Remedying Police Brutality Through Sentencing Reduction

Police brutality is a widespread problem that causes significant physical and psychological trauma, undermines faith in the law, and disproportionately impacts communities of color. Existing remedies to police brutality—including civil suits for damages, criminal prosecution, and internal disciplinary procedures—have in many cases proven inadequate. They fail to sufficiently deter police brutality and fail to adequately compensate victims.

This Essay proposes a novel alternative: remedying police brutality by reducing the sentences of criminal defendants who have been victims of police brutality and subsequently convicted of a crime. When a victim of police brutality is convicted of a crime relating to an incident in which the police committed unnecessary violence, they would be eligible for a reduction in their resulting sentence. The magnitude of the sentence reduction would scale to the severity of the police’s actions. Such a remedy would deter police brutality and adequately compensate victims. Because the remedy would occur within the very same process that produces police brutality—the process of criminal investigation and adjudication—it would restore procedural fairness and reaffirm victims’ rights. The Essay concludes by exploring practical concerns with the remedy, particularly the relative roles of legislatures and courts in its implementation.

Introduction

Late on the night of May 24, 2020, Joseph Troiano left an overcrowded New York City homeless shelter, tired of waiting for a bed, and took his bags with him to the subway, setting the bags down in the seats around him.1.SeeRosa Goldensohn, De Blasio Renders Split Decision on Video of Cop Punching Homeless Man on Subway, The City (July 20, 2020, 9:35 PM), https://www.thecity.nyc/2020/7/20/21332157/de-blasio-subway-video-nypd-cop-punches-homeless-man [https://perma.cc/Y9EP-UV3U]; Adam Harding, Man Hit, Choked and Maced by NYPD in Violent Arrest Video Plans to File $40M Lawsuit, NBC New York (July 17, 2020 2:29 AM), https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/man-hit-choked-and-maced-by-nypd-in-violent-arrest-video-plans-to-file-40m-lawsuit/2518793/ [https://perma.cc/Q6AF-ESP9].Show More The subway was nearly empty.2.Goldensohn, supra note 1.Show More Just after midnight, an officer of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) approached him and ordered him to move because he was occupying multiple seats.3.Id.Show More Troiano moved to the next train car.4.Id.Show More The officer, joined by another officer, followed and ordered Troiano to exit, telling him “step off or I got to drag you off.”5.See Harding, supra note 1.Show More

A bodycam video of the incident shows Troiano objecting to the officers’ harassment, then one of them suddenly reaching out to grab him.6.The City, NYPD Subway Arrest, YouTube (July 14, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/‌watch?v=2lgK-apbl8Y [https://perma.cc/9FZ8-CFG8].Show More Troiano swats the officer’s hand.7.Id.Show More The officer grabs Troiano and throws a few quick punches to his head.8.Id.Show More As Troiano yells, the officer pulls him off the train by the back of the neck and throws him on the platform floor.9.Id.Show More Troiano gets up and stands against the platform wall, visibly shaken.10 10.Id.Show More The officer kicks his bags off the train, scattering them on the platform.11 11.Id.Show More As Troiano yells for them to stop, his back still to the wall, the other officer sprays him with pepper spray at point-blank range.12 12.Id.Show More The officers finally bring him to the ground and handcuff him.13 13.Id.Show More

Manhattan District Attorney (D.A.) Cyrus Vance initially charged Troiano with felony assault (for allegedly kicking the officer’s hand while on the platform) and misdemeanor resisting arrest.14 14.Goldensohn, supra note 1.Show More After widespread outrage, the D.A.’s office dropped the felony charge, leaving the resisting arrest charge,15 15.Id.Show More a Class A misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.16 16.N.Y. Penal Law §§ 70.15(1), 205.30 (McKinney 2019).Show More

While the most highly publicized incidents of police brutality tend to involve unjustified killing by the police, many instances of police brutality are non-lethal. It far more often occurs in incidents like the one between the NYPD and Joseph Troiano.17 17.SeeMatthew J. Hickman, Alex R. Piquero & Joel H. Garner, Toward a National Estimate of Police Use of Nonlethal Force, 7 Criminology & Pub. Pol’y 563, 577–81, 588–89 (2008) (finding that several hundred thousand arrestees in 2002 experienced nonlethal force from an officer, such as being pushed, grabbed, kicked, hit, or held at gunpoint); Police Shootings, Vice News (Dec. 10, 2017), https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/a3jjpa/nonfatal-police-shootings-data [https://perma.cc/KT6V-NH35] (providing data on police shootings from 2010 through 2016 at the fifty largest local police departments in the U.S. and finding that “[f]or every person shot and killed by cops in these departments . . . police shot at two more people who survived”). Data on police brutality is extremely limited. In the past few years there have been some efforts to begin national data collection, but the complete results have not yet been published. See, e.g., National Use-of-Force Data Collection, FBI, https://www.fbi.gov/‌services/cjis/ucr/use-of-force [https://perma.cc/5V8L-V4CF] (last visited Mar. 18, 2021) (noting that “[t]he FBI released initial data when 40% of the total law enforcement officer population was reached” in July 2020 and that “[a]dditional data will be released at 60% and 80% participation levels”).Show More In legal parlance, these more everyday instances of police brutality are often cast in other terms—“excessive use of force” or “unreasonable force”18 18.See, e.g., Griggs v. Brewer, 841 F.3d 308, 313–14 (5th Cir. 2016).Show More—but represent essentially the same problem: the police’s unjustified use of physical violence.19 19.Whether “police brutality” is coequal with those terms is subject to some disagreement. See, e.g., Susan Bandes, Patterns of Injustice: Police Brutality in the Courts, 47 Buff. L. Rev. 1275, 1276 (1999) (distinguishing “[p]olice brutality” from “police misconduct” on the basis that the former “is conduct that is not merely mistaken, but taken in bad faith with the intent to dehumanize and degrade its target”).Show More

Police brutality is a dire problem with inadequate remedies. It is an old problem, tied to the nation’s history of racism.20 20.See generally Sandra Bass, Policing Space, Policing Race: Social Control Imperatives and Police Discretionary Decisions, 28 Soc. Just. 156 (2001) (detailing the history of race and policing from slave patrols to the war on drugs).Show More In 2020, a string of police killings of Black victims—Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, among others—provoked widespread protests that were themselves met by police brutality.21 21.See, e.g., Richard Fausset and Shaila Dewan, Elijah McClain Died After He Was Detained. Now He’s Being Remembered., N.Y. Times (June 30, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/20/us/elijah-mcclain-police-killings.html [https://perma.cc/LU93-HQ7Q]; Adam Gabbatt, Protests About Police Brutality Are Met with Wave of Police Brutality Across U.S., The Guardian (June 6, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/06/police-violence-protests-us-george-floyd [https://perma.cc/GQ3J-G5Q7].Show More The effects of police brutality are immense. The most severe are, of course, suffered by victims themselves as physical and psychological trauma, but police brutality also has broader societal impacts. It undermines faith in the legal system.22 22.See Nathan James et al., Cong. Rsch. Serv., R43904, Public Trust and Law Enforcement–A Discussion for Policymakers 2–3 (2020) (tracking declines in public confidence in the police in recent years).Show More It is linked to lower academic achievement and school attendance.23 23.See Desmond Ang, The Effects of Police Violence on Inner-City Students, 136 Q.J. Econ. 115, 11718 (2021).Show More It disproportionately impacts Black and Hispanic communities.24 24.SeeRoland G. Fryer, Jr., An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force, 127 J. Pol. Econ. 1210, 1213–14 (2019).Show More

Despite how serious of a problem police brutality is, remedies for it are entirely inadequate. A victim can sue an officer for civil damages, but the officer’s conduct might well be covered by qualified immunity.25 25.SeeRachel A. Harmon, Legal Remedies for Police Misconduct, in 2 Reforming Criminal Justice: Policing 27, 33–35 (Erik Luna ed., 2017).Show More They could sue the municipality for damages, but discovery would be difficult, the process long, and the settlement potentially inadequate.26 26.Id. at 35. See also Kimberly A. Yuracko & Ronen Avraham, Valuing Black Lives: A Constitutional Challenge to the Use of Race-Based Tables in Calculating Tort Damages, 106 Calif. L. Rev. 325 (2018) (discussing how Black and Hispanic tort claimants’ damage awards are under-calculated as a matter of course because of courts’ reliance on race-sensitive data).Show More They could seek criminal prosecution of the officers, but political pressures might not allow prosecutors to bring an indictment.27 27.Harmon, supra note 25, at 40–43. See also John V. Jacobi, Prosecuting Police Misconduct, 2000 Wis. L. Rev. 789, 789 (2000) (discussing the “cycle of impunity[] by which the reluctance of local government to prosecute bad cops empowers future misconduct and drives communities to regard the police as adversaries”).Show More They could petition for an internal departmental review of the officer, but the process would be polluted by conflicting incentives and bureaucratic limitations.28 28.Harmon, supra note 25, at 45–46.Show More In short, existing remedies to police brutality are insufficient in both the frequency with which they are invoked and the amount they compensate the victim when they are invoked.

