Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Two Cheers for OLC’s Opinion

Guest Blogger

Zachary Price

For the Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law

            There is much to cheer in OLC’s careful opinion, but nonetheless cause for concern about the precedent the administration has set.

            Let me say at the outset that as a policy matter I support the President’s action and find Congress’s inability to provide immigration relief incomprehensible.  I view this issue, however, as one instance of a recurrent separation-of-powers problem that arises across many areas of regulation:  What authority do Presidents have not to enforce laws for policy reasons?

From that perspective, the most important thing the OLC opinion does is to cabin this precedent to the immigration context—and the most significant risk it poses is that this effort will not prove successful.
Read more »

The Realities of Administrative Discretion

Guest Blogger

Christopher H. Schroeder

For the Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law

Under our constitutional system of separation of powers, does the President have the authority to defer the deportation of the undocumented parents of children who are lawfully present in the United States, to permit these persons to apply for work authorization and also to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals first announced in 2012?  Or is the President violating the Constitution by refusing to execute the immigration laws?

Here are three reactions to these questions. 

First, these two questions are not opposite sides of the same coin.  Whatever answer you give to the first question, the answer to the second one is a resounding NO.  The allegation that the President is violating the Constitution rests on the claim that he is violating his duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.  That depends crucially on what it means to “faithfully execute” a law.  In 1823, Attorney General Wirt wrote that the duty requires that the law be executed “not with perfect correctness of judgment, but honestly.”   That description makes the best sense of the language of the Constitution; it reflects the wisdom of the Founders who were practical people fully aware that all humans, including Presidents, are fallible; and it appreciates the background understandings of the time. 

The 33 page legal opinion issued by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel analyzes options available to the President in executing the existing immigration laws.  It is a careful and thorough analysis.  I find it a convincing defense of the President’s actions, but even if you don’t agree, this only establishes that people can have honest disagreements over how to interpret a statute.  (For the views of one very distinguished administrative law professor who disagrees with my assessment of the OLC opinion, see Peter Schuck’s op-ed in the NYT.)  That is enough to secure a negative answer to the second question posed above.

Nonetheless, the President’s critics – and especially the House Republican majority – want to wage a major battle with the President over the extent of his executive authorities, his ability to “run around Congress,” to behave as an emperor or king, or to “shred the Constitution.”  My second response is that the OLC opinion demonstrates that the President’s immigration actions are going to be a very poor field on which to wage that battle.  The question of the legality of granting deferred action and making application for work authorization available to 4.4 million undocumented is, as a legal matter, a garden variety administrative law question of the extent of the discretion that has been delegated, originally to the Department of Justice and later by transfer of authority and additional legislation to the Department of Homeland Security.   A court might find that DHS’s deferred action directive is outside the scope of its statutory authority.  I doubt it, but let’s assume that is possible.  If it does, then the action will be consigned to the pile of agency actions that have been overturned by courts over the years as exceeding their authorities under the relevant statutes.  To my knowledge, in none of these prior decisions has a court ever even contemplated the question of a constitutional violation by the President.  A court would not go there this time around, either.
Read more »

Concerns about a Troubling Presidential Precedent and OLC’s Review of Its Validity

Guest Blogger

David A. Martin

For the Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law

            The OLC opinion on new enforcement priorities for the Department of Homeland Security probably will serve to establish the terrain for battles over the legitimacy of prosecutorial discretion for a long time to come.  And there will be other battles. You can bet that Republican Presidents someday will try to invoke President Obama’s actions to undercut other regulatory programs they don’t like.  

            The opinion actually raises significant questions about the Obama Administration’s own signature exercise of expansive prosecutorial discretion, the 2012 DACA program that shields childhood arrivals from deportation.  And it is disingenuous about key elements of its reasoning and its analysis of the new programs in operation.  OLC’s decision factors are fine, but they should be – and should have been – applied with more rigor, lest prosecutorial discretion become a vehicle to “rewrite the laws.”  (This in-the-weeds slipperiness is why I am not at all confident that the precedent can be confined in the way, for example, that Marty Lederman opines.)
Read more »

Monday, November 24, 2014

Refocusing the Debate on Policy, Not Legal Authority

Guest Blogger

Alina Das

On November 20, 2014, President Obama announced his long-awaited plan for executive action on immigration reform. As someone who represents immigrants who face deportation under the current system, I appreciated the President’s observations regarding the “hypocrisy” and “cruelty” of our broken immigration laws. The Supreme Court has aptly equated deportation to “the loss of all that makes life worth living,” yet we have deported millions of people (well over 2 million during the Obama administration alone) without providing them with a right to counsel or a meaningful opportunity to present the facts of their case to a judge. The President’s plan for executive action does not solve these problems, but it does include an effort to provide some immigrants with a temporary reprieve from deportation, to prevent family separation while Congress debates longer-term approaches to comprehensive immigration reform.

Despite the political controversy over the President’s actions, the legal basis for President Obama’s plan is well established. As explained in a memorandum from the Office of Legal Counsel, Congress has delegated broad authority over enforcement priorities to the Executive Branch through the Immigration and Nationality Act. This authority encompasses acts of prosecutorial discretion, which the Supreme Court has recognized as recently as in 2012 to be a “principal feature of the immigration system.” A longstanding application of such prosecutorial discretion in the immigration context is “deferred action,” which provides a temporary reprieve from deportation and the ability to apply for work authorization, subject to revocation.  Deferred action and similar forms of prosecutorial discretion have long been explicitly referenced in federal statutes like the Immigration and Nationality Act, the USA PATRIOT ACT, and the REAL ID Act; in federal regulations; and in decades-old policy memoranda. Indeed, every president as far back as President Eisenhower has used some form of prosecutorial discretion to protect groups of individuals from deportation or exclusion from the country.

In light of the Executive Branch’s broad authority to engage in prosecutorial discretion, the scope of President Obama’s plan to expand deferred action is rather modest. As several commentators have noted, President Obama’s plan is not so different from President Georgie H. W. Bush’s Family Fairness program in 1990—executive action that, at the time, prevented the deportations of over 40 percent of the undocumented population. President Obama’s new plan similarly attempts to reach approximately 4-5 million of the 11-12 million undocumented immigrants living in this country.

