Current Issue

Volume 90, Number 4

October 2015
Symposium Articles


Lee Epstein, Barry Friedman, Geoffrey R. Stone

Testing the Constitution

We live in the age of empiricism, and in that age, constitutional law is a relative backwater. Although quantitative methods have transformed entire fields of scholarly inquiry, reshaping what we ask and what we know, those who write about the Constitution rarely resort to quantitative methodology to test their theories. That seems unfortunate, because empirical analysis can illuminate important questions of constitutional law. Or, at least, that is the question to be tested in this Symposium.

We brought together a terrific group of scholars with a unique assignment. We paired distinguished constitutional thinkers with equally accomplished empiricists. We asked the law scholars to identify a core question, assumption, or doctrine from constitutional law, and we asked the empiricist to take a cut at answering it, or at least at figuring out how one might try to answer it. We understood that their answers might be preliminary at best, that the questions might be resistant to easy answers. This is so, in part, because empiricism is as much a means of refining questions as it is a way of answering them.

The balance of this Foreword is, in a sense, an introduction to the idea that more serious empirical analysis can further both constitutional law scholarship and constitutional law decisionmaking. Hence our title: Testing the Constitution.

Litigating State Interests

Margaret H. Lemos, Kevin M. Quinn

Attorneys General as Amici

An important strain of federalism scholarship locates the primary value of federalism in how it carves up the political landscape, allowing groups that are out of power at the national level to flourish—and, significantly, to govern—in the states. On that account, partisanship, rather than a commitment to state authority as such, motivates state actors to act as checks on federal power. Our study examines partisan motivation in one area where state actors can, and do, advocate on behalf of state power: the Supreme Court. We compiled data on state amicus filings in Supreme Court cases from the 1979–2013 Terms and linked it up with data on the partisanship of state attorneys general (AGs). Focusing only on merits-stage briefs, we looked at each AG’s partisan affiliation and the partisanship of the AGs who either joined, or explicitly opposed, her briefs. If partisanship drives amicus activity, then we should see a strong negative relationship between the partisanship of AGs opposing each other and a strong positive relationship between those who cosign briefs.

What we found was somewhat surprising. States agreed far more often than they disagreed, and—until recently—most multistate briefs represented bipartisan, not partisan, coalitions of AGs. Indeed, for the first twenty years of our study, the cosigners of these briefs were generally indistinguishable from a random sampling of AGs then in office. The picture changes after 2000, when the coalitions of cosigners become decidedly more partisan, particularly among Republican AGs. The partisanship picture is also different for the 6% of cases in which different states square off in opposing briefs. In those cases, AGs do tend to join together in partisan clusters. Here, too, the appearance of partisanship becomes stronger after the mid-1990s.

Testing the Marketplace of Ideas

Daniel E. Ho, Frederick Schauer

Oliver Wendell Holmes’s notion of the marketplace of ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of an idea to get itself accepted in the competition of the market— is a central idea in free speech thought. Yet extant social science evidence provides at best mixed support for the metaphor’s veracity, and thus for the view that the truth of a proposition has substantial explanatory force in determining which propositions will be accepted and which not. But even if establishing an open marketplace for ideas is unlikely to produce a net gain in human knowledge, it may have other consequences. We illustrate how to empirically study the consequences of establishing or restricting a communicative domain. Our focus is on time, place, and manner restrictions, and we examine two potential natural experiments involving speech buffer zones around polling places and health care facilities providing abortions. Using a regression discontinuity design with geocoded polling information for over 1.3 million voters in two high-density jurisdictions (Hudson County and Manhattan), we provide suggestive evidence that speech restrictions in Hudson County reduced turnout amongst voters in the buffer zone. By failing to cue voters of the election, speech restrictions may have unanticipated costs. And using difference-in-differences and synthetic control matching with state-level data from 1973 to 2011, we illustrate how one might study the impact of speech restrictions around health care facilities. Although the evidence is limited, Massachusetts’s restrictions were accompanied, if anything, by a decrease in the abortion rate. Buffer zones might channel speech toward more persuasive forms, belying the notion that the cure for bad speech is plainly more speech.

The Decision to Depart (or Not) from Constitutional Precedent

Lee Epstein, William M. Landes, Adam Liptak

An Empirical Study of the Roberts Court

Constitutional law casebooks, generations of constitutional lawyers, and the Justices themselves say that the Court is more likely to depart from precedent in constitutional cases than in other types. We test this assumption in cases decided by the Roberts Court and find, at odds with earlier studies, that the data provide inconclusive support for it. Other factors, especially criticism of precedent by lower courts and lawyers, are more consistent and stronger predictors of the Court’s decisions to depart from precedent. These findings have interesting implications for lawyering, teaching, and judging in the constitutional law context.