And, if the victim, like Joseph Troiano, has been charged with a crime , they could still end up going to prison. Existing remedies to police brutality treat the victim’s prosecution as a distinct process from the processes through which they may seek a remedy. In a case like Troiano’s where the victim of the police brutality is charged with a crime, the victim must go through their own criminal adjudication and separately seek a remedy to the brutality. But why should a remedy not be available within the very same process that produces police brutality—the criminal investigative and adjudicatory process? After all, victims of other kinds of police misconduct receive the benefit of the exclusionary rule,29 29.SeeMapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 654–55 (1961).Show More and victims of prosecutorial misconduct can have their cases dismissed as a remedy,30 30.See, e.g., United States v. Cooper, 983 F.2d 928, 929–30 (9th Cir. 1993) (affirming the dismissal of an indictment after the government destroyed evidence in spite of defendant’s repeated requests to prosecutor to preserve the evidence); United States v. Bohl, 25 F.3d 904, 906 (10th Cir. 1994) (dismissing the case because the prosecution failed to adhere to the defendant’s request to preserve evidence); see also Peter J. Henning, Prosecutorial Misconduct and Constitutional Remedies, 77 Wash. U.L.Q. 713, 815–19 (1999) (discussing different remedies for prosecutorial misconduct, including dismissal).Show More which are both remedies internal to their criminal adjudication.

This Essay proposes a new remedy to police brutality: reducing the sentences of criminal defendants who have been the victims of police brutality. Part I details the mechanics of the proposal. Part II then describes the benefits of using remedial sentencing for police brutality. The remedy would have two particular benefits: one, it would deter police brutality, and two, it would adequately compensate victims. Finally, Part III explores how legislatures and courts could implement the remedy.

I. The Proposal

The possibility of remedying police brutality at the sentencing phase of a victim’s criminal trial has not been proposed in prior scholarship. Some scholars have, however, proposed remedial sentencing schemes in other contexts. Some, including Judge Guido Calabresi, have proposed using sentence reduction as an alternative remedy to the exclusionary rule.31 31.SeeGuido Calabresi, The Exclusionary Rule, 26 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 111, 116 (2003); Harry M. Caldwell & Carol A. Chase, The Unruly Exclusionary Rule: Heeding Justice Blackmun’s Call to Examine the Rule in Light of Changing Judicial Understanding About Its Effects Outside the Courtroom, 78 Marq. L. Rev. 45, 73–74 (1994).Show More Other scholars have argued that sentence reduction could be used to remedy prosecutorial misconduct.32 32.Seegenerally Sonja B. Starr, Sentence Reduction as a Remedy for Prosecutorial Misconduct, 97 Geo. L.J. 1509 (2009) (proposing sentence reduction as a remedy that would deter prosecutorial misconduct and have corrective and expressive value).Show More And others have argued that it could help amend historical discrimination against minority groups.33 33.SeeMakenzie Way, Remedial Sentencing Legislation as a Tool for Reducing Overrepresentation in Correctional Facilities, Penn L. News (Jan. 6., 2020), https://www.law.upenn.edu/live/news/9534-remedial-sentencing-legislation-as-a-tool-for [https://perma.cc/4AJW-88SX].Show More None, however, have proposed using sentence reduction for police brutality.

Nor has any American court employed remedial sentencing for police brutality.34 34.Although the Supreme Court of Canada has notably used a similar remedy at least once. See R. v. Nasogaluak, [2010] 1 S.C.R. 206, 208–10 (Can.).Show More But it would hardly be unprecedented. There is a long tradition of remedying police and prosecutorial misconduct within the criminal trial, of which sentencing is a part. The exclusionary rule is the most prominent; a defendant who has been the victim of police misconduct—an illegal search, or perhaps a Miranda violation—receives a remedy within the context of their trial.35 35.SeeMapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 654–55 (1961); Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 479 (1966).Show More As it goes, “[t]he criminal is to go free because the constable has blundered.”36 36.People v. Defore, 150 N.E. 585, 587 (N.Y. 1926).Show More As another example, courts, on rare occasions, bar retrial to remedy particularly egregious instances of prosecutorial misconduct that result in mistrials, again providing a remedy within the context of the defendant’s trial.37 37.See Michael D. Cicchini, Prosecutorial Misconduct at Trial: A New Perspective Rooted in Confrontation Clause Jurisprudence, 37 Seton Hall L. Rev. 335, 344–46 (2007) (discussing how double jeopardy bars retrials where a mistrial has been declared for prosecutorial conduct that was specifically “intended to provoke the defendant into moving for a mistrial” (quoting Oregon v. Kennedy, 456 U.S. 667, 679 (1982)) but not where the prosecutor’s conduct was intended to win at trial using impermissible means).Show More Remedying police brutality at the sentencing phase of the trial would be consistent with those remedies: it provides a remedy internal to the victim’s criminal adjudication.

Consider what the remedy would look like in practice. First, there would have to be an occurrence of police brutality. The remedy should at least be available for any occurrence of police brutality that violates the Constitution,38 38.Namely, the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unlawful seizures and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ Due Process Clauses.Show More but could also be defined by statute or within sentencing guidelines in order to broaden the scope of the conduct captured beyond a constitutional standard.

The victim would then have to be charged with an offense. The offense could be the offense that the police were investigating or executing an arrest for when the brutality occurred,39 39.As in the case of Jacob Blake, whose shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has received significant media attention. See Christina Morales, What We Know About the Shooting of Jacob Blake, N.Y. Times (Jan. 5, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/article/jacob-blake-shooting-kenosha.html [https://perma.cc/MX7Q-47QB].Show More or it could be an offense arising out of the police-victim interaction itself (resisting arrest, assault on an officer) as in Troiano’s case. When there is a charge relating to conduct that precedes the brutality, there might have to be some kind of fact-finding process to determine that the police brutality incident is sufficiently related to the charge—that it arises from the investigation of, or arrest for, that particular charge. Needless to say, the remedy is only available if the victim is actually charged with a crime. This means that many victims of police brutality, ones who are never charged with an offense, would not reap its benefits. But the remedy’s limited scope would not render it any less impactful when it does apply.

Victims could invoke the remedy at one of several stages. First, they could indirectly benefit from it during plea bargaining. If a defendant has been the victim of police brutality and might consequently receive a lower sentence if the factfinder finds them guilty, they would likely receive a more favorable plea offer. The potential sentence reduction would act as an extra bargaining chip. Considering how many criminal cases result in plea deals,40 40.See Report: Guilty Pleas on the Rise, Criminal Trials on the Decline, Innocence Project (Aug. 7, 2018), https://innocenceproject.org/guilty-pleas-on-the-rise-criminal-trials-on-the-decline/ [https://perma.cc/9ZNF-MHQA] (finding that “97 percent of [criminal] cases were resolved through plea deals”).Show More the indirect benefits at this stage would be significant. Second, the victim could invoke the right at sentencing if they go to trial and the factfinder finds them guilty. Legislatures or sentencing commissions could establish specific downward departures for victims of police brutality, or judges could take it into account under existing sentencing factors. Third, a victim could invoke the remedy on direct appeal, or, fourth, in a post-conviction proceeding.