Nonetheless, critics of President Obama’s plan have argued that he has engaged in an unconstitutional “power grab.” While most immigration law scholars maintain that such assertions are unfounded, a few have argued that the President may have arguably violated his constitutional duty to “faithfully execute” the laws. Such arguments are generally premised on the idea that the President is “legalizing” immigrants contrary to the dictates of Congress.  However, the President has not announced a policy of legalization. The decision whether or not to deport an individual—a penalty—is not the equivalent of a decision whether or not to confer legal status such as permanent residency (either through affirmative grant or waiver) or citizenship. The Supreme Court has explicitly observed that nonenforcement decisions are a “special province of the Executive Branch.” And this is for good reason, given the potentially harsh, disproportionate, and counterproductive consequences of enforcement in some cases and the limited resources that the President has been given to administer the law in various contexts.

Indeed, in this respect, the memorandum from the Office of Legal Counsel may have been too conservative in its estimation of the President’s authority in the immigration context. The memorandum concluded that the President could not use his authority to extend deferred action to the parents of previous deferred action recipients. However, the family unity concerns expressed in the Immigration and Nationality Act are not exclusively limited to those whose family members already have lawful status in the United States. The Immigration and Nationality Act also includes humanitarian-based waivers and other forms of discretion that permit considerations of family ties without regard as to whether those family members are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. Family unity is a value that exists separate and apart from status, and its promotion through broad deferred action is consistent with the legal authority delegated to the President.

The rest of the debate appears to be a question of policy disagreements, rather than legal authority. These disagreements do not all go in one direction. For example, the President emphasized his efforts to use his executive authority to focus increased enforcement at the border and against individuals who fall under an amorphous “criminal” label—policies that will no doubt lead to many of the same problems that we have previously seen involving family separation, deportation without due process, and abuses at the border. I do not agree with these aspects of the President’s planned use of executive authority. When we divide up immigrant communities into the “deserving” and “undeserving,” everyone suffers. This is not only because the “underserving” share so many characteristics of the “deserving”—including having family ties and significant contributions to our country—this is also because the very existence of an “undeserving” category serves as a justification for the programs of mass deportation and detention that have proven to be so deeply problematic for our country as a whole. The only way to ensure a fair and just system is to provide everyone with a meaningful opportunity to be heard on the facts of his or her case—without exception.

That being said, these are issues for public debate. The public would be far better served by those who disagree with President Obama’s policies if the critics addressed these concerns on their own merits, rather than cloaking their disagreements in a strained legal challenge to the President’s authority to exercise his prosecutorial discretion.

Alina Das is Associate Professor of Clinical Law, NYU Law School. You can reach her by e-mail at DasA at

Must Enforcement Discretion be Exercised Case-by-Case?

Guest Blogger

Gillian Metzger

For the Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law

Along with others I believe the new immigration initiative is a constitutional exercise of DHS’s broad discretion over enforcement of the immigration statutes.  The Office of Legal Counsel opinion provides an impressive and careful assessment of the initiative’s legality.  OLC deserves credit both for making the opinion publicly available and undertaking to identify the metes and bounds of constitutional exercises of enforcement discretion.  

OLC identifies four principles as delimiting the permissible scope of enforcement discretion, two of which strike me as meriting special emphasis.  The first is the requirement that enforcement decisions must comport with statutory policies and cannot represent a surreptitious attempt by the executive branch to rewrite the statutes at issue.  The second—the constitutional bona fides of which I question—is that “a general policy of non-enforcement that forecloses case-by-case discretion poses special risks that the agency has exceeded the bounds of its enforcement discretion.”  (OLC Op. at 7).

A requirement that enforcement decisions must constitute good faith efforts to implement governing statutes (assuming those statutes are constitutional) strikes me as a no brainer.  This is the minimum constitutional demand imposed by the Take Care Clause’s requirement of faithful execution of the laws.  Whether such good faith efforts preclude invocation of presidential priorities when these priorities are compatible with underlying statutes is a harder question, as Adam Cox and Cristina Rodriguez suggest.  More generally, the principle that enforcement discretion must comport with statutory policy is not what’s in dispute.  Instead, it’s OLC’s application of this requirement — on the one hand, to uphold DHS’s proposal to grant deferred action status to parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, despite estimates that this may shield up to four million immigrants from deportation; and on the other, to conclude that it would be impermissible to grant deferred action status to parents of beneficiaries of the 2012 DACA program.

Still, the initiative’s statutory underpinnings are a critical feature of OLC’s analysis, and to my mind an important and appropriate one.  As Marty Lederman notes, rather than asserting inherent presidential power, OLC’s assessed DHS’s proposed actions entirely through the prism of delegated statutory authority.  That statutory focus will be a central factor in determining the opinion’s impact in future contexts.

OLC’s suggestion that exercises of enforcement discretion must preserve an opportunity for case-by-case determinations is much harder to justify.  OLC invokes lower court decisions in support of such a case-by-case requirement, but these decisions address a different issue, namely whether an agency’s adoption of a general enforcement policy should be deemed discretionary action that is presumptively exempt from judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act.  The two questions are significantly distinct; it’s well-established that an agency decision can be judicially reviewable yet nonetheless constitute a legitimate exercise of discretion.  Moreover, at most these decisions identify case-by-case determinations as enforcement discretion’s paradigmatic form.  But that is a far cry from concluding that a purely general policy alone cannot qualify.

OLC also suggests that a case-by-case outlet is important to guard against the executive branch trumping statutory policy, however the basis for this connection isn’t obvious to me.  Nothing in the categorical nature of an enforcement policy entails that it will be more likely used to defeat statutory policies rather than enforce them.  Insofar as categorical policies make enforcement choices more transparent and better constrain low-level discretion, they actually represent an important mechanism for enforcing adherence to governing law.   To be sure, the Supreme Court has indicated that exercises of discretion in the immigration context may statutorily require “some level of individualized determination.”  (Reno v. Flores, 507 U.S. 292, 313 (1993)).  That would support OLC’s emphasis on opportunities for individualized determinations under the initiative, but doesn’t justify a broader principle that all constitutional exercises of prosecutorial discretion must have a case-by-case element.

Most importantly, an insistence on preserving case-by-case assessment ignores the constitutional values served by categorical enforcement policies.  Meaningful supervision over case-by-case removal decisions is hard.  Precluding prospective and categorical articulation of immigration enforcement priorities is thus tantamount to insisting that nonenforcement decisions must be made by lower-level officials.  Such a requirement stands fundamentally at odds with our constitutional structure, which I have argued embodies a duty to supervise exercises of delegated power.  On this view, by openly stating a generally applicable policy and instituting an administrative scheme and guidance to implement that policy, President Obama and Secretary Johnson were fulfilling their constitutional duty.  This positive constitutional case for categorical enforcement oversight deserves greater weight in assessing the initiative’s constitutionality.

