Friday, September 06, 2013

Appeal to Procedure

Some of you may have heard that a Montana judge imposed a thirty-day sentence in a statutory rape case where s teacher slept with a 14 year old student. Some of you may have then read that the judge was planning to revisit that sentence. And then finally some of you may have read today's headline, which states that "Montana high court blocks hearing on resentencing rapist of girl". And you might have every right to be upset -- except this headline is misleading.

The ruling here does not necessarily mean that the original sentence will stand. Rather, it is a very mundane point of procedure: the trial court can't revisit the sentence at this stage; rather, the remedy is for the appellate courts to review the sentence. As both the prosecution and the defense argued, allowing the trial court to redo its sentencing would dramatically muddy the legal waters on appeal and make it far harder for the appellate courts to provide a full and fair review of the original (or revised) sentence.

So boo to misleading headlines, but everybody else take a deep breath. You may need to save your outrage for later, but at least keep it in the pocket for now.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Two Tablets

L'shana tova, everyone. Two article on Tablet caught my eye. The first is a joint review by David Mikics of two books on anti-Semitism: David Nirenberg's "Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition" and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's "The Devil That Never Dies." The former I have and am now even more inclined to read, the latter I do not own and now know I need not intend to. And that's what book reviews are for, are they not? Check it out.

The second article is by Yair Rosenberg, responding to Peter Beinart's recent essay on the Jewish cocoon. I don't dislike Peter Beinart per se, but I agree with Jon Chait that he tends to take good points a step to far. In particular, he is far to enamored with the idea that he is a solo Jeremiah who is the first (and thus far only) prophet to notice the doom approaching the Jewish people. In any event, Rosenberg notes that while it is perfectly true that many Jewish organizations have historically been closed off from Palestinian narratives, that is becoming less true every year. At the same time, the burgeoning "anti-normalization" wing of Palestinian solidarity politics means that Jewish/Palestinian dialogue can't occur even if Jews want it to, because such talks are considered to be endorsements of the basic legitimacy of Jewish national aspirations. Hence we see how the BDS movement has made organizations like One Voice its public enemy number one, precisely because such organizations could provide the momentum for a grassroots settlement that would respect Jewish and Palestinian rights alike -- the anti-thesis of the maximalizt position taken by the BDS campaigners. As Rosenberg stresses, this is not to denigrate the obligation of Jewish groups to engage in dialogue; it is merely to stress -- as it is regrettably often necessary to do -- that the reason such dialogue is not proceeding is not simply because of intransigence on the Jewish side.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Ronald Coase RIP

University of Chicago Law Professor and Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase died yesterday at age 102. Coase was hired by the University of Chicago in 1964, despite not having a law degree. While such hires are not uncommon today, this was basically unheard of at the time. It was definitely a risk that paid off, however, as Coase is credited with basically inventing the Law & Economics movement (a feat all the more impressive given that he did it in what was basically a throwaway paragraph in a piece otherwise about telecommunications law).

Coase's two best known works were "The Nature of the Firm," first published in 1937 (though based on a lecture he delivered in 1932), and "The Problem of Social Cost," published in 1960. The latter is the most-cited law review article of all time. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991, in substantial part because of the massive impact of these articles. The delay in recognition was not lost on him. As he remarked at the time: "It is a strange experience to be praised in my eighties for work I did in my twenties." Speaking of bons mots, Coase is also credited with coining the popular statistics maxim: "If you torture the data long enough, it will confess."

The "Coase Theorem" (he didn't name it), derived from his body of work, is perhaps Coase's most enduring contribution. In a nutshell, the theory holds that if a right to avoid a harm is tradeable and there are zero transaction costs, the market process will result in an efficient allocation of rights regardless of their initial distribution. The Coase theorem is often described as one of the most misunderstood and misapplied concepts in law. Cognizant of these risks, I resolved to not try to apply it at all -- a bold decision for a University of Chicago law student. Nonetheless, based on my classroom recollections I think Wikipedia's illustration of the concept is solid:
For example, two property owners own land on a mountainside. Property Owner #1's land is upstream from Owner #2 and there is significant, damaging runoff from Owner #1's land to Owner #2's land. Four scenarios are considered:

(1) If a cause of action exists (i.e. #2 could sue #1 for damages and win) and the property damage equals $100 while the cost of building a wall to stop the runoff equals $50, the wall will probably exist. Owner #1 will build the wall, or pay Owner #2 between $1 and $50 to tolerate the runoff.

(2) If a cause of action exists and the damage equals $50 while the cost of a wall is $100, the wall will not exist. Owner #2 may sue, win the case and the court will order Owner #1 to pay #2 $50. This is cheaper than actually building the wall. Courts rarely order persons to do or not do actions: they prefer monetary awards.

(3) If a cause of action does not exist, and the damage equals $100 while the cost of the wall equals $50, the wall will exist. Even though #2 cannot win the lawsuit, he or she will still pay #1 some amount between $51 and $99 to build the wall.

(4) If a cause of action does not exist, and the damage equals $50 while the wall will cost $100, the wall will not exist. #2 cannot win the lawsuit and the economic realities of trying to get the wall built are prohibitive.
Importantly, the legal allocation of rights does affect the distribution of who has to pay how much.

Coase continued to write well past the century mark -- his last book, How China Became Capitalist, was published only last year. He was a giant in his field, a giant in academia in general, and his contributions will be missed. As a friend of mine said: "May there be no transaction costs in heaven."

Monday, September 02, 2013

Greetings from (near) the District!

Happy Labor Day! We're in DC (well, technically Bethesda), staying at my parents house for the next few days as the moving truck catches up. But soon we'll be moving into our DC (well, technically Arlington) apartment. This, of course, is the first time I've really "lived" in the DC area (not counting some stints of summer employment) since I left for college. I'm very excited.