Regardless of when the victim invokes the remedy, the magnitude of the compensation—the reduction in the victim’s sentence time—would still have to be determined. In general, more severe instances of police brutality would warrant greater sentence reductions. The compensation should be commensurate with the harm. In cases where the brutality is severe and the defendant’s offense insignificant, the sentence reduction could be complete, producing a sentence without a term of incarceration; in cases where the brutality is less severe and the defendant’s offense significant, the sentence reduction could be relatively minor. This ability to appropriately tailor the size of the compensation to the harm helps produce the deterrent and compensatory effects that make sentence reduction such a promising remedy for police brutality.

II. Benefits of the Remedy

Existing remedies to police brutality provide, at least in theory, two main benefits: deterring further police brutality and compensating victims.41 41.SeeHarmon, supranote 25, at 27–30.Show More Remedying police brutality through sentence reduction should deter further brutality, and is uniquely situated among potential remedies to police brutality to adequately compensate victims.

A. Remedial Sentencing’s Deterrent Effects

Remedying police brutality through sentence reduction should tend to deter further brutality when the costs it imposes on police officers exceed the benefits they gain by committing brutality.42 42.SeeFrank H. Easterbrook, Criminal Procedure as a Market System, 12 J. Legal Stud. 289, 292 (1983) (arguing that to satisfy the criminal law goal of deterrence, the criminal process must set “[t]he optimal price for the offense,” which is “just high enough to require offenders to pay for all of the harm their crimes inflict”).Show More Neither of those factors is precisely or easily calculable, but there is enough empirical evidence on police behavior to suggest that remedial sentencing would have a deterrent effect.

What costs does the remedy impose on officers? Empirical evidence suggests a few clear incentives that control police behavior. Most relevantly here, police have an incentive to secure convictions and sentences; they consistently act in ways that will tend to produce more convictions with longer sentences.43 43.See, e.g.,John Pfaff, The Perverse Incentives of Punishment, The Appeal (May 18, 2018), https://theappeal.org/the-perverse-incentives-of-punishment-7c1e32b18d07/[ https://perma.cc/WUF5-AZRV] (reporting an especially egregious example of this phenomenon, wherein Todd Entrekin, a sheriff in Etowah, Alabama, “pocketed at least $750,000 budgeted for feeding the people detained in his county jail,” enabling him to purchase a beach house while those incarcerated the jail ate meat “labeled ‘not fit for human consumption’”).Show More Evidence emerging out of studies of wrongful convictions indicates that officers tend to act in a way that secures convictions and long sentences even if, in doing so, they sometimes act unlawfully or in bad faith.44 44.SeeAnthony W. Batts, Maddy deLone & Darrel W. Stephens, Policing and Wrongful Convictions, Nat’l Inst. Just. 4 (2014), https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/246328.pdf [https://perma.cc/K5SJ-WCZK].Show More Because police have such a demonstrated interest in securing convictions and long sentences, remedial sentencing should impose costs on them: it produces shorter sentences when they act unlawfully.

An important factor in determining the exact costs that the remedy imposes on police is the likelihood that it would actually be invoked when it is available.45 45.See Easterbrook, supra note 42, at 292 (emphasizing that the price of committing an offense is a product of “[t]he penalty” imposed and “the probability that it will be imposed for a given offense”).Show More This is the failing of many existing remedies to police brutality: they might produce a deterrent effect if they were actually used, but police officers are generally immune from civil suits due to qualified immunity and immune from criminal prosecution because of political insulation.46 46.See Harmon, supranote 25, at 34–35, 43.Show More Remedial sentencing would be comparatively easy to invoke. The victim would be automatically eligible for it at sentencing, and would not have to overcome the institutional barriers involved with civil suits or prosecuting officers. In addition, there would also be no concern with providing the victim an unwarranted windfall because the size of the sentence reduction would be made commensurate with the severity of the police conduct, so judges, generally speaking, should not be reluctant to allow it. Evidence shows that judges might be reluctant to provide a windfall—as the exclusionary rule is in many cases—but they should be less reluctant to provide a remedy that is commensurate with what the defendant deserves.47 47.See Starr, supranote 32, at 1521.Show More

What benefits do the police gain from committing brutality? It is perhaps unintuitive to think of the issue in those terms, so it might be easier to consider the correlative: the costs the police incur by not committing brutality. This factor is crucial to understanding how sentence reduction could deter police brutality. To be sure, the reasons that police brutality occurs are nebulous, subject to active debate, and hardly reducible to a few easily-defined factors.48 48.The genesis of police brutality is a broad and hotly contested subject, but a few key ingredients include poor hiring and training practices, the militarization of the police, and institutionalized racism. SeeRobert E. Worden, The “Causes” of Police Brutality: Theory and Evidence on Police Use of Force, in Criminal Justice Theory: Explaining the Nature and Behavior of Criminal Justice 149–64 (Edward R. Maguire and David E. Duffee eds., 2d ed. 2015) (providing an overview of various theories and studies of police use of force); Rosa Brooks, Stop Training Police Like They’re Joining the Military, The Atlantic (June 10, 2020), https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/police-academies-paramilitary/612859/ [https://perma.cc/MBR9-68K5] (addressing the relationship between militarizing the police and police brutality and discussing promising efforts to train police to critically engage with the history of paramilitary police forces in the United States); Wayne McElrath & Sarah Turberville, Poisoning Our Police: How the Militarization Mindset Threatens Constitutional Rights and Public Safety, Project on Gov’t Oversight, (June 9, 2020), https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2020/06/poisoning-our-police-how-the-militarization-mindset-threatens-constitutional-rights-and-public-safety/ [https://perma.cc/KF74-5CHA]. (arguing that the militarization of police forces imperils public safety and freedom, and recognizing that racism is a fundamental feature of American policing).Show More But the evidence suggests that police brutality is at least partially a product of training and budget shortfalls; police departments that have invested in force-reduction trainings have lower reported instances of excessive force.49 49.See George Wood, Tom R. Tyler & Andrew V. Papachristos, Procedural Justice Training Reduces Police Use of Force and Complaints Against Officers, 117 Proceedings of the Nat’l Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 9815, 9815 (May 5, 2020), available at https://www.pnas.org/content/117/18/9815/ [https://perma.cc/2VJL-2BFR] (finding that large-scale implementation of procedural justice training reduced complaints and use of force).Show More In order to mitigate police brutality, then, municipalities would have to invest in counter-measures, better training in particular. Those measures have costs, and the money that police departments and municipalities save by not investing in them might be considered the “benefits” they receive by committing brutality.

Because that second factor—the benefits the police receive by committing brutality—is so nebulous, it is hard to determine the extent to which remedial sentencing would deter police brutality. But the fact that the remedy would impose costs on the police is clear, and it is also clear that it would likely impose greater costs on the police than alternative remedies because it is so much more likely to be invoked. Therefore, remedial sentencing should tend to deter police brutality at least as well as alternative remedies. Regardless, because the remedy would exist alongside existing remedies to police brutality, its deterrent effects would aggregate with theirs.

B. Remedial Sentencing’s Corrective Effects

The single most important reason to adopt sentence reduction as a remedy to police misconduct is the unique compensatory benefits it offers to victims. Sentence reduction is categorically unlike other remedies to police brutality because it is the only remedy—existing or conceivable—that matches the form and scale of the harm done to the form and scale of the compensation provided.

1. Correspondence in Form

First, in remedial sentencing, there is a corrective effect in the sense that a state-imposed harm (the physical and psychological damage police brutality inflicts upon victims) is compensated by a correlative reduction in a related state-imposed harm (victims’ terms of incarceration). The form of the compensation matches the form of the harm. That correspondence is important in light of the retribution principle for criminal punishment. The idea behind the retribution principle is that, because a defendant has performed a moral wrong, they deserve punishment.50 50.See Jean Hampton, Correcting Harms Versus Righting Wrongs: The Goal of Retribution, 39 UCLA L. Rev. 1659, 1686 (1992).Show More The punishment is its own end, one’s just deserts. The punishment scales to the severity of the crime; more serious crimes beget longer sentences because their perpetrators are thought to deserve more punishment.