Gillian Metzger is Stanley H. Fuld Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. You can reach her by e-mail at gillian.metzger at

Playing Politics with the Office of Legal Counsel

Bruce Ackerman

For the Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law

Illegal Immigration v. Islamic State: I didn't have space in my Los Angeles Times essay to reflect on a second salient difference between Obama's recent unilateral engagements on these two different fronts.

This contrast reveals a politically-inspired manipulation of the Office of Legal Counsel.

The OLC immediately published a careful 33 page opinion  in support of the president's executive order on immigrants; but it has entirely failed to explain why he can defy the ninety-day time limit imposed by the War Powers Resolution, and continue on-going "hostilities" against the Islamic State despite his failure to obtain the consent of Congress.

To be sure, the White House has asserted that the Congressional Resolutions obtained by President Bush in 2001 and 2002 can be stretched to cover Obama's current campaign.  But these assertions are not be confused with a serious opinion, like the one OLC just issued on immigration, which confronts the formidable counter-arguments against the president's bare assertion of war-making authority.

For example, in the aftermath of 9/11,  President Bush initially demanded authority “to deter and preempt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States”  (my emphasis). But Congress refused to grant Bush this carte blanche. It only authorized him to attack states and groups involved in the assault on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon --  requiring future presidents to return for a new authorization if they choose, as Obama has done, to open up a new front in the war on terror. 

As I showed in a previous post on Balkinization, there is clear legislative history that Congress sought to deny the very authority that Obama has now claimed under the 2001 Resolution. At the very least. a serious OLC opinion would have to explain why this history does not bar the President from his latitudinarian interpretation of the 2001 text. In muzzling the OLC, the President is breaching a fundamental principle of the rule of law, requiring public accountability for his violation of the democracy-forcing mandate of the War Powers Resolution,

The central importance of this rule-of-law principle has been recognized by Obama's OLC itself.  In a 2010 memorandum on best practice,  David Barron,  then the Acting Assistant Attorney General, explained that:

"in deciding whether an opinion is significant enough to merit publication, the Office considers such factors as the potential importance of the opinion to other agencies and officials in the Executive Branch, the likelihood that similar questions will arise in the future; the historical importance of the opinion, or the context in which it arose; and the continuing significance of the opinion to the Office's overall jurisprudence. In applying these factors, the Office operates from the presumption that it should make its opinions fully and promptly available to the public." [Memorandum, at p. 5]

To be sure, Barron's memo then goes on to say that "national security" might serve as a "countervailing" factor. [Id.] But this caveat did not prevent the Administration from publishing an edited version of Barron's OLC opinion on drone warfare  to obtain his Senate confirmation as a judge on the First Circuit. It should not prevent the publication of a similar opinion supporting the legality of Obama's war on ISIS, when so much more is at stake.

Given the OLC's asserted "presumption" in favor of publication in cases like this, there is only one fair conclusion to draw from its continuing silence. If its opinion were issued, it would only serve to confirm the hostile reception that Obama's assertions have provoked from serious constitutionalists of all political persuasions -- creating another political hailstorm for the president as he continues to defy the commands of the War Powers Resolution.

To conclude:  when the President has a strong legal case, as in his immigration order, he tells the OLC to proclaim it to the world; when he doesn't, he tells it to shut up. The best way for the legal community to respond to this maneuver is to apply a presumption of illegality whenever the president -- or any future president -- engages in such transparently political manipulations.

Obama is not the first president to play politics with the OLC. I trace the office's increasing politicization over the past decades in my Decline and Fall of the American Republic. But in voting for him twice, I had expected our law professor-president to bring the Office back to its origins as a serious guardian of legality within the executive branch.  He has failed; and the best way to respond is with this rule: Whenever the Office of Legal Counsel violates its own presumption in favor of publication, Americans should answer by presuming the illegality of a seriously contested decision.

Like the Emancipation Proclamation, Obama's order forces democracy

Guest Blogger

Bruce Ackerman

For the Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law

Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation provides the foundational precedent for President Obama's executive order on immigrants in the country illegally.

Before Lincoln issued his pronouncement in September 1862, congressional majorities had expressly affirmed that the war effort only aimed “to preserve the Union” without “overthrowing … established institutions” in the rebel states. The proclamation was an act of executive unilateralism, and as Obama has done in his order, Lincoln limited its scope in recognition of this fact. As a result, both proclamations serve only to initiate, rather than preempt, further democratic debate and decision.

Lincoln did not try to free any blacks in the four slave states that remained loyal to the Union. Nor did he even liberate slaves in the Southern areas under federal control. Instead, the proclamation only affected those areas that remained in active rebellion on New Year's Day 1863.

Even where it applied, it did not commit the country to unconditional emancipation. Lincoln acted only in the name of “military necessity,” leaving it unclear whether Southern states could constitutionally reinstate slavery once the fighting came to an end. As the war wound down, many wanted to defer this issue for at least five years. But the proclamation prevented this evasion, forcing the question to the center of public attention.

Congress' first moment of truth came before the 1864 elections, when the 13th Amendment, which would authoritatively free the slaves, came to the floor. But in April 1864, the House rejected the measure. By voting no, Democrats sympathetic to the South deprived the initiative of the requisite two-thirds majority.

This constrained exercise of constitutional and statutory discretion will force both parties down Lincoln's path, requiring tough decisions they might otherwise evade.

The Democrats' decision made the emancipation amendment a central issue in the November elections — with their presidential candidate, Gen. George McClellan, supporting his party's congressional position throughout the fall campaign. The Democrats changed their tune only after their decisive defeat at the polls by Lincoln's Republicans. When the 13th Amendment returned for consideration during the lame duck session of Congress, enough Democrats changed their votes to give the initiative the two-thirds majority required to send it onward to the states.

The subsequent enactment of the amendment, however, did not conclude the debate that Lincoln had begun. In his proclamation, he promised to “recommend” that all “loyal” citizens “be compensated for all losses… including the loss of slaves.” This recommendation provoked a further round of argument that only ended in 1868 when the 14th Amendment rejected Lincoln's proposal, expressly denying all compensation to slaveholders for their newly emancipated freedmen.

