NewYorkUniversity
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Volume 96, Number 2

May 2021
Articles

Who Should Pay for COVID-19? The Inescapable Normativity of International Law

Sebastián Guidi, Nahuel Maisley

Who should bear the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic? While multilateral institutions are beginning to consider how to distribute them, former U.S. President Trump and others have suggested suing China for damages. This “lawsuit approach” draws on a deep-seated conception of international law: States have a sovereign “right to be left alone”; the only limit to this right is a correlative duty to avoid harming others. Those harmed can, then, sue for damages. In this view, who should pay for the costs of the pandemic (and how much) is not a normative question about justice, but rather one about factual causes and actuarial calculations.

In this Article, we explore this lawsuit approach—not for its legal viability, but for its conceptual implications. We exhaustively and critically assess the doctrinal discussion on China’s international liability for the pandemic while also pointing at deep theoretical implications that this novel crisis has for international law more broadly.

Specifically, we make three novel claims. The first is that the arguments made using the lawsuit approach (based on the International Health Regulations and the no-harm principle), when meticulously analyzed under existing international norms, run into unexpected obstacles. On top of the jurisdictional and evidentiary hurdles noted by many, we argue that the lawsuit approach faces difficulties stemming from the lack of deep normative agreement in international law on how to deal with unprecedented challenges such as COVID-19.

Our second claim draws on the first. Given the need to fill these normative voids, the lawsuit approach leads back to the global conversation about the allocation of losses that it carefully tries to avoid. This normative dependence cannot be spared by analogy with domestic law. Domestic law builds upon thick cultural understandings that fill empty legal concepts (such as “harm” or “causation”), making them readily operative. International law, however, lacks an equivalent thick culture to fill these voids and therefore requires complex reconstructions of what states owe to one another.

Our third claim further extends the foregoing reasoning. The lawsuit approach relies on international law as a means to achieve corrective justice while denying its implications for distributive justice. We argue that this is conceptually impossible. Allocating responsibility for the pandemic implicates inherently distributive concepts: To decide, an adjudicator would need to rely on a pretorian rule detailing how much effort and expense countries should dedicate to avoiding harm to other countries. That rule is conceptually distributive, independent of its content. The misfortunes derived from the pandemic are not conceptually different from the mis- fortunes of poverty, financial breakdowns, or climate change. Those going down the road of the lawsuit approach might be unpleasantly surprised by where that road leads them.

The Folklore of Unfairness

Luke Herrine

The Federal Trade Commission Act’s ban on “unfair . . . acts and practices” would, on its face, seem to give the FTC an awesome power to define proper treatment of consumers in changing conditions. But even in a world of widespread corporate surveillance, ongoing racial discrimination, impenetrably complex financial products, pyramid schemes, and more, the unfairness authority is used rarely, mostly in egregious cases of wrongdoing. Why?

The standard explanation is that the more expansive notion of unfairness was tried in the 1970s, and it failed spectacularly. The FTC of this era was staffed by bureaucrats convinced of their own moral superiority and blind to the self-correcting dynamics of the market. When the FTC finally reached too far and tried to ban television advertising of sugary cereals to children, it undermined its own legitimacy, causing Congress to put pressure on the agency to narrow its definition of unfairness.

This Article argues that this standard explanation gets the law and the history wrong, and, thus, that the FTC’s unfairness authority is more potent than commonly assumed. The regulatory initiatives of the 1970s were actually quite popular. The backlash against them was led by the businesses whose profit margins they threatened. Leaders of these businesses had become increasingly radicalized and well-organized and brought their new political clout to bear on an unsuspecting FTC. It was not the re-articulation of the unfairness standard in 1980 that narrowed unfairness to its current form, but rather the subsequent takeover of the FTC by neoliberal economists and lawyers who had been supported by these radicalized business leaders. The main limitation on the use of the unfairness authority since then has been the ideology of regulators charged with its enforcement. In fact, the conventional morality tale about the FTC’s efforts in the 1970s are part of what keeps this ideology dominant.

A reconsideration of the meaning of unfairness requires situating the drama of the 1970s and 80s in a longer struggle over governance of consumer markets. Since the creation of the FTC, and even before, an evolving set of coalitions have battled over what makes markets fair. These coalitions can be divided roughly into those who favor norm setting by government agencies informed by experts held accountable to democratic publics and those who favor norm setting by business leaders made accountable via the profit motive. The meaning of “unfair . . . acts and practices” has been defined and redefined through these struggles, and it can and should be redefined again to reconstruct the state capacity to define standards of fair dealing.

Police Quotas

Shaun Ossei-Owusu

The American public is slowly recognizing the criminal justice system’s deep defects. Mounting visual evidence of police brutality and social protests are generating an appetite for something different. How to change this system is still an open question. People across the political spectrum vary in their conceptions of the pressing problems and how to solve them. Interestingly, there is one consequential and overlooked area of the criminal justice system where there is broad consensus: police quotas.

Police quotas are formal and informal measures that require police officers to issue a particular number of citations or make a certain number of arrests. Although law enforcement leadership typically denies implementing quotas, courts, legislators, and officers have all confirmed the existence of this practice and linked it to odious criminal justice problems such as racial profiling, policing for profit, and overcriminalization. These problems have led legislators in many states to implement statutory prohibitions on quotas. Some of these statutes are of recent vintage and others are decades old. Nevertheless, these prohibitions and their attendant litigation have escaped sustained analytical scrutiny. Legal scholars typically overlook police quotas, subsume them within other categories (e.g., broken windows policing), or give pat acknowledgment of their existence without explaining how they work.

This Article corrects these omissions and makes two arguments. First, it contends that police quotas are a significant but undertheorized feature of criminal law and procedure. Quotas make police rewards and sanctions significant features of punishment in ways that can trump criminal offending and pervert due process principles. Second, it argues that quota-based policing is a unique area where there is widespread agreement and possibilities for change. Liberals, libertarians, conservatives, police officers, police unions, and racial minorities have all criticized police quotas. These vastly different constituents have argued that quotas distort police discretion and produce unnecessary police-civilian interactions. This Article supplements these arguments with a novel descriptive, statutory, and jurisprudential account of police quotas in the United States. It offers a framework for under- standing the arguments for and objections to quotas, and proposes some normative strategies that could build on statutory and litigation successes.