Not an Ordinary Day

Campus walkTwelve years ago, around 8:45 am, I entered the subway station on Broadway and 86th Street. A busy day lay ahead of me: an orientation meeting of the New York State Bar, followed by callback interviews for a summer job, then maybe class if I could make it back uptown in time. But when I emerged from the subway, the world had changed. As I started walking east on 23rd Street I was startled to find clusters of people standing still on the sidewalk, all facing the same direction, many with their mouths wide open. I turned to see what they were seeing, and gasped when I saw the two World Trade Center towers, a ring of smoke around them.

The aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks has given us lawyers a lot to chew on: two wars of debatable legality, Guantanamo Bay, and the precarious balance between civil rights and national security, to name just a few things. But today is for remembering. My thoughts are with those who died, those who were left behind, and those who so bravely stepped up on that day.

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Culpa in Causa and the Zimmerman Acquittal

Culpa in causa. The Latin phrases I learned many moons ago as a law student in the Netherlands rarely enter my consciousness, but these three words kept flashing through my mind while reading about the Zimmerman trial. The term appears to have been coined in the 1930s by Willem Pompe, an influential criminal law professor in Utrecht at the time, who may well have thought that Latin sounds fancier than Dutch. Literally, culpa in causa means “fault in the cause.” The notion is that someone who voluntarily—and wrongfully—places herself in a situation in which it is reasonably foreseeable that she may commit a crime cannot successfully invoke defenses to criminal liability. Put differently, the intent or fault that is implicated in creating a risky situation extends to the subsequent crime. A relatively straightforward example of how the doctrine operates is in self-intoxication cases: Under Dutch law, a defendant who commits a crime under the influence of voluntarily consumed drugs can be convicted for crimes that require specific intent, even if the drugs rendered her incapable of understanding her actions.

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(Marriage) Equality and the Popularity Paradox

=Writing for the majority of the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor, Justice Kennedy stated that “[t]he Constitution’s guarantee of equality ‘must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot’ justify disparate treatment of that group.” Under this test, the Court struck down a key provision from the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined “marriage” and “spouse” for purposes of federal law as referring only to opposite-sex marriages and spouses. The opinion concludes that DOMA’s very object was “to ensure that if any State decides to recognize same-sex marriages, those unions will be treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law.”

It is almost trite to say that the result in Windsor would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Yet this observation strikes at the heart of a paradox in the test applied by the Court: It suggests that a group has a realistic chance of being classified as a “politically unpopular group” deserving of protection only after it has acquired a certain level of popularity. Of course, the recent shift in popular opinion on same-sex marriage in the United States has been spectacular. In 2004, bans on same-sex marriage (and in many cases, also civil unions and other contractual protections of same-sex relationships) were adopted by popular vote in all of the eleven States where such bans had been put on the ballot during the general elections. Today, the States that have same-sex marriage bans on the books outnumber the States in which same-sex marriage is legalized by thirty-five to twelve (plus D.C.). Yet starting in 2010 or 2011, nationwide support for same-sex marriage began to exceed opposition to it. The increased popularity of the cause translated into political action: In 2012, for the first time voters approved initiatives to legalize same-sex marriage in three States (Maine, Maryland, and Washington). In that same year, voters in Minnesota voted down a proposed same-sex marriage ban. In sum, it is safe to say marriage equality has become a mainstream cause, albeit one that is still met with ardent opposition.

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