Particulars in Obama's proclamation may well be changed by Americans over time. But like Lincoln's, its provisional and limited character will have a democracy-forcing effect — spurring officials and citizens to more actively engage in a constitutional dialogue.

Rather than refusing to follow the Constitution and “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” the president emphasizes that he will continue deportations, using all the budgetary resources Congress has provided. But those appropriations cover the annual removal of only 400,000 of the 11.3 million immigrants in the country illegally. Given this fact, Obama's initiative has a constitutionally legitimate purpose: to prevent Homeland Security from wasting its scarce resources on breaking up innocent families when it could be targeting immigrants who deserve expeditious removal.

This constrained exercise of constitutional and statutory discretion will force both political parties down Lincoln's path, requiring tough decisions they might otherwise evade: Will the Republican candidates for president and Congress, like the Democrats in 1864, run their next campaign on a platform repudiating Obama's proclamation? If so, will the Democrats of 2016 defend it? If so, how will voters respond?

The democracy-forcing aspect of Obama's initiative distinguishes it from other recent exercises in executive unilateralism. The president's decision to begin an open-ended war against Islamic State, for example, represents the imperial presidency at its worst. It is neither conditional nor provisional.

To the contrary, Obama is ignoring the War Power Act's explicit requirement that presidents gain congressional assent to their initiation of hostilities within 60 days. Rather than provoking debate, his assertion of power allows Congress to defer a considered decision on the war to the indefinite future. Serious constitutionalists should oppose such unilateralist assertions as a breach of fundamental principle.

But they should not confuse the issue by denouncing the president as imperial when he is engaging in democracy-enhancing actions fully consistent with his obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

An earlier version of this post appeared in the Los Angeles Times

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Prosecutorial Discretion Through the Looking Glass

Guest Blogger

David Alan Sklansky

For the Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law

            For someone like me—a former prosecutor who now teaches and writes about criminal procedure—there is a Through the Looking Glass quality to much of the furor over President Obama’s new immigration enforcement policies.  For several decades concerns have been raised that American prosecutors exercise lawless authority, in large part because of their nearly unbridled discretion over the filing of criminal charges.  Prosecutors have resisted, fiercely and successfully, virtually every effort to limit the range of their discretion or to require them to explain, to defend, or to justify their charging decisions.  Their resistance has been successful in part because the courts have treated enforcement decisions not just as unamenable to judicial review but as a matter firmly committed under our scheme of government to the Executive Branch.  It is this extreme deference by the courts to prosecutorial discretion—deference that strikes many scholars of criminal procedure as excessive—that has served as the primary template for broad judicial deference to other forms of executive enforcement discretion, including decisions about deportation.

            From that standpoint, there are two things about the immigration enforcement policies that are profoundly unremarkable.  The first is that the Executive Branch is prioritizing which undocumented immigrants it will seek to deport.  It has to do that, since there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country and Congress has provided funding that will allow somewhere around only 400,000 removal actions each year.  The second unremarkable thing is the particular enforcement priorities the Administration has chosen, none of which seem to have drawn any significant criticism.  Those priorities do not include, needless to say, immigrants without criminal records who are the parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents and who have lived in this country continuously since at least 2009.

            What has drawn criticism, of course, is the announcement of a policy not to deport most people in that group, at least not for the time being, coupled with a decision to give them work permits.  I don’t feel particularly qualified to opine about the legality of the work permits, except to note—as has the Administration—that there is a longstanding practice of giving work permits to immigrants granted “deferred action,” a practice to which Congress and the courts seem, at a minimum, to have acquiesced.  But to someone who thinks more about prosecutors than about immigration agents, it’s weird to see to see the President criticized as “lawless” for announcing a formal policy rather than continuing to forego deportation on a entirely ad hoc, decentralized, case-by-case basis, as everyone seems to agree he could have done.  It’s in large part the ad hoc, decentralized nature of prosecutorial discretion that has seemed to many people, for quite a long time, to allow prosecutorial power to be exercised so arbitrarily.

            What makes the talk of lawlessness in connection with the new immigration policies especially bizarre is that (a) the President took the unusual step of releasing an assessment of those policies by the Office of Legal Counsel, (b) OLC’s assessment took seriously not just the judicially enforceable limits on executive discretion, which are minimal, but the nonjusticiable implications of the President’s constitutional obligation to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” and (c) OLC wound up interpreting that language to impose significant restrictions on enforcement discretion—so significant that they ruled out some of what the President had wanted to do, and what it seems to me he could very plausibly have claimed authority to do.  Charging guidelines in criminal procedure are rarely if ever announced and defended in so public a manner, with such significant self-imposed limits.  Maybe they shouldn’t be.  But when compared with enforcement discretion in criminal procedure, the new immigration policies hardly look lawless.

            It’s entirely sensible to think not just about the substance of the new immigration enforcement policies but also about the precedent set by the way in which the President has put them into place.  The President’s critics are right about that.  They’re wrong, though, to suggest that the precedent created here will allow future Administrations to decline to enforce any laws they do not like.  The President has asserted the authority only to exercise his immigration enforcement discretion—a kind and an amount of discretion that Congress has left him no choice but to exercise in one way or another—through nationwide policies, publicly announced and publicly defended, rather than through ad hoc decisions made around the country behind closed doors.  Moreover, OLC’s memorandum concludes that the new deferred prosecution guidelines are permissible only because (a) they rely on factors peculiarly within the expertise of those charged with enforcing the immigration laws, (b) they are consonant with the policies and commitments established by Congress, (c) they do not abdicate or attempt to rewrite the President’s statutory responsibilities, and (d) they leave open the possibility of individualized, case-by-case decisions, if particular immigrants within the general class protected by the new policy nonetheless merit deportation.

            Arguably those principles would allow the step ruled out by OLC—deferred action for parents of DACA beneficiaries.  Regardless, though, the precedent they create for future Presidents is circumscribed.

David Alan Sklansky is Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and can be reached at


Friday, November 21, 2014

Two Rationales for Administrative Relief

Guest Blogger

Ahilan Arulanantham

For the Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law

Much of the initial reaction to the President’s newly-announced administrative relief program will likely focus on the decision not to extend relief to the parents of individuals who have obtained relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, even though it does extend relief to parents of children who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. At first blush the decision appears quite curious. After all, the President expanded DACA as part of the new program, and he offered strong support for the Dreamers in his remarks, referring to “the courage of students who, except for the circumstances of their birth, are as American as Malia or Sasha.” But apparently he did not think the Dreamers are quite American enough to save their parents from deportation.

