Volume 93, Number 3

June 2018

Sexual Consent and Disability

Jasmine E. Harris

Our nation is engaged in deep debate over sexual consent. But to date the discussion has overlooked sexual consent’s implications for a key demographic: people with mental disabilities, for whom the reported incidence of sexual violence is three times that of the nondisabled population. Even as popular debate overlooks the question of sexual consent for those with disabilities, contemporary legal scholars critique governmental overregulation of this area, arguing that it diminishes the agency and dignity of people with disabilities. Yet in defending their position, these scholars rely on empirical data from over twenty years ago, when disability and sexual assault laws and social norms looked quite different than those of today.

Current scholarly discussions about sexual consent and mental disability suffer from an outdated empirical baseline that masks critical information about the profile and experience of sexual violence. This Article creates a new empirical baseline for modern scholarship on sexual assault and disability. Based on an original survey of all fifty states and jurisprudence from the past twenty years of state sexual assault and rape appeals where the victim has a mental disability, this Article updates and critiques four major claims about sexual consent and disability in the current literature. First, through a review of statutes across the country, it complicates the traditional notion that statutes are unduly vague in their definition of disability, and as a result, either over- or under-emphasize disability. The author advances a new organizing taxonomy for sexual assault statutes addressing consent for people with mental disabilities. Second, this dataset upends the prevailing claim by legal scholars that courts overemphasize standardized evidence such as intelligence quotient (IQ) or mental age when judging a person’s functional capacity to consent to sex. Instead, this Article shows that courts frequently look at adaptive abilities to augment standardized evidence but, in doing so, overvalue certain kinds of adaptive evidence that have low probative value, to the detriment of persons with mental disabilities. Third, legislators and legal scholars focus on people in large institutional settings in their critiques of overregulation, but this new data shows that people in community-based settings are more often the complainants in rape and sexual assault cases. This raises important questions about the types of relationships the state regulates (formal versus informal care relationships), the location of these relationships (community versus institutional settings), and issues of class that intersect with disability and sexual regulation. By not addressing the right issues and contexts, current law leaves people with mental disabilities simultaneously more susceptible to sexual violence and less empowered to exercise sexual agency. Finally, the Article more deeply examines the traditional assumption that people with disabilities rarely have access to testify by considering a rarely-mentioned risk: whether testimony by people with disabilities skews capacity determinations because factfinders cannot see beyond the existence of the disability—a phenomenon which the author terms “the aesthetics of disability.” This Article calls upon scholars, courts, and policymakers to consider difficult questions of regulating sexual consent in ways that are consistent with the current profile and experience of sexual violence for people with mental disabilities reflected in this study.

Toward a Radical Imagination of Law

Amna A. Akbar

In this Article, I consider the contemporary law reform project of a radical social movement seeking to transform the state: specifically, that of the Movement for Black Lives as articulated in its policy platform “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice.” The Movement for Black Lives is the leading example of a contemporary racial justice movement with an intersectional politics including feminist and anti-capitalist commitments. The visions of such radical social movements offer an alternative epistemology for understanding and addressing structural inequality. By studying not only the critiques offered by radical social movements, but also their visions for transformative change, the edges of law scholarship can be expanded, a deeper set of critiques and a longer set of histories—of colonialism and settler colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade and mass incarceration—centered, and a bolder project of transformation forwarded. These visions should push legal scholars toward a broader frame for understanding how law, the market, and the state co-produce intersectional structural inequality, and toward agendas that focus not on building the power of law and the police, but on building the power of marginalized communities and transforming the state. This shift would invigorate the social movement’s literature and bring new energy to scholarship on substantive areas of law, from criminal and immigration law to property and contract law.

To illustrate the creative potential of studying radical social movements, this Article contrasts the Vision for Black Lives with the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Ferguson and Baltimore reports. The Vision and the DOJ reports offer alternate conceptualizations of the problem of policing and the appropriate approach to law reform. Reflective of liberal law reform projects on police, the DOJ reports identify policing as a fundamental tool of law and order that serves the collective interests of society, and locate the problems of police in their failure to adhere to constitutional law. As a corrective, the DOJ reports advocate for investing more resources in police: more trainings, better supervision, community policing. In contrast, the Vision identifies policing as a historical and violent force in Black communities underpinning a system of racial capitalism and limiting the possibilities of Black life. Law is central to the shape and legitimation of this racialized violence and inequality. As such, policing as we now know it cannot be fixed. Thus, the Vision’s reimagination of policing—rooted in Black history and Black intellectual traditions—transforms mainstream approaches to reform. In forwarding a decarceral agenda rooted in an abolitionist imagination, the Vision demands shrinking the large footprint of policing, surveillance, and incarceration and shifting resources into housing, health care, jobs, and schools. The Vision focuses on building power in Black communities and transforming the relationship between state, market, and society. In so doing, the movement offers transformative, affirmative visions for change designed to address the structures of inequality—something legal scholarship has lacked for far too long.


Conceptual Separability as Conceivability: A Philosophical Analysis of the Useful Articles Doctrine

Mala Chatterjee

In copyright law, the useful articles doctrine plays a significant role in defining the limits of copyright’s domain and the boundary between copyright and patent. But the implicated notion of “conceptual separability” has proved to be difficult to define, and the Supreme Court’s effort to define it in the recent case Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc. is unsatisfying. In an effort to resolve this challenge, the present paper puts forth a novel test for conceptual separability, one that draws inspiration from the philosopher’s idea of conceivability. The test is the following question: “When you conceive of the relevant useful article as lacking the design element in question, is the article you imagine functionally identical to the actual article?” If the answer to this question is yes, then the design element is conceptually separable from the article’s utilitarian aspects; if not, then the element has failed the test, and it is not entitled to copyright protection. The present paper explores why this novel proposal avoids many of the pitfalls of existing tests (including the Court’s own in Star Athletica), why it best achieves the aims of the useful articles doctrine, and what questions remain once the challenge of conceptual separability has been resolved.