The problem when it comes to victims of police brutality who have been convicted of a crime is that they have already suffered a state-imposed harm—the police brutality. Those sentenced without regard to the police brutality suffer a total amount of state-imposed harm disproportional to the severity of the crime they committed: their term of incarceration plus the injury caused by the police. The retribution principle, then, necessitates remedial sentencing. The remedy reduces the term of incarceration to the degree that the total amount of state-imposed injury is commensurate with the severity of the offense. It matches the form of the harm to the form of the compensation—a state-imposed injury and a reduction in a state-imposed injury, respectively.

In a closely related vein, there is also a procedural correspondence between the harm and compensation in remedying police brutality through sentence reduction. Police brutality typically takes place in the process of a criminal investigation or arrest.51 51.SeeHickman, Piquero & Garner, supra note 17, at 577; see also Worden, supranote 48, at 149–51 (describing brutality in investigation and arrest).Show More The investigative stops, seizures, and arrests in which brutality takes place are part of the process that ultimately leads to the victim’s criminal adjudication, which in turn results—if the victim is convicted—in sentencing. Remedying police brutality by reducing the victim’s sentence, then, provides compensation within the very same process that produces the harm. The harm takes place as police investigate or execute an arrest for a victim’s alleged crime, and the compensation frees the victim of the consequences of that investigation.

Why does matching the form of the harm to the form of the compensation matter? After all, other remedies do not match the form of the compensation to the harm; they provide monetary damages or directly punish the offending officers. The proposed remedy’s correspondence in form matters because of what it expresses about the nature of police brutality. The remedy has an expressive benefit in the sense that it sends a message about the inherent wrongfulness of the police’s actions; more so than alternative remedies, it sounds in moral terms. Reducing a defendant’s sentence because they have been a victim of police brutality signals that the legal system recognizes and takes seriously the exact nature of the harm they have suffered. As one scholar puts it, “‘expressive legal remedies’ matter because they express recognition of injury and reaffirmation of the underlying normative principles for how the relevant relationships are to be constituted.”52 52.Elizabeth S. Anderson & Richard H. Pildes, Expressive Theories of Law: A General Restatement, 148 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1503, 1529 (2000).Show More Providing a remedy in the same form as the injury affirms the nature of the injury—a state-imposed injury that occurs within the criminal process. When the police commit brutality, they produce a state-imposed harm and undermine the process of criminal investigation and adjudication. By reducing a defendant’s sentence, the remedy mitigates the particular damage that the brutality has done to both the victim and the system. It reaffirms the rights of the victim and restores procedural justice.

2. Correspondence in Scale

The second corrective benefit of remedial sentencing is its commensurability. Sentence reduction is a particularly good remedy to the harm caused by police brutality because it is so tailorable to the severity of the harm the defendant has suffered. Not all instances of police brutality are equally severe, so the compensation must be tailorable to the severity of the harm. Remedial sentencing does just that: compensates serious instances of police brutality with significant sentence reductions, and more minor instances of police brutality with relatively token ones.

The ability of remedial sentencing to provide compensation commensurate in scale with the severity of the harm matters for expressive purposes. The remedy cannot just generally affirm the rights of the victim or restore procedural justice; it must do those things in the right magnitude. Providing compensation commensurate in scale with the harm sends a signal about just how morally repugnant the officer’s conduct was, and just how much the victim’s rights have been violated. Of course, there is no easy or inherent way to convert the wrongfulness of a particular incident of police brutality to an amount of sentence time. How many months or years is a beating worth? That conversion process depends on subjective judgments about the severity of police brutality and the meanings of particular amounts of sentence time. The important thing is that there is some scaling. It would be up to legislatures, sentencing commissions, and judges to ensure its consistency.53 53.See infra Part III for discussion of the possible roles of legislatures, sentencing commissions, and courts.Show More

3. Comparison with Alternative Remedies

Some remedies for police brutality (real or proposed) match the form of the compensation to the form of the injury. Others match them in scale. But none do both, which is why sentence reduction, when it would be applicable, could be such a powerful remedy.

Consider potential remedies to police brutality that match in form but not scale. Courts might want to expand the exclusionary rule to cases of police brutality, refusing to admit evidence arising out of police-defendant interactions in which the police commit physical violence. Similarly, courts could outright dismiss cases against defendants who have suffered police brutality. These remedies would match the form of the harm to the compensation by taking place in the process of the victim’s criminal adjudication and would result in a lower state-imposed harm (because the defendant would not be sentenced at all, having not been convicted). But they would not necessarily scale the compensation to the harm. They might provide a windfall by freeing a defendant entirely from a looming sentence.54 54.They also might discourage judges from applying the remedy at all. There have been indications that judges are less likely to apply the exclusionary rule because it might overcompensate victims for the government’s violations of their rights—as Judge Calabresi has noted, judges “are not in the business of letting people out on technicalities.” Calabresi, supra note 31, at 112.Show More

Then consider potential remedies that match in scale but not form. Civil suits for damages at least theoretically scale to the severity of the injury but do not match in form. In the police brutality context, they reward physical and dignitary harms with liquid money. Likewise, prosecuting offending officers—even if warranted for other reasons—does not restore procedural fairness to the victim’s own adjudication, even if the officer’s sentence should loosely scale to the severity of their actions.

Remedial sentencing, by matching both the form and scale of the compensation to those of the harm, reaffirms the rights of the victim and restores procedural fairness. Sentence reduction has unique corrective power to remedy the particular harms done by police brutality.

III. Implementing the Remedy

There are multiple possible paths to implementing a remedial sentencing scheme for police brutality, but choosing among those paths might prove difficult. A particularly crucial choice is whether it would be primarily legislature-driven or court-driven.

If the remedy were to be primarily legislature-driven, legislatures could create statutory downward departures for defendants who have been victims of police brutality during an interaction with the police relating to their instant case. The downward departure could be either advisory or mandatory. There would be no obvious constitutional issue with imposing a mandatory downward departure because, even though the Supreme Court has held mandatory sentence enhancements unconstitutional where the factfinder has not found the elements of the enhancement beyond a reasonable doubt,55 55.SeeApprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 490 (2000) (“Other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”); United States v. Booker543 U.S. 220, 244 (2005) (“Any fact (other than a prior conviction) which is necessary to support a sentence exceeding the maximum authorized by the facts established by a plea of guilty or a jury verdict must be admitted by the defendant or proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”).Show More there is no such issue with mandatory sentence reductions. In jurisdictions with sentencing commissions, including the federal system, the sentencing commission might have to promulgate the downward departure in its guidelines.56 56.See, e.g.,U.S. Sent’g Guidelines Manual§ 1A1.1–3 (U.S. Sent’g Comm’n 2018).Show More But establishing the remedy by either statute or guideline would provide the benefits of a fixed rule. Of course, a fixed rule would also have drawbacks, such as reduced case-by-case flexibility.

On the other hand, the major benefit of courts driving the remedy’s implementation is that it could, in some jurisdictions, happen immediately, with no new statutory authorization required. In jurisdictions with indeterminate or largely standards-driven sentencing guidelines, judges could factor a defendant having been the victim of police brutality into their sentence under existing sentencing guidelines—as, for instance, in the federal system. The factors listed in the federal sentencing statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3553, are broad enough that judges already have the discretion to consider police brutality. Under § 3553(a), judges must consider “the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant,” and “the need for the sentence imposed . . . to provide just punishment for the offense.”57 57.18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).Show More For the reasons discussed in Part II supra, having been a victim of police brutality is part of the “history of the defendant” that reduces the need for a long sentence to provide just punishment for the offense. The capaciousness of the sentencing factors should already permit the courts to consider police brutality in issuing sentences.