While the President’s speech offered no explanation for that apparent anomaly, the Office of Legal Counsel’s memo defending the legality of the President’s program concludes that he would have lacked authority to provide relief to the parents of DACA recipients. While we may never know whether the tail wagged the dog or vice versa, exploring the strength of the distinction drawn by the memo provides a fruitful entry point into understanding the rationales behind the President’s new program as a whole.

Read more »

Executive Discretion and Congressional Priorities

Guest Blogger

Adam Cox & Cristina Rodriguez

For the Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law

As we noted last night, in the debate leading up to the President’s announcement of administrative immigration relief, most commentators acknowledged that his prosecutorial discretion was not unlimited—that somewhere a line would be crossed from permissible effectuation of enforcement priorities and to an unconstitutional failure to enforce the law.  Yet most commentators—especially proponents of the President using his discretion to provide relief to broad categories of unauthorized immigrants—have been reluctant to specify where that line might be.  We think this is because the line cannot be drawn with precision using conventional legal analysis.  Last night the debate changed with the OLC opinion’s decision to draw a sharp line.

               The OLC opinion is a fascinating and important legal document, and in our view it reflects a novel conception of the President’s enforcement authority.  The memo ties the President’s use of his prosecutorial discretion directly to “congressional priorities.”  Again and again, the memo emphasizes the importance of whether a discretionary decision is “consistent with . . . the priorities established by Congress” in the Immigration and Nationality Act.  Where the decision to grant relief tracks priorities reflected in the statute, such as keeping intact the families of citizens and lawful permanent residents, it falls within the zone of discretion. But where the relief cannot be linked to statutory provisions, the executive is constrained.  This is the reason OLC concluded that providing relief to the parents of DACA recipients would not be lawful.
Read more »

Strategic Supreme Court Resignations

Mark Tushnet

Do NOT take the following seriously.

Suppose you are a sitting Supreme Court Justice. To some degree you are concerned about who your successor will be. As the political scientists put it, your ideal point is, well, you.  You want your successor to be as much like you as possible (if you're a conservative, just as conservative -- but no more conservative -- than you are, if you're a liberal, just as liberal -- but no more liberal -- than you are.) [I ignore the possibility that your actual behavior is itself strategic -- that is, you would like to be more liberal or conservative, but the conditions of the current Court are such that you are constrained to be no more liberal or conservative than your votes indicate.]

Consider the calculations you do today. Right now, your successor will take his or her seat as a result of a process in which a Democratic President is constrained by a Republican Senate. If you wait, there are four possibilities: another Democratic President similarly constrained, another Democratic President with a Democratic Senate, a Republican President with a Republican Senate, and a Republican President constrained by a Democratic Senate. You have to place probabilities on each of those possibilities, and then figure out how close a successor chosen under each of those conditions would come to your ideal point.

Without going through all the details, I suggest that, placing reasonable probabilities on each of the possibilities, it wouldn't be irrational for either Justice Ginsburg or Justice Scalia to conclude that retiring now would yield a successor closer to her or his ideal point than waiting.

But, of course, I'm asking you to suppose that you are sitting Supreme Court Justice. Which means that you have a quite high (probably irrationally high) sense of the contribution to the public good that you, and only you, can make. (Put more formally, you think that any successor will be so far from your ideal point -- again, you -- that small differences can be ignored.)

Mark Twain comes to mind: "Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself." 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

What it is not: Dispelling the myths of the new DHS immigration initiative

Marty Lederman

[For the Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law]

Rarely has the legal basis for an important government action been so misunderstood and mischaracterized.  In the coming days, Balkinization's symposium devoted to this subject will include posts from several scholars who are much more familiar than I with the particularities of the immigration statutes at issue.  For starters, however, I thought it might be useful, and important, to dispel some of the more commonly heard myths about the DHS enforcement priorities and “deferred action” policies that the President just announced.  (See also Walter Dellinger's take here.)

1.  It’s not “unilateral” executive action.  Yes, of course the President has acted without any new statutory enactment, and his initiative was made necessary only because of intransigence in the House that prevents a vote on more far-reaching immigration reform (see Point 9, below); nevertheless it is important to emphasize that the new DHS enforcement priorities and deferred action status policy are being promulgated pursuant to statutorily delegated discretion.   See especially pages 4-5 of the opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel.  And OLC’s ultimate conclusion is that the new initiative is “consonant with congressional policy embodied in the [Immigration and Nationality Act]” (p. 24).  On a first read, OLC’s analysis of the scope of DHS’s statutorily conferred discretion, and how it has historically been exercised, appears to be solid, careful, measured and (as explained below) limited.  Whether or not OLC is correct in all of the particulars of its analysis, however—a question that, as mentioned above, I’ll leave to others who have greater expertise than I do—the important point is this:  What is at issue is simply a question of statutory interpretation, about the discretion that Congress has conferred upon the Secretary of DHS.

2.  It’s not an example of constitutional “monarchy,” or a replay of Bush Administration claims of preclusive executive authority.  Indeed, it’s not an exercise of constitutional ”executive power” at all:  The President and Secretary of DHS are not invoking any Article II authority, let alone an authority to override or disregard statutes.  (The OLC opinion does say (p.4) that the discretion that Congress is presumed to have conferred upon the Executive is “rooted” in the President’s constitutional duty to take care that the law is faithfully executed:  The point of invoking the “Take Care” Clause, however, is that implementing such enforcement priority decisions is “faithful” to the laws Congress has enacted.)

3.  It does not “cut out Congress”—indeed, it relies upon statutory authority.  Nor does it contradict what Congress has prescribed.  Neither the President nor the Secretary nor OLC has said anything to suggest that Congress could not, by statute, require a different enforcement scheme—to the contrary, OLC specifically acknowledges (pp. 4, 6) that Congress could legislate limits on enforcement discretion that the agency would be obliged to follow.  Moreover, and of great significance, OLC specifically concludes that, because enforcement priority decisions must be “consonant with, rather than contrary to,” Congress’s policy decisions as reflected in the governing statutes (pp. 5, 20), it would not be permissible for DHS to afford deferred action status to one category of aliens that the agency had proposed to cover (parents of children who have received deferred action status under the so-called “DACA” program):  Offering deferred action status to such aliens, OLC opined, would be unlawful because it would “deviate in important respects from the immigration system Congress has enacted and the policies that system embodies” (p. 32) and because it would not be analogous to deferred action programs that Congress has implicitly approved in the past (pp. 32-33).

