Supreme Court Candidates Debate: Testy Talk About Collegiality

Four thoughts in the aftermath of the debate Monday evening at Eckstein Hall between incumbent Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and his challenger in the April 5 election, Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg:

First: As a news reporter, I’ve never covered a race for a Supreme Court seat. I was struck by how awkward the debate is, compared to the plain old partisan races I’ve covered fairly often. It’s similar to confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court justices: Basically, if you have something substantial to say, you can’t and shouldn’t say it. You can’t say what you would do with any potential upcoming issues. Frequently, you can’t (or won’t) comment on past actions, although Prosser did talk about some past cases and said he was glad to run on his record. So you end up standing there, saying repeatedly that you are independent and nonpartisan and will judge each case fairly and with an open mind. Which both Kloppenburg and Prosser did. But it is very clear that Prosser is being backed by conservatives and Republican-oriented groups and Kloppenburg is being backed by liberals and Democratic-leaning groups. Do all these people and groups know something the candidates don’t know? Are they wrong? Or is this a curious exercise in avoiding talking about the issues, even though everyone seems to know what you’d say if you did?

Two: I’ve been at some testy and tense debates and joint appearances by candidates in various races, but this one was way up the list, if it wasn’t the champion on my personal list.

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The Persistence of Legal Error

When I was in my first semester of law school, I was given a short memo assignment involving some principle of Connecticut contract law. I quickly found a case stating the relevant rule of law—every contract needs consideration, or something. But it quoted an earlier case. Being a good historian, I knew I couldn’t just use the more recent case—I had to track this down to its source. So I looked up the earlier case. But that in turn cited an even earlier one for the same rule. So I looked up that one. After about nine or ten iterations of this, I was in the 18th century, and courts were still citing earlier cases, now from English reporters that I couldn’t look up as easily. I gave up, and concluded that legal authority worked differently than historical authority—if an earlier court said it, that’s good enough, no matter where it originated or what the original context was.

The upside of this is that rules can get transmitted from case to case much more efficiently. The downside is that errors can spread just as easily. Take the idea from copyright law that contributory infringement liability is derived from the tort law concept of enterprise liability. This explanation is widespread in the case law. See, e.g., Perfect 10, Inc. v. Visa Int’l Serv. Ass’n, 494 F.3d 788, 794-95 (9th Cir. 2007); Fonovisa, Inc. v. Cherry Auction, Inc., 76 F.3d 259, 264 (9th Cir. 1996); Intellectual Reserve, Inc. v. Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Inc., 75 F. Supp. 2d 1290, 1293 (D. Utah 1999); Polygram Int’l Pub., Inc. v. Nevada/TIG, Inc., 855 F. Supp. 1314, 1320 (D. Mass. 1994). It’s also featured in the influential Nimmer treatise: “A separate avenue for third-party liability in the copyright sphere is contributory infringement, which forms an outgrowth of the tort concept of enterprise liability,” Nimmer § 12.04[A][3]. And, it’s taught in law schools. The textbook I used to teach copyrights from 2007 through last year used to have only a one-paragraph introduction to secondary liability, followed by cases such as Fonovisa, which included the “enterprise liability” explanation. So, I dutifully repeated it to my students in both copyright and Internet Law, even though I was not really sure what “enterprise liability” was.

It turns out that it is flat wrong. Contributory infringement liability has nothing whatsoever to do with enterprise liability.

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Recommended Legal Writing Reads from Judge Easterbrook

This past October, as a Judicial Intern at the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, I had the pleasure of attending an informal, reoccurring brown bag lunch held among the court’s clerks. We gathered in a conference room down the hall from the Dirksen Federal Building’s second-floor cafeteria to hear this session’s guest speaker—Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook—lecture informally on legal writing. The judge shared some of his experiences (e.g., his decision-making process*) and his must-read books for legal writers.

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