Both legislature-driven and court-driven approaches have their benefits and drawbacks. A legislative (statutory or guideline-based) remedy would be more definite, but potentially less tailorable. Establishing fixed statutory guidelines for converting the severity of particular instances of police brutality to sentence time would be difficult. If courts were to instead lead the way, the remedy would be easier to implement—perhaps requiring no specific authorization—and easier to tailor in individual cases. But if the remedy were entirely a judicial creation, it might be applied more inconsistently, and some victims might go undercompensated.

Conclusion

This Essay has made the case for remedying police brutality through remedial sentencing. It has sought to show that remedial sentencing would deter police brutality and adequately compensate victims. It has focused on a few key details about the remedy. First, that it exists within the same process of criminal investigation and adjudication that produces police brutality. Second, that it provides victims a reduction in a state-imposed punishment as compensation for a state-imposed injury—compensation in the same form as the injury. Third, that it provides compensation commensurate in magnitude with the severity of the harm. Fourth, and finally, that it could be easily implemented, whether by legislatures, courts, or both.

Remedying police brutality through sentence reduction would not be a panacea to the problem of police brutality. It would deter it, but not entirely. It would go a long way towards restoring procedural fairness and reaffirming victims’ rights, but it would not bring victims complete justice—no remedy could. And it would never be available to victims of police brutality who are not actually charged with a crime. But the stakes of police brutality are so dire, and existing remedies so inadequate, that a remedy that could deter police brutality even a little further and bring some victims a little more justice would be well worth implementing.

  1. * J.D. Candidate, 2021, University of Virginia School of Law. Special thanks to the editors of the Virginia Law Review, especially Tyler Demetriou and Hayley Hahn, for their feedback. All errors are my own.
  2. See Rosa Goldensohn, De Blasio Renders Split Decision on Video of Cop Punching Homeless Man on Subway, The City (July 20, 2020, 9:35 PM), https://www.thecity.nyc/2020/7/20/21332157/de-blasio-subway-video-nypd-cop-punches-homeless-man [https://perma.cc/Y9EP-UV3U]; Adam Harding, Man Hit, Choked and Maced by NYPD in Violent Arrest Video Plans to File $40M Lawsuit, NBC New York (July 17, 2020 2:29 AM), https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/man-hit-choked-and-maced-by-nypd-in-violent-arrest-video-plans-to-file-40m-lawsuit/2518793/ [https://perma.cc/Q6AF-ESP9].
  3. Goldensohn, supra note 1.
  4. Id.
  5. Id.
  6. See Harding, supra note 1.
  7. The City, NYPD Subway Arrest, YouTube (July 14, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/‌watch?v=2lgK-apbl8Y [https://perma.cc/9FZ8-CFG8].
  8. Id.
  9. Id.
  10. Id.
  11. Id.
  12. Id.
  13. Id.
  14. Id.
  15. Goldensohn, supra note 1.
  16. Id.
  17. N.Y. Penal Law §§ 70.15(1), 205.30 (McKinney 2019).
  18. See Matthew J. Hickman, Alex R. Piquero & Joel H. Garner, Toward a National Estimate of Police Use of Nonlethal Force, 7 Criminology & Pub. Pol’y 563, 577–81, 588–89 (2008) (finding that several hundred thousand arrestees in 2002 experienced nonlethal force from an officer, such as being pushed, grabbed, kicked, hit, or held at gunpoint); Police Shootings, Vice News (Dec. 10, 2017), https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/a3jjpa/nonfatal-police-shootings-data [https://perma.cc/KT6V-NH35] (providing data on police shootings from 2010 through 2016 at the fifty largest local police departments in the U.S. and finding that “[f]or every person shot and killed by cops in these departments . . . police shot at two more people who survived”). Data on police brutality is extremely limited. In the past few years there have been some efforts to begin national data collection, but the complete results have not yet been published. See, e.g., National Use-of-Force Data Collection, FBI, https://www.fbi.gov/‌services/cjis/ucr/use-of-force [https://perma.cc/5V8L-V4CF] (last visited Mar. 18,
    2021

    ) (noting that “[t]he FBI released initial data when 40% of the total law enforcement officer population was reached” in July 2020 and that “[a]dditional data will be released at 60% and 80% participation levels”).

  19. See, e.g., Griggs v. Brewer, 841 F.3d 308, 313–14 (5th Cir. 2016).
  20. Whether “police brutality” is coequal with those terms is subject to some disagreement. See, e.g., Susan Bandes, Patterns of Injustice: Police Brutality in the Courts, 47 Buff. L. Rev. 1275, 1276 (1999) (distinguishing “[p]olice brutality” from “police misconduct” on the basis that the former “is conduct that is not merely mistaken, but taken in bad faith with the intent to dehumanize and degrade its target”).
  21. See generally Sandra Bass, Policing Space, Policing Race: Social Control Imperatives and Police Discretionary Decisions, 28 Soc. Just. 156 (2001) (detailing the history of race and policing from slave patrols to the war on drugs).
  22. See, e.g., Richard Fausset and Shaila Dewan, Elijah McClain Died After He Was Detained. Now He’s Being Remembered., N.Y. Times (June 30, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/20/us/elijah-mcclain-police-killings.html [https://perma.cc/LU93-HQ7Q]; Adam Gabbatt, Protests About Police Brutality Are Met with Wave of Police Brutality Across U.S., The Guardian (June 6, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/06/police-violence-protests-us-george-floyd [https://perma.cc/GQ3J-G5Q7].
  23. See Nathan James et al., Cong. Rsch. Serv., R43904, Public Trust and Law Enforcement–A Discussion for Policymakers 2–
    3 (2020) (

    tracking declines in public confidence in the police in recent years

    ).

  24. See Desmond Ang, The Effects of Police Violence on Inner-City Students, 136 Q.J. Econ
    . 115, 117

    18 (2021).