4.  As that same OLC analysis demonstrates, the new deferred action policy is not premised on a theory of unlimited enforcement discretion—to the contrary.  Moreover, it is not unprecedented.  Conferral of “deferred action” status is a longstanding and regular feature of the immigration removal system that has been acknowledged by the other two branches (p.13), and Congress has never acted to disapprove or limit it; indeed, Congress has enacted laws that appear to have acquiesced in the practice, and OLC makes a strong case that the legislature has in some instances actually endorsed it (pp. 18-20, 23-24).

5.  It is not an "amnesty," nor does it afford anyone a license to violate any law.  That is to say, it is not the exercise of a “dispensation” power that the President does not have.  And it does not give the covered aliens any status as lawful immigrants, or provide a means of them obtaining citizenship or permanent resident status.

6.  The oft-invoked “What if the next President did not enforce his own set of ‘disfavored’ laws?” scenarios are not analogous--nor does the deferred action initiative create a precedent for any and all such nonenforcement hypotheticals.  [UPDATED for clarification.]  What if the next President were to announce that he or she were not going to prioritize clean-air enforcement, or prosecution of estate-tax evaders?  Doesn't the deferred action policy sanction such future executive "lawlessness"?   Three points in response to such hypos:  To begin with, the rationale of the OLC opinion might actually preclude, rather than authorize, many such hypothetical future presidential policies:  "[T]he Executive cannot, under the guise of exercising enforcement discretion, attempt to effectively rewrite the laws to match its policy preferences," OLC writes.  "In other words, an agency's enforcement discretion should be consonant with, rather than contrary to, the congressional policy underlying the statutes the agency is charged with administering."  Some of the "future President" hypos, that is to say, might be more like the DHS proposal to grant deferred action status to the parents of DACA aliens, which OLC concluded would not be lawful.  Second, even in such hypothetical cases involving wholesale decisions not to prosecute violations of criminal laws, the executive's announcement would not give companies a free pass to pollute, or taxpayers a license to withhold taxes.  A general nonenforcement policy in those contexts would leave the violators culpable, and subject to subsequent punishment, for the actions they undertook during the period of the executive’s nonenforcement policy:  Their potential fines would accrue every day, and they would remain in danger of being convicted as criminal malefactors.  Here, by contrast, there’s no duty for the aliens in question to leave the U.S., let alone any criminal conduct that is being ignored.  Finally, and most importantly, nothing the President and Secretary have announced tonight would give any aliens an immunity from culpability from, or a defense to, any unlawful conduct, or a legal “green light” to violate the law.  (Nor will this initiative increase the odds that future Republican administrations would implement their own enforcement priorities, since they already do so:  For example, in recent decades, when the DOJ Civil Rights Division has been in Republican control it has prosecuted very different types of race discrimination cases than it has under Democratic administrations.) 

7.  The new policy will not result in “underenforcement” of the immigration laws or constitute any other “abdication of the duties assigned to the agency” (OLC Opinion at 7); nor is it akin to a Nixonesque “impoundment” of funds.  The OLC opinion explains that DHS will likely spend the same amount of its appropriated funds on removal actions, and thus the deferred action policy (which covers only about one in every 30 undocumented aliens in the country) will almost certainly not even affect the total number of aliens the agency removes from the U.S.—what it will do, instead, is merely to adjust, in relatively small measure, which particular aliens are removed.

8.  The policy will not even guarantee aliens in deferred action status that they won’t be removed.  For one thing, DHS could revoke its policy—tomorrow, or next year, or in the next Administration—and at that point it could start removing the very same aliens who are covered by this initiative.  Moreover, even in the much more likely case that DHS does not change its new policy, that policy authorizes Immigration and Customs Enforcement Field Office Directors to order the removal of any covered alien if it would serve “an important federal interest.”

9.  It does not accomplish what the President has asked Congress to do, and what can only be done by enacting a new statute.   Again, it is not an “amnesty,” and does not confer any permanent status on any group of aliens, let alone afford them a legal entitlement to remain in the United States.  That remains something that requires legislative action . . . and that the President therefore continues to implore Congress to do.

10.  The new policy will not “deter bipartisan cooperation,” or put a crimp in any statutory reform efforts that might become law.   Congress can enact a bill tomorrow if it wishes—the Senate has already passed a bill that awaits action by the House, and the Executive’s initiative this evening will not prevent Republicans from discussing or proposing alternatives, especially after they control both houses of Congress next year.

Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law

Guest Blogger

Adam Cox & Cristina Rodriguez

Tonight, President Obama announced sweeping administrative reform of immigration law. His efforts raise important questions about the legal basis for his actions and its implications for the future of immigration law and the separation of powers.

Over the next several days, we will convene an online symposium here, on Balkinization, to discuss and debate these issues with a group of leading immigration law and constitutional law scholars and litigators.  While much ink has been spilled in recent months over the legality of administrative immigration relief, much of that writing has been necessarily speculative.  Now we know the basic facts.  The President’s administration will exercise prosecutorial discretion to defer the removal of many parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, making them eligible for work authorization for up to three years at a time.  This action is estimated to encompass 3.3 million unauthorized immigrants.  When combined with the last round of administrative relief—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Initiative—roughly 5 million persons, or 40 percent of the unauthorized population, may be affected.

As the President’s announcement made clear, however, there will be limits to his exercise of discretion.  The parents of DACA recipients will not be included.  This is an extremely important fact—not just as a political matter, but also, potentially, as a legal one.  Over the course of recent debate, writers on all sides of the issue have struggled mightily to avoid a central question about the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in immigration law: how far is too far?  Opponents have argued that the president has crossed the line into unconstitutionality; defenders have contended that he has not. But almost no one has been willing to say where that line is located.  Tonight that changed.  An opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel, made public by the administration, lays out the legal basis for the President’s actions and provides scholars with new theories of executive power and prosecutorial discretion to explore.  Importantly, that opinion concludes that, while the President has authority to grant relief to the parents of US citizens and LPRs, the President lacks legal authority to grant such relief to the parents of DACA recipients.