Measuring the Chilling Effect

Brandice Canes-Wrone, Michael C. Dorf

Supreme Court doctrine grants special protection against laws that “chill” protected speech, most prominently via the overbreadth doctrine. The overbreadth doctrine permits persons whose own speech is unprotected to challenge laws that infringe the protected speech of third parties. The Court has not generally applied overbreadth and the other speech-protective doctrines to other constitutional rights even though other rights could also be subject to a chilling effect. The case law simply assumes that the chilling effect only acts on the exercise of speech, and that this justifies treating speech differently from other rights.

We tested these assumptions with respect to abortion rights. By comparing abortion rates with state laws over a two-decade-plus period, we found a statistically significant correlation between laws forbidding late-term abortions and the reduction of not only late-term but also “near-late-term” abortions, i.e., abortions in the roughly one month before the period in which abortions are forbidden. That effect persists even after controlling for potentially confounding variables, such as the number of abortion providers and pro-life public opinion. Moreover, the effect is not limited to the year of enactment or associated with failed policy initiatives, suggesting that the impact is due to the law itself rather than associated publicity. These findings are consistent with, and strongly suggestive of, a chilling effect on abortion providers and/or women seeking abortions. This result undermines the implicit assumption that the chilling effect is unique to laws regulating speech and vindicates the general proposition that laws can chill the exercise of constitutional rights beyond their literal coverage.

Rhetoric and Reality

Rebecca L. Brown, Andrew D. Martin

Testing the Harm of Campaign Spending

In its landmark campaign finance decision Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court found that favoritism or influence over elected officials gained by wealthy campaign contributors does not—in the absence of outright corruption—give rise to the sort of constitutional harm that would justify restrictions on campaign spending. The Court was also insistent that any perceptions of ingratiation would not undermine the electorate’s faith in democracy. This paper challenges the doc- trinal and empirical underpinnings of those assertions. We argue that a loss of faith by the electorate implicates a central constitutional value and is a sufficiently compelling interest to justify campaign finance regulation. We also demonstrate empirically that the Court should not have been so confident that the elecorate’s faith in democracy is unaffected either by the appearance of influence or access due to campaign spending or by independent expenditures.

Testing Shaw v. Reno

Stephen Ansolabehere, Nathaniel Persily

The Supreme Court’s decision in Shaw v. Reno established an “analytically distinct” constitutional claim of racial gerrymandering for majority-minority districts drawn predominantly on the basis of race. The case was and continues to be controversial, because the precise nature of the injury caused by such districts has been a persistent source of debate. Shaw districts did not minimize a group’s representation, but rather they communicated an “expressive harm” due to signals they sent to the electorate and representatives that the jurisdiction relied too much on race in the construction of a district. Such districts, the Court argued, communicated racial stereotypes that individuals belonging to the same racial group were politically interchangeable, despite their many social and economic differences. This paper tests the “Shaw hypothesis” with recent survey data. We find no patterns in racial attitudes based on the shape and racial composition of a congressional district. We do, however, find substantial and expected gaps among racial groups concerning attitudes toward the practice of majority-minority districting, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and job approval of the respondent’s representative.


Nonjudicial Fangs

Joshua A. Rubin

Defending the Privacy Act’s Complete Civil Remedies Exemption

The Privacy Act of 1974 places limitations on what federal agencies may do with the personal information they collect from the public. As its name suggests, a primary purpose of the law is to protect the privacy of individuals by mandating that agencies’ systems of records be maintained in particular ways. At the same time, the Act preserves the ability of agencies to pursue their statutory goals by permitting law enforcement agencies to exempt their systems of records from select provisions of the Act. This Note concerns the scope of one of those exemptions, referred to as the “general exemption.” Specifically, it addresses a statutory ambiguity surrounding whether these agencies may completely exempt their records from the Act’s civil remedies provision, thereby foreclosing civil liability for all violations of the Act. This Note answers that question in the affirmative, and it supports that answer through two independent modes of analysis. First, the Note argues that, using traditional tools of statutory interpretation, the best reading of the portions of the Privacy Act in question is one that recognizes the complete exemption. Second, the Note meets a particular objection to that reading: that permitting a complete civil remedies exemption would authorize and encourage widespread violations of the Privacy Act, thereby “defanging” the Act. The Note maintains that civil remedies are not theoretically necessary to protect substantive rights, and that the particular context of the Privacy Act is replete with examples of nonjudicial institutions serving as effective checks—or fangs—on agency compliance with the law.