  25. See Roland G. Fryer, Jr., An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force, 127 J. Pol. Econ. 1210, 1213–14 (2019).
  26. See Rachel A. Harmon, Legal Remedies for Police Misconduct, in 2 Reforming Criminal Justice: Policing 27, 33–35 (Erik Luna ed., 2017).
  27. Id. at 35. See also Kimberly A. Yuracko & Ronen Avraham, Valuing Black Lives: A Constitutional Challenge to the Use of Race-Based Tables in Calculating Tort Damages, 106 Calif. L. Rev. 325 (2018) (discussing how Black and Hispanic tort claimants’ damage awards are under-calculated as a matter of course because of courts’ reliance on race-sensitive data).
  28. Harmon, supra note 25, at 40–43. See also John V. Jacobi, Prosecuting Police Misconduct, 2000 Wis. L. Rev. 789, 789 (2000) (discussing the “cycle of impunity[] by which the reluctance of local government to prosecute bad cops empowers future misconduct and drives communities to regard the police as adversaries”).
  29. Harmon, supra note 25, at 45–46.
  30. See Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 654–55 (1961).
  31. See, e.g., United States v. Cooper, 983 F.2d 928, 929–30 (9th Cir. 1993) (affirming the dismissal of an indictment after the government destroyed evidence in spite of defendant’s repeated requests to prosecutor to preserve the evidence); United States v. Bohl, 25 F.3d 904, 906 (10th Cir. 1994) (dismissing the case because the prosecution failed to adhere to the defendant’s request to preserve evidence); see also Peter J. Henning, Prosecutorial Misconduct and Constitutional Remedies, 77 Wash. U.L.Q. 713, 815–19 (1999) (discussing different remedies for prosecutorial misconduct, including dismissal).
  32. See Guido Calabresi, The Exclusionary Rule, 26 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 111, 116 (2003); Harry M. Caldwell & Carol A. Chase, The Unruly Exclusionary Rule: Heeding Justice Blackmun’s Call to Examine the Rule in Light of Changing Judicial Understanding About Its Effects Outside the Courtroom, 78 Marq. L. Rev. 45, 73–74 (1994).
  33. See generally Sonja B. Starr, Sentence Reduction as a Remedy for Prosecutorial Misconduct, 97 Geo. L.J. 1509 (2009) (proposing sentence reduction as a remedy that would deter prosecutorial misconduct and have corrective and expressive value).
  34. See Makenzie Way, Remedial Sentencing Legislation as a Tool for Reducing Overrepresentation in Correctional Facilities, Penn L. News (Jan. 6., 2020), https://www.law.upenn.edu/live/news/9534-remedial-sentencing-legislation-as-a-tool-for [https://perma.cc/4AJW-88SX].
  35. Although the Supreme Court of Canada has notably used a similar remedy at least once. See R. v. Nasogaluak, [2010] 1 S.C.R. 206, 208–10 (Can.).
  36. See Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 654–55 (1961); Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 479 (1966).
  37. People v. Defore, 150 N.E. 585, 587 (N.Y. 1926).
  38. See Michael D. Cicchini, Prosecutorial Misconduct at Trial: A New Perspective Rooted in Confrontation Clause Jurisprudence, 37 Seton Hall L. Rev. 335, 344–46 (2007) (discussing how double jeopardy bars retrials where a mistrial has been declared for prosecutorial conduct that was specifically “intended to provoke the defendant into moving for a mistrial” (quoting Oregon v. Kennedy, 456 U.S. 667, 679 (1982)) but not where the prosecutor’s conduct was intended to win at trial using impermissible means).
  39. Namely, the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unlawful seizures and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ Due Process Clauses.
  40. As in the case of Jacob Blake, whose shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has received significant media attention. See Christina Morales, What We Know About the Shooting of Jacob Blake, N.Y. Times (Jan. 5, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/article/jacob-blake-shooting-kenosha.html [https://perma.cc/MX7Q-47QB].
  41. See Report: Guilty Pleas on the Rise, Criminal Trials on the Decline, Innocence Project (Aug. 7, 2018), https://innocenceproject.org/guilty-pleas-on-the-rise-criminal-trials-on-the-decline/ [https://perma.cc/9ZNF-MHQA] (finding that “97 percent of [criminal] cases were resolved through plea deals”).
  42. See Harmon, supra note 25, at 27–30.
  43. See Frank H. Easterbrook, Criminal Procedure as a Market System, 12 J. Legal Stud. 289, 292 (1983) (arguing that to satisfy the criminal law goal of deterrence, the criminal process must set “[t]he optimal price for the offense,” which is “just high enough to require offenders to pay for all of the harm their crimes inflict”).
  44. See, e.g., John Pfaff, The Perverse Incentives of Punishment, The Appeal (May 18, 2018), https://theappeal.org/the-perverse-incentives-of-punishment-7c1e32b18d07/[ https://perma.cc/WUF5-AZRV] (reporting an especially egregious example of this phenomenon, wherein Todd Entrekin, a sheriff in Etowah, Alabama, “pocketed at least $750,000 budgeted for feeding the people detained in his county jail,” enabling him to purchase a beach house while those incarcerated the jail ate meat “labeled ‘not fit for human consumption’”).
  45. See Anthony W. Batts, Maddy deLone & Darrel W. Stephens, Policing and Wrongful Convictions, Nat’l Inst. Just.
    4 (2014),

    https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/246328.pdf [https://perma.cc/K5SJ-WCZK].

  46. See Easterbrook, supra note 42, at 292 (emphasizing that the price of committing an offense is a product of “[t]he penalty” imposed and “the probability that it will be imposed for a given offense”).
  47. See Harmon, supra note 25, at 34–35, 43.
  48. See Starr, supra note 32, at 1521.
  49. The genesis of police brutality is a broad and hotly contested subject, but a few key ingredients include poor hiring and training practices, the militarization of the police, and institutionalized racism. See Robert E. Worden, The “Causes” of Police Brutality: Theory and Evidence on Police Use of Force, in Criminal Justice Theory: Explaining the Nature and Behavior of Criminal Justice 149–64 (Edward R. Maguire and David E. Duffee eds., 2d ed. 2015) (providing an overview of various theories and studies of police use of force); Rosa Brooks, Stop Training Police Like They’re Joining the Military, The Atlantic (June 10, 2020), https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/police-academies-paramilitary/612859/ [https://perma.cc/MBR9-68K5] (addressing the relationship between militarizing the police and police brutality and discussing promising efforts to train police to critically engage with the history of paramilitary police forces in the United States); Wayne McElrath & Sarah Turberville, Poisoning Our Police: How the Militarization Mindset Threatens Constitutional Rights and Public Safety, Project on Gov’t Oversight, (June 9, 2020), https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2020/06/poisoning-our-police-how-the-militarization-mindset-threatens-constitutional-rights-and-public-safety/ [https://perma.cc/KF74-5CHA]. (arguing that the militarization of police forces imperils public safety and freedom, and recognizing that racism is a fundamental feature of American policing).
  50. See George Wood, Tom R. Tyler & Andrew V. Papachristos, Procedural Justice Training Reduces Police Use of Force and Complaints Against Officers, 117 Proceedings of the Nat’l Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 9815, 9815 (May 5, 2020), available at https://www.pnas.org/content/117/18/9815/ [https://perma.cc/2VJL-2BFR] (finding that large-scale implementation of procedural justice training reduced complaints and use of force).
  51. See Jean Hampton, Correcting Harms Versus Righting Wrongs: The Goal of Retribution, 39 UCLA L. Rev. 1659, 1686 (1992).
  52. See Hickman, Piquero & Garner, supra note 17, at 577; see also Worden, supra note 48, at 149–51 (describing brutality in investigation and arrest).
  53. Elizabeth S. Anderson & Richard H. Pildes, Expressive Theories of Law: A General Restatement, 148 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1503, 1529 (2000).
  54. See infra Part III for discussion of the possible roles of legislatures, sentencing commissions, and courts.
  55. They also might discourage judges from applying the remedy at all. There have been indications that judges are less likely to apply the exclusionary rule because it might overcompensate victims for the government’s violations of their rights—as Judge Calabresi has noted, judges “are not in the business of letting people out on technicalities.” Calabresi, supra note 31, at 112.
  56. See Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 490 (2000) (“Other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”); United States v. Booker 543 U.S. 220, 244 (2005) (“Any fact (other than a prior conviction) which is necessary to support a sentence exceeding the maximum authorized by the facts established by a plea of guilty or a jury verdict must be admitted by the defendant or proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”).
  57. See, e.g., U.S. Sent’g Guidelines Manual § 1A1.1–3 (U.S. Sent’g Comm’n 2018).
  58. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

Mail-In Ballots and Constraints on Federal Power Under the Electors Clause

Crisis often begets crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be no exception. With rising concerns over crowding at the polls, many states during the 2020 elections opted to allow voters to use mail-in ballots to vote in the general election. The Trump administration, nevertheless, proactively enacted policy changes to hamper the United States Postal Service’s (“USPS”) ability to effectively handle the rise in mail-in voting. Some states sued the Trump administration in response, raising a variety of claims in their lawsuits. One of the lesser discussed claims is that the executive’s actions violated Article II, § 1, cl. 2, otherwise known as the “Electors Clause.” This clause confers upon the states the exclusive power to appoint their electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” Thus, the Electors Clause is unique in that it provides states one of their few enumerated constitutional powers—it is a power that may not be preempted by federal action. But when the federal government uses its own powers, such as the executive’s delegated authority over USPS, to undermine a state’s chosen manner of appointing its electors, such as popular vote by mail-in ballots, a conflict of powers arises. This Essay attempts to resolve this conflict of power, ultimately concluding that within the Electors Clause exists an implied obligation on the federal government to not deliberately undermine a state’s choice to use mail-in ballots in a presidential election.

Introduction

Crisis often begets crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be no exception. With rising concerns over crowding at the polls, many states during the 2020 elections opted to allow voters to use mail-in ballots to vote in the general election. Then-President Trump, nevertheless, came out openly against mail-in ballots, and beginning in April 2020 his administration proactively enacted policy changes to hamper the United States. Postal Service’s (“USPS”) ability to effectively handle the anticipated rise in mail-in voting. In response, a variety of states sued the Trump administration.