We are among those who believe the basic parameters of executive discretion in immigration law permit the President to take the steps he has.[1] But the OLC opinion raises important questions about the limits of discretion, as well as a new gloss on the legal issues—the legal claim that the President’s actions are consistent with congressional priorities as reflected in the Immigration and Nationality Act. 

The combination of the President’s sweeping action with an official government defense of the program’s legality—something that did not accompany DACA—makes now a crucial moment to discuss two fundamental questions that have long been embedded in the debate over administrative relief.  First, the question of scope: of how the size and composition of the group offered administrative relief bears on relief’s legality.  Second, the question of how the form of relief—that is, the precise benefits that are conferred through administrative action—affect its legality?

These and other questions will be ones that we and the other symposium participants will engage and debate in the coming days.

Adam Cox is Professor of Law at NYU School of Law and can be reached at Cristina Rodriguez is Leighton Homer Surbeck Professor of Law at Yale Law School and can be reached at

[1] For our early work thinking about these issues, see Adam B. Cox & Cristina M. Rodriguez, The President and Immigration Law, 119 Yale Law Journal 458 (2009).

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Call for Papers -- Family Law Workshop at University of Illinois

Jason Mazzone

My colleague, Robin Fretwell Wilson, is organizing the inaugural Harry Krause Emerging Family Law Scholars Workshop at the University of Illinois College of Law on Monday, January 19, 2015. The workshop is an opportunity for junior scholars (teaching for seven years or less) to present papers and receive feedback from more senior scholars -- in family law and related fields. The deadline for submission of brief paper proposals is December 1, 2014. Full details about the event and submission information at this link.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

For Veterans Day, Read about a Soldier

Mary L. Dudziak

November 11, or Veterans Day, was once called Armistice Day, the official ending of World War I. Congress created the official national holiday in 1926, noting that "it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations." Peace would be fleeting, however, and the United States would have many more veterans to honor. Along the way, November 11 became a day to honor all veterans. In the 21st century, the holiday receives more notice than a few decades ago, even though fewer American families participate in war service. As the work of war becomes an abstraction for most of us, the earlier hope for peace has been replaced by public celebrations of militarism.

Soldiers perform labor that the nation desires, but that most Americans never contemplate doing themselves. Americans support war without engaging its costs, or even paying close attention to the work soldiers do. To mark Veterans Day, we can get beyond shallow accolades and actually read about it. My choice this November is the extraordinary memoir of Bruce Wright, "World War I as I Saw It: The Memoir of an African American Soldier," edited by his grandchildren and published in the Massachusetts Historical Review. (It is behind a paywall, but perhaps the $10 it may cost you on JSTOR can be your Veterans Day contribution to his memory.)

The work of war, at the ground level, involves death and dying. This experience was widely shared during the Civil War, as Drew Gilpin Faust has shown, but is attenuated in the long U.S. history of distant war. Here's a snippet of Wright's own experience:
Finally the day broke and everyone there welcomed the dawn of that first day in the Argonne forest and we got our very first look onto "No Mans Land" that we had heard & read so much about. Masses of barbed wire, skeletons of men, tin cans, rotted clothes and an awful smell greeted our eyes & noses....It was raining but not hard and some of us I guess would be almost tempted to pray for a quick death to end it all.... 
At 11 A.M. in Broad daylight the command came "Over Boys Over" and that first wave made up of colored boys, with bayonets fixed dashed through no mans land in a perfect formation: It was 3 or 4 minutes before the buglers sounded the call to start firing. The [Germans] leaped out of their 1st trench and started falling back, so after they abandoned that first trench we fell in it head first but no sooner had we got to our feet the word came like lightning. "Up Boys and at 'em." Then that was the [beginning] of the most fierce struggle that I ever was in.
The rest is here. 

Cross-posted from War Time

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Ready to Throw in the Towel

Gerard N. Magliocca

Over the past few years, Jack and I have had a friendly disagreement about how to characterize the Obama presidency.  I've argued that Obama was a reconstructive president (in the mode of Ronald Reagan or Andrew Jackson) who was in the process of creating a new constitutional regime.  Jack has taken the view that President Obama is a preemptive president (more like Bill Clinton), who takes  opportunities when he can but has not fundamentally changed the political order.  I based my view on the President's broad victory in 2008, the enactment of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and the fact that he was reelected in 2012 and held the Senate majority for his party.

How is my prediction looking now?  Pretty not good.  The issue is not that the the Democrats lost the Senate this time around.  Republicans lost the Senate in 1986, after all, and that did not mean that the Reagan Revolution was dead.  One reason why Obama's legacy is shaky is that Affordable Care Act, his signature achievement, is now in peril again before the Supreme Court.  If King goes against the Administration, then that's a big political and policy blow.  (We'll see--of course.)

The other reason, which I've mentioned here before, is that the best case scenario for the President is that his successor will be his primary opponent from 2008.  It is unprecedented in modern times for a two-term leader to be succeeded by a rival within his own party (as opposed to a loyal ally).  Exactly what was the 2008 primary race about if Hillary Clinton is elected in 2016?    

Saturday, November 08, 2014

States’ rights—to block the flow of federal funds to their citizens?

Joey Fishkin

As a matter of statutory interpretation, the plaintiffs’ argument in King/Halbig—that the ACA as a whole clearly requires no subsidies to go to anybody in a state with a federal exchange—is sufficiently implausible that I think it is fair to characterize it as fundamentally a political argument.

To say that is not necessarily to knock it.  As a descriptive matter, it is hard to dispute the fact that, like the French Conseil Constitutionnel, our Supreme Court sometimes plays a role in our system that is irreducibly political.  From Bush v. Gore through NFIB v. Sebelius, there are plenty of recent high-profile constitutional disputes that illustrate why the founder of this blog and others very plausibly describe much of constitutional law as “high politics.”  Thus, while a challenge to an IRS regulation interpreting the language of the ACA is, on its face, simply a matter of statutory interpretation, it seems pretty clear that the King case is about more than that—not only in the eyes of the plaintiffs but also in the eyes of those who voted today to grant cert.  And so I think it is important to ask what high-politics principle the Justices sympathetic to the plaintiffs aim to vindicate.

(1) The most cynical interpretation is that this is not high politics, but low politics.  In other words, the principle is that Obama’s Affordable Care Act must fall because Obama and his party must lose.  Call this the “partisan Court” theory.  I often have students who are so firmly convinced that law is nothing but politics that they propose interpretations like this.  But I think it is too cynical.