Aligning “Educational Necessity” with Title VI

Brence D. Pernell

An Enhanced Regulatory Role for Executive Agencies in Title VI Disparate Impact Enforcement

Title VI charges the federal government with removing discrimination in our public institutions. In light of disparate impact claims concerning a range of racially discriminatory education practices, this Note makes the case for the benefit of an official regulation from the U.S. Department of Education—as a federal arm—that more specifically informs the disparate impact framework’s educational necessity standard. This regulation would not only aid plaintiffs seeking to challenge harmful educational practices, but also provide courts with more specific and authoritative guidance in adjudicating Title VI disparate impact claims. This Note argues that a beneficial starting point for such a regulation would make clear that a discriminatory school policy should be evaluated based on whether a school policy advances equal educational opportunities and whether the school is in the best position to remedy a policy that does not. A regulation guided by this standard comports with Title VI’s original intention of rooting out discrimination against protected minority groups as well as helps to ensure minorities’ full access to a high quality public education.

Cruel, Unusual, and Completely Backwards

Nishi Kumar

An Argument for Retroactive Application of the Eighth Amendment

In 2012, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision substantially altering the long-held view that “death was different” from other punishments under the Eighth Amendment. In Miller v. Alabama, the majority held that defendants who were under eighteen at the time of their crimes were categorically less culpable than adult offenders, and were constitutionally entitled to individualized hearings before being sentenced to life without parole. Because the majority opinion did not discuss whether the new rule was retroactive, Miller raises a question rarely raised throughout our country’s judicial history: Once a punishment is found unconstitutionally cruel and unusual, may the states continue to inflict it on those whose sentences were final at the time? This Note posits the idea that our current retroactivity framework, as articulated, does not always lead courts to the correct answer when considering this question, and that an articulated presumption of retroactivity is necessary to ensure Eighth Amendment protections in the context of both capital and noncapital sentences. Part I provides an overview of retroactivity, and then discusses the opinions in Miller. Part II explores the evolution of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, with special attention to how the retroactivity question has been answered in the affirmative through history, and then reports the current divide in the state courts and federal circuit courts regarding Miller‘s retroactive availability. Part III explains that the reason we have had presumptive retroactivity, and should continue to do so, in the Eighth Amendment context is because the state interests driving the retroactivity doctrine are diminished and ultimately irreconcilable with the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments.

Is the AIA the End of Grace?

Jordan S. Joachim

Examining the Effect of the America Invents Act on the Patent Grace Period

This Note argues that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s interpretation of the new grace period under the America Invents Act (AIA), 35 U.S.C. § 102(b)(1)(B), is overly narrow and that an alternative interpretation proposing a broader reading of the grace period is more appropriate. Evidence for a broader reading includes the effect of each interpretation on the administrative burden at the Patent and Trademark Office, speed of patent disclosure, innovative activity by specific inventor groups, and inventor behavior in patent races. This analysis shows that a narrow interpretation of the grace period creates greater administrative burdens, discourages disclosure, disfavors small inventors and universities, and may make blocking firms in a patent race virtually costless. In contrast, a broad grace period is simpler to administer, accelerates disclosure, supports innovation by small inventors and universities, and provides firms with a defensive maneuver in patent races.

“Inquiries That We Are Ill-Equipped to Judge”

Debmallo Shayon Ghosh

Factfinding in Appellate Court Review of Agency Rulemaking

Recognizing the need for a check on agencies’ discretion, Congress has assigned the task of reviewing agency rulemaking to the judiciary. Yet, by allocating much of that review directly to appellate courts, Congress has forced them to find facts. For example, when deciding challenges to a rule that an agency has promulgated, these courts must often hear for the first time plaintiffs’ evidence about factors that the agency failed to consider. When deciding challenges to an agency’s failure to act, they must weigh the plaintiffs’ proof about the consequences of the delay against the factual explanation the agency offers for its inaction. And, in any of these challenges, appellate courts may have to rule on facts related to standing. At best, because appellate courts typically lack the tools and institutional experience to conduct factfinding effectively, Congress has unduly burdened these courts and magnified the risk of inaccuracy. At worst, it has created incentives for appellate courts to defer to agencies and thereby weakened the entire institution of judicial review. The solution is simple: Congress should return these factfinding responsibilities to district courts.