These states raised a variety of claims in their lawsuits, some constitutional and some statutory. One of the lesser discussed claims, though, is that the executive’s actions violated the “Electors Clause,” which confers upon the states the exclusive power to appoint their electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.”1.U.S. Const. art. II, § 1, cl. 2.Show More Thus, the Electors Clause is unique in that it provides states one of their few enumerated constitutional powers—it is a power that may not be preempted by federal action. But when the federal government uses its own powers, such as the executive’s delegated authority over USPS, to undermine a state’s chosen manner of appointing its electors during a presidential election, such as popular vote by mail-in ballots, a conflict of powers arises. Federal power clashes with state power. The COVID-19 pandemic has therefore elucidated a vertical separation-of-powers crisis that cannot be ignored.

This Essay attempts to resolve this conflict of power, ultimately concluding that within the Electors Clause exists an implied obligation on the federal government to not deliberately undermine a state’s choice to use mail-in ballots in a presidential election. The Essay proceeds as follows: Part I overviews the 2020 mail-in ballot crisis in the United States. Part II discusses the Electors Clause and what makes the clause a unique state power. Finally, Part III introduces the concept of the Electors Clause providing some constraints on using federal powers to influence presidential elections, thus supplying a vital check on an executive or congressional attempt to sabotage mail-in voting.2.It should be noted that this Essay does not cover the post-election litigation that former President Trump instigated to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. This is because such litigation did not present a vertical separation-of-powers conflict, as Trump was bringing forth such litigation as a candidate rather than using any executive power to overturn the results in Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Michigan. For a summary of such cases that were decided on the merits, see Compiling the Truth: A Resource to Refute Trump’s “Stolen Election” Lies, Campaign Legal Ctr. (Mar. 1, 2021), https://campaignlegal.org/‌update/compiling-truth-resource-refute-trumps-stolen-election-lies [https://perma.cc/CG2S-W6KJ].Show More

I. The 2020 Mail-In Ballot Crisis

What is worse than a pandemic? A pandemic in an election year. Such was the case of 2020, where COVID-19 forced the majority of states to reevaluate how they planned to have their citizens vote in the 2020 general election. Prior to the pandemic, only three states used widespread mail-in ballots in their elections.3.David Roberts, Voting by Mail Is Fair, Safe, and Easy. Why Don’t More States Use It?, Vox (May 27, 2017, 12:16 PM), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/5/27/‌15701708/voting-by-mail (Washington, Oregon, and Colorado).Show More By November 2020, forty-five states (and D.C.) permitted voters to either request a mail-in ballot or automatically receive one,4.See Benjamin Swasey, Map: Mail-In Voting Rules by State—And the Deadlines You Need, NPR (last updated Oct. 14, 2020, 3:00 PM), https://www.npr.org/2020/09/14/‌909338758/map-mail-in-voting-rules-by-state [https://perma.cc/WDA9-5EE4].Show More hoping to avoid mass crowds—and thus mass spreading of the coronavirus—at the polls. Accordingly, an unprecedented percentage of voters (about 46%) this past general election decided to vote by mail.5.Pew Rsch. Ctr., Sharp Divisions on Vote Counts, as Biden Gets High Marks for His Post-Election Conduct 19 (2020), https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/11/20/sharp-divisions-on-vote-counts-as-biden-gets-high-marks-for-his-post-election-conduct/ [https://perma.cc/N8FP-B39F]. This helped to create the highest voter turnout in a U.S. presidential election in over a century. See Kevin Schaul, Kate Rabinowitz & Ted Mellnik, 2020 Turnout Is the Highest in over a Century, Wash. Post (last updated Dec. 28, 2020, 4:29 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/elections/voter-turnout/ [https://perma‌.cc/9U2U-5UPW].Show More

The federal government, however, was less than supportive of this state-led exodus to mail-in voting. Rather, examples abound of outright hostility and obstruction from the executive. Since the beginning of the pandemic, former President Trump had expressed open contempt toward mail-in voting, stating that it “doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”6.Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter (Apr. 8, 2020, 8:20 AM), https://www.thetrumparchive.com/?dates=%5B%222020-04-07%22%2C%222020-04-08%22%5D [https://perma.cc/6CC4-S4YE].Show More Following this, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy—head of USPS—began issuing a variety of policy changes over the summer of 2020 overhauling agency operations critical to the timely and effective delivery of mail. These changes included the removal of hundreds of collection boxes and high-speed sorting machines, the reduction of overtime, the prohibition of necessary late trips and extra trips, the introduction of a pilot program that disrupted the processing of mail in almost 400 localities, and the refusal to treat election-related mail as First Class Mail.7.Complaint at 2–3, New York v. Trump (D.D.C. filed Aug. 25, 2020) (No. 1:20-cv-02340).Show More Following these changes, USPS’s general counsel sent letters to states warning that USPS could not guarantee that mail-in ballots would be delivered in time for the November general election.8.See id. at 3; see also Tara O’Neill, USPS Warns CT: Mail-In Ballots Not Guaranteed by November Election, CTPost (Aug. 14, 2020, 8:35 PM), https://www.ctpost.com/‌local/article/USPS-warns-CT-Mail-in-ballots-not-guaranteed-by-15485399.php [https://perma.cc/53SJ-6P8J] (explaining that at least 46 states and D.C. received letters).Show More In response, House members in August 2020 voted—with most Democrats in favor and most Republicans opposed—to pass a $25 billion relief package for USPS.9.Rachael Bade & Donna Cassata, House Passes Bill to Boost U.S. Postal Service amid Trump Attacks, Wash. Post (Aug. 22, 2020, 6:43 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/‌powerpost/house-poised-to-pass-bill-to-boost-us-postal-service-amid-trump-attacks/2020/08/21/c9196fa8-e3c6-11ea-8181-606e603bb1c4_story.html [https://perma.cc/LXJ7-VHX8].Show More President Trump, however, explicitly stated that he planned to block the relief package in an effort to thwart the use of mail-in ballots.10 10.See Deb Riechmann & Anthony Izaguirre, Trump Admits He’s Blocking Postal Cash to Stop Mail-In Votes, AP News (Aug. 13, 2020), https://apnews.com/article/‌14a2ceda724623604cc8d8e5ab9890ed [https://perma.cc/JUN5-UMNS]. Trump eventually signed a stimulus bill granting $10 billion to USPS for Covid-19-related costs, though this happened post-election. See Trump Signs Stimulus Bill with $10 Billion for USPS, PostalReporter.com (Dec. 28, 2020), https://www.postal-reporter.com/blog/trump-signs-stimulus-bill-with-10-billion-for-usps/ [https://perma.cc/7JRE-PHZX].Show More

In the face of this executive action, over twenty states sued Trump and DeJoy, fearful of the effects the USPS changes would have on their residents’ ability to vote.11 11.See Alison Durkee, New York AG Files Multistate Lawsuit, Joins More Than 20 States Suing Postal Service Over DeJoy’s Changes, Forbes (Aug. 25, 2020, 3:09 PM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/alisondurkee/2020/08/25/more-than-20-states-attorneys-general-suing-postal-service-usps-changes-despite-dejoy-reversal/?sh=65898ebb4533 [https://perma.cc/2CCJ-LZKD].Show More The suing states’ arguments ranged from constitutional to statutory, and at least three courts issued preliminary injunctions barring USPS from further implementing its policy changes.12 12.See New York v. Trump, No. 20-cv-2340 (EGS), 2020 WL 5763775, at *13 (D.D.C. Sept. 27, 2020); Jones v. USPS, No. 20 Civ. 6516 (VM), 2020 WL 5627002, at *28–29 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 21, 2020); Washington v. Trump, No. 1:20-cv-03127-SAB, 2020 WL 5568557, at *6–7 (E.D. Wash. Sept. 17, 2020).Show More The crisis, nonetheless, raises two important questions: Does the federal government have a proper grant of power to manipulate USPS in a manner that undermines mail-in voting, and if so, how? With usage of mail-in ballots likely to remain prevalent in the future, it will be important to answer these questions so that states can shield themselves from further political federal encroachment in forthcoming presidential elections. Accordingly, this Essay seeks to explore these questions, finding the ultimate answer to be that it depends on the federal government’s motive. For now, though, it is enough to say that the executive and Congress wield a wide range of legitimate powers that generally grant them the ability to fund and run USPS as they see fit.13 13.The federal government’s subsidization and regulation of USPS is rooted in at least five federal powers—two legislative and three executive:1. The Postal Clause – The Constitution empowers Congress “[t]o establish Post Offices and post Roads.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 7. The Postal Clause grants Congress the power to regulate “the carriage of the mail, and all measures necessary to secure its safe and speedy transit, and the prompt delivery of its contents.” Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727, 732 (1877). Thus, when Congress established USPS, it was vested exclusive control over “the processing, transmission[,] and delivery” of mail shipped through USPS. See Commonwealth v. Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind, 335 A.2d 832, 838 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1975). Moreover, the Postal Clause allows Congress to control the administration of USPS. See, e.g., Sarah Anderson, Scott Klinger & Brian Wakamo, How Congress Manufactured a Postal Crisis — And How to Fix It, Inst. for Pol’y Stud. (July 15, 2019), https://ips-dc.org/how-congress-manufactured-a-postal-crisis-and-how-to-fix-it/ [https://perma.cc/4PET-7UF4] (examining how Congress has used its power to control USPS through its retirement funding).2. The Appropriations Clause – The power to fund USPS—and all federal agencies—is vested in Congress under the Appropriations Clause, establishing that “[n]o Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 9, cl. 7. Consequently, the Appropriations Clause accords Congress the “power of the purse” to, for instance, grant USPS a $25 billion relief package. See Sean M. Stiff, Cong. Rsch. Serv., R46417, Congress’s Power over Appropriations: Constitutional and Statutory Provisions 1 (2020), https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46417 [https://perma.cc/LE9R-SWET].3. The Presentment Clause – The President has the power to veto “[e]very [b]ill” passed by Congress, including an appropriations bill. See U.S. Const. art. I, § 7, cl. 2. Under this power, the President may veto a $25 billion USPS relief package, as Trump threatened during his Presidency. See Riechmann & Izaguirre, supra note 10. Congress would need a two-thirds majority to override said veto.4. The Vesting & Take Care Clauses – Many scholars would agree that the executive has the power—if not duty—to faithfully execute powers delegated to it by Congress. See, e.g., Julian Davis Mortenson & Nicholas Bagley, Delegation at the Founding, 121 Colum. L. Rev. 277, 280–81 (2021). The Constitution, after all, vests “[t]he executive Power” in “a President of the United States,” and states that the executive “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” U.S. Const. art. II, § 1, cl. 1; id. art. II, § 3. Congress delegates much rulemaking authority to the Postmaster General. See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 3061(c)(4)(A) (2018). Thus, nondelegation doctrine concerns aside, the Postmaster General—wielding executive power—may “faithfully execute” their congressionally assigned role by “promulgat[ing] regulations generally as to the conduct of [USPS],” including policy changes such as refusing to treat election-related mail as First-Class Mail. See Daniel L. Pines, The Central Intelligence Agency’s “Family Jewels”: Legal Then? Legal Now?, 84 Ind. L.J. 637, 672 n.306 (2009) (quoting Ex parte Willman, 277 F. 819, 821 (S.D. Ohio 1921)).Naturally, one may be able to point to other powers, but the preceding five seem to be most relevant, at least in the context of mail-in voting.Show More

This Essay, nevertheless, does not concern itself with which federal power is implicated. This does not matter. Rather, as Part II will demonstrate, so long as the federal government is using any of these powers to undermine a state’s decision to use mail-in ballots—which it has14 14.See supra notes 7–10 and accompanying text.Show More—then a vertical separation-of-powers problem arises between said federal powers and the states’ exclusive power under the Electors Clause to choose the manner of appointing electors.

II. The Electors Clause: A Unique Exclusive State Power

The Constitution explicitly enumerates very few exclusive state powers. Rather, powers not delegated within the Constitution exclusively to the federal government are either reserved to the states,15 15.See U.S. Const. amend. X.Show More or run concurrent between the federal and state governments.16 16.See, e.g., infra section III.A.Show More One of the few exclusive state powers that exists, however, resides in Article II, § 1, cl. 2, known by some scholars as the Electors Clause.17 17.See, e.g., Nathaniel F. Rubin, The Electors Clause and the Governor’s Veto, 106 Cornell L. Rev. Online 57, 60 (2021).Show More Accordingly, this clause grants states a unique defense against federal encroachment into elections, or at the very least presidential elections. This Part will overview this power, its relationship to mail-in voting, and its seeming collision with the federal powers implicated in the 2020 mail-in ballot crisis.

A. The Electors Clause

Article II, § 1, cl. 2 of the Constitution provides that “[e]ach State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.”18 18.U.S. Const. art. II, § 1, cl. 2.Show More This does not mean state legislatures carry some of the power to choose the manner of appointing their state’s electors, but all of the power to do so.19 19.Cf. Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654, 705 (1988) (Scalia, J., dissenting) (asserting that the language of the Vesting Clause “does not mean some of the executive power, but all of the executive power”); see also Robert G. Natelson, The Enumerated Powers of States, 3 Nev. L.J. 469, 470 n.11 (2003) (listing the Electors Clause as one of the few exclusive state powers enumerated in the Constitution).Show More As of 2020, all states have chosen to appoint their electors by some method of popular vote, and all but two states have chosen to do this through a traditional winner-take-all method based on state-wide results.20 20.The two exceptions being Maine and Nebraska, which appoint two electors based on the statewide vote and the rest based on results within each congressional district. Meilan Solly, Why Do Maine and Nebraska Split Their Electoral Votes?, Smithsonian Mag. (Nov. 5, 2020), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-do-maine-and-nebraska-split-their-electoral-votes-180976219/ [https://perma.cc/7AMV-MVK6].Show More In doing so, the states have exercised their Electors Clause power—the “manner” chosen by the state legislature is a popular vote, which then determines whether a Democratic slate of electors or Republican slate of electors will be appointed to vote for the President and Vice President.

The importance of the exclusivity of a state’s power under the Electors Clause cannot be overstated. Compare the clause with the Elections Clause, which governs congressional elections. The Elections Clause says that “[t]he Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof,” somewhat mirroring the Electors Clause; however, the Elections Clause goes on to say that “Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations.”21 21.U.S. Const. art. I, § 4, cl. 1.Show More In other words, states may regulate congressional elections, but Congress may preempt said regulations. This preemptive power was illustrated recently in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council, in which the Supreme Court held that the National Voter Registration Act’s (NVRA) requirement for states to “accept and use” a Federal Form to register voters for congressional elections preempted Arizona’s additional evidence-of-citizenship requirement for registration.22 22.See Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Ariz., Inc., 570 U.S. 1, 13–15 (2013).Show More If, however, Arizona’s evidence-of-citizenship requirement had hypothetically been limited to registration for the presidential election, the Court might have come to a different conclusion.23 23.See infra Part III.A.Show More Unlike the Elections Clause, the Electors Clause grants no express preemptive powers to Congress—or any federal branch—thus showcasing the unique power it confers upon the states.24 24.See Michael T. Morley, Dismantling the Unitary Electoral System? Uncooperative Federalism in State and Local Elections, 111 Nw. U.L. Rev. Online 103, 108 (2017) (noting that there is “a strong textual basis for believing that Congress’s authority over presidential elections is limited to its powers to enforce the constitutional right to vote and under the Spending Clause”).Show More

B. The Electors Clause & Mail-In Ballots

This power is not only uniquely exclusive, but broad in scope—broad enough to cover a state’s choice to appoint electors by popular mail-in voting. Last year, the Supreme Court provided a rare analysis of the Electors Clause in Chiafalo v. Washington, which upheld state laws fining faithless electors. The Chiafalo Court began by describing the Electors Clause as “‘conveying the broadest power of determination’ over who becomes an elector.”25 25.Chiafalo v. Washington, 140 S. Ct. 2316, 2324 (2020) (emphasis added) (quoting McPherson v. Blacker, 146 U.S. 1, 27 (1892)).Show More As Justice Kagan states, “[