Pi and the Law: What Is Constant and What Is Not

pi_day_pieTomorrow is Pi Day. In fact, it is the ultimate Pi Day given that Saturday’s date is 3.14.15. Enjoy a delicious piece of apple pie at 9:26.53 and you’ve taken the festivities about as far as you can hope to. Mathematicians, on the other hand, have carried this irrational national number out to over a trillion decimal places and determined that pi is a transcendental number (it cannot be expressed by any finite series or arithmetical or algebraic operation). Conceptually, pi symbolizes the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is constant, and perhaps that is what we should celebrate most.

There are few things in today’s world that are constant. One could argue that things today change at greater speed than ever before in history. Invention drives change–whether it is a new technology, process, or connection. In particular, scientific discoveries advance change, yet these discoveries rely on unwavering empirical laws and principles.

We, as lawyers, do not have the luxury of such a solid foundation. That is, our field depends on laws that are always changing—if not in form, then in interpretation. We must be nimble, able to change our theory as facts of the case are revealed, as new laws are passed, as politics and technology change, as the jury is selected, or as the judiciary announces a decision. There is no mathematical equation that provides a determinative estimation despite all the rules, codes and regulations that we study. And the closest thing to a constant that we have is the Constitution, which we all know has been interpreted differently over time.

This variability may provide the flexibility society needs to evolve while maintaining order. However, for some individuals, this lack of predictability can make life chaotic and tumultuous.

For example, consider immigration law. This field continues to evolve and change rapidly with new political leaders and bickering legislatures. While the law is trying to adapt to the changing landscape of the United States, individuals’ lives, plans, and goals linger.

Through my experiences with the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic and my work as a study abroad coordinator in the Office of International Education, I have seen this phenomenon first hand. For instance, I work with students who want to study abroad as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. While the law currently provides a process to gain permission to leave and re-enter the country, they are not guaranteed the right to re-enter even having obtained permission. Further, with upcoming elections looming, it is uncertain if DACA will remain an option for students. Needless to say, under such a cloud of uncertainty, their ability to focus on their academic pursuits, including studying abroad, becomes seriously compromised.

Uncertainty can also arise from how the law is applied by judges. Take for example asylum cases. Despite having a very narrow and defined standard, judges apply it very differently when granting or not granting this status. During a talk by Dr. Noelle Brigden last fall, this chart was shown. I was shocked by the disparity in case decisions. Some judges seldom granted asylum, yet others almost always granted this status. How can that be justified by law? I find it troubling that a person’s fate may rest not on the merits and needs of immigrating to the U.S. but rather on who is sitting on the bench.

As a law student, I continue to better grasp how the law and its practice equate to consistent justice. As the government becomes increasingly polarized, technology advances, the economy fluctuates, and the law morphs, today I take solace in celebrating pi, Archimedes’ irrational constant, with a piece of my favorite, homemade, and very transcendental, chocolate pie. Bon appetit!

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President Obama’s Executive Orders are Constitutional

452px-Barack_Obama_basketball_at_Martha's_VineyardA “head fake” is a basketball move where the player holding the ball feints as if starting a jump shot, but never leaves his feet.  Done correctly, it causes the defender to jump off of their feet in anticipation of the shot, arms flailing helplessly.  Meanwhile, the shooter calmly resets and scores a basket while the defender is harmlessly suspended in the air.

Just over two weeks ago, the mid-term elections supposedly signaled the end of President Obama’s ability to drive the policy agenda in Washington.  Last Thursday night, the nation’s “Basketball Player in Chief” executed a brilliant head fake on immigration policy, disproving this conventional wisdom.  Hints that the President intended to “go big” and use his executive authority to conduct an overhaul of the Immigration and Nationality Act had generated anticipatory paroxysms of outrage by Republicans, who hit the airwaves with charges of constitutional violations and threats of impeachment.  However, the executive actions that the President actually announced last Thursday were more modest in scope than what Latino groups and reform advocates wanted, and far less provocative than congressional Republicans feared.

The executive actions on immigration fall well within the Executive Branch’s established authority to set priorities in the enforcement of Immigration Law and clearly within the constitutional power of the President.  Meanwhile, the President’s Republican critics have already committed themselves to a campaign of outrage and indignation, even though it is increasingly evident that they lack a legal basis to attack the President’s actions or a political strategy to undo them.  The President’s head fake is evident when the details of the Executive Orders are examined.

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Immigration Reform and the Challenge of Democratic Self-Government

Mortar_of_Assimilation_Citizenship_1889News reports indicate that President Obama will soon announce how he plans to use Executive Orders to implement some aspects of Immigration Reform, due to the failure of Congress to address the subject legislatively.  I recently had the opportunity to participate in a program on Immigration Reform at the Law School on November 5, 2014, along with Stuart Anderson, the Executive Director of the National Foundation for American Policy and an Adjunct Scholar at the Cato Institute.  The event was sponsored by the Law School Chapter of the Federalist Society, the Marquette Immigration Law Association, and the International Law Society.  I want to thank Mr. Anderson for sharing his insights with the law students.  Interested readers can click here to find a recent article by Mr. Anderson.  What follows are my prepared remarks.

I have a daughter who is turning 21 next month.  When a child reaches that age, parents start to ask themselves questions.  Will my daughter bring someone home with her one day, and announce that she is engaged?  How will I react if the person she brings home belongs to a different faith?  How will I react if he is of a different race?  How will I react if “he” is a “she?”

These are questions that tap into deep emotions, even if my rational brain tells me that the answers to these questions don’t matter.  I know that my response to such a situation should be compassionate, and loving, and focus on my daughter’s happiness.  But I also know that I may feel threatened or hurt or disappointed, without consciously wanting to.  Maybe part of the problem is that I can’t control who my daughter brings home.  To a certain extent, who becomes a member of my family is her choice, not mine.

Immigration is about membership in our national family.  It raises the same deep emotions that marriage raises within the family.  And just as we can’t always choose who our children will marry, we also can’t always control who joins our national family.  And Immigration policy needs to be rational, data-driven, and compassionate, and not based on knee jerk emotions.

Simple answers to complex social and economic problems don’t work.  One challenge we face as a nation is that we share a longstanding geographic connection with Mexico.  U.S. employers have turned to Mexican citizens for seasonal labor needs for a very long time.  People have established migration patterns that persist through generations of the same family.  These behaviors won’t change just because we tell people to stop.  We need to address the underlying incentives and motivations for these behaviors.

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