(2) A different, slightly less cynical interpretation would be that the principle is this: the Affordable Care Act must be undone through any means or loophole possible, because it is a deep affront to individual liberty.  Call this the “covert Lochner-revivalist” interpretation.  This interpretation views King through the lens of the joint dissent in NFIB v. Sebelius.  The surface of NFIB may be about the Commerce Clause (just as the surface of King may be about statutory interpretation)—but the broccoli gives the game away.  The real underlying principle, on this view, is: you can’t make me eat the broccoli, you can’t make me buy health care, and indeed you can’t build a society in which everyone’s health insurance is subsidized and intertwined with taxes and the state because deep libertarian principles require, instead, a society in which we all voluntarily purchase whatever health insurance we want, or not.

(3) Or maybe the principle is not Lochner revivalism.  Maybe instead it is about federalism.   This interpretation proceeds as follows: view King through the lens of the Medicaid expansion portion of the Court’s decision in NFIB v. Sebelius.  In some ways that’s the closest fit.  In that portion of the case, many Justices seemed inclined to turn the Affordable Care Act into a very different kind of federal-state program than the one enacted by Congress—one in which the states could decide for themselves whether they wished to expand Medicaid or keep it as it was.  The plaintiffs in King, similarly, would create a system, never contemplated by Congress, that would allow states to opt in—or not, as they choose—to the federal subsidies for purchasing health insurance on the exchanges.  Just as many states now refuse the Medicaid expansion, states would be empowered by King to block all federal subsidy money for their citizens by declining to set up a state exchange.

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Friday, November 07, 2014

Certiorari Granted in King v. Burwell

Gerard N. Magliocca

When King was decided, I said in a post here that four Justices would be waiting on the courthouse steps for the certiorari petition.  Get ready for some fireworks in the Spring!

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

An Impeachment Primer


For those of you who want a refresher course on the constitutional law of impeachment, Akhil Amar and I created a primer, organized around the issues raised by the Clinton impeachment. We offered it as an online supplement for the 4th edition of the Brest Levinson casebook, which was published in 1999.  We never incorporated it into the 5th edition in 2006 because it no longer seemed all that important to teach.  As Mark Tushnet suggests, however, there is a slight chance that the issues may become relevant again.

And, by the way, the 6th edition of Brest Levinson was published this past month, and is available at fine bookstores near you.

Obama's Repudiation

Guest Blogger

Sandy Levinson

There is no other way to read the election results than a repudiation of President Obama's style of leadership (not to mention campaign finance, etc.). Might we not be better off with at least a quasi-parliamentary system that would allow the Democrats to replace him with Biden?  Cf the Tory's dismissal of Thatcher and Labour's forcing Blair out of office. Is this unfair to Obama?Sure. But politics, like life, is often unfair, and Obama has simply lost whatever charisma and mandate he once possessed. So sad, because in some ways he has been a fine president. But in too many other ways....

But, of course, we know he's not going anywhere, and we can all look forward to what Francis Fukuyama accurately describes in his new book as the further "decay" of our already dysfunctional system as what he calls the "vetocracy" operates with ever greater strength. No appointments for Obama, and, of course, I hope that he doesn't hesitate to use his own veto power to the fullest even though, as a delegate to my proposed constitutions convention, I'd strongly advocate limiting that undemocratic power. But this is not the occasion for unilateral disarmament.

Obamacare is Not Settled--Part XVII

Gerard N. Magliocca

Here are a couple of observations about yesterday's results.  One is that GOP control of the Senate means that there will be no voluntary retirements from the Supreme Court until 2017.  Like it or not, Justice Kennedy will continue as the swing vote.  Another is that House Republicans now control around 250 seats, which is their largest number since Al Capone was powerful and flagpole sitting was popular.  There is no way that Democrats can make up that deficit in one election cycle, thus we are looking at a GOP House for at least four more years.

Here's my big takeaway though.  The Affordable Care Act is still not settled law.  While Congress cannot repeal the Act over the President's veto, the issue will remain a live one through 2016.  More important, the election results may influence the Court's thinking on whether to take the cert. petition in King.  Court watchers noted the other day that the petition was relisted, which is often (though not always) a prelude to a grant.  The timing of the relist to correspond with the midterm election may be a coincidence, but in any event the election result may embolden the Justices who dissented in NFIB to take a statutory crack at the Act.

Time to Dust Off Impeachment Scholarship?

Mark Tushnet

Languishing on our bookshelves since 1999.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Tempered Support for a Cultural Change Agenda

Guest Blogger

Clare Huntington

For the book symposium on Clare Huntington, Failure to Flourish: How Family Law Undermines Family Relationships (Oxford University Press, 2014)

 Linda McClain has usefully brought together so many threads from this symposium, and her post goes to the heart of the central challenge facing family law—how best to strengthen families in light of the sharp decline in marriage. I am particularly intrigued by her question about where my proposals fit in Isabel Sawhill’s taxonomy of “traditionalists” and “village builders.” McClain is absolutely right that I am more of a village builder (although that term makes me want to sing YMCA, which, appropriately enough, contains lyrics about helping young men down on their luck). Much of my book is a call for greater state support to address the structural challenges facing families, from the brutal low-wage workplace to the atomistic neighborhoods that do not promote social ties—all of which have “village” connotations.

McClain is also right that I am a bit of a traditionalist to the extent that I am strongly in favor of stable environments that nurture the relationships children need to thrive. I am more agnostic, however, about the kinds of family forms that can provide these relationships than the typical traditionalist. Above all, we need to pay close attention to whether any particular family form is able to promote a commitment to childrearing by both parents or by other adults in the child’s life such as a grandparent, aunt, or uncle.

It is a closer call whether I am on board with Sawhill’s argument for cultural change. In her recent book, Generation Unbound, Sawhill divides the world of parents into “drifters” and “planners,” (pp. 6-7) with drifters becoming parents unintentionally and planners becoming parents by design. Sawhill wants to change the drifters into planners. As McClain explains, the centerpiece of Sawhill’s strategy is increasing the accessibility and use of long-acting reversible forms of contraception (LARCs). These highly effective methods of birth control would prevent almost all unwanted pregnancies and would mean that a woman needs to take an affirmative step—going to the doctor to have the IUD or implant removed—to become pregnant. For the reasons I elaborate below, I agree, although warily, with Sawhill’s project to inculcate a stronger norm of parenting by design.
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