectively address many of the issues pervasive in public prisons—namely recidivism, violence, and poor living conditions. Furthermore, the government-customer has failed to effectively hold private prisons accountable for their failures. As a solution this Note proposes the Private Prisoner Rehabilitation (PPR) credit: a performance-based, refundable tax credit that incentivizes private prisons to address some of the key issues plaguing the criminal justice system.

Developing a Speech or Debate Clause Framework for Redistricting Litigation

Christopher Asta

The Speech or Debate Clause of the United States Constitution protects legislators from being questioned at trial about their legislative acts. This protection shields legislators from being prosecuted or sued based on those acts and also sometimes protects them from having to testify about those acts at trial. While this protection is important in certain circumstances to safeguard the independence and proper functioning of the legislature, it can also be problematic when plaintiffs need to prove an invidious legislative purpose to challenge a law. This is especially the case in the redistricting context, where the standards to analyze both racial and partisan gerrymandering claims require information regarding legislative intent. Yet a close look into judicial interpretations of the Speech or Debate Clause, and the legislative privilege that stems from it, finds a conflicting set of opinions regarding when such protections should and should not apply. This confusion has made it difficult for courts to address legislative privilege questions properly and may lead courts to protect and uphold redistricting legislation more than is warranted. This Note surveys Supreme Court and lower-court Speech or Debate Clause opinions to develop a straightforward and consistent framework for addressing all Speech or Debate Clause disputes and then applies that framework to the questions that arise during redistricting litigation.

Tributes

Professor Ronald Dworkin

Jeremy Waldron, Lewis A. Kornhauser, The Honorable Stephen Breyer, T.M. Scanlon, Rebecca L. Brown, Liam Murphy, Robert B. Silvers, Thomas Nagel

Last year, the NYU community lost an intellectual giant in Professor Ronald Dworkin. The school and the Law Review joined together to honor Professor Dworkin’s writings, ideas, and of course, his legendary colloquia. Academics, philosophers, and judges gathered to pay tribute. In the pages that follow, we proudly publish written versions of those tributes.1 The ceremony closed with a short video clip of one of Professor Dworkin’s last speeches, titled Einstein’s Worship. His words provide a fitting introduction:

“We emphasize—we should emphasize—our responsibility, a responsibility shared by theists and atheists alike, a responsibility that we have in virtue of our humanity to think about these issues, to reject the skeptical conclusion that it’s just a matter of what we think and therefore we don’t have to think. We need to test our convictions. Our convictions must be coherent. They must be authentic; we must come to feel them as our convictions. But when they survive that test of responsibility, they’ve also survived any philosophical challenge that can be made. In that case, you burnish your convictions, you test your convictions, and what you then believe, you better believe it. That’s what I have to say about the meaning of life. Tomorrow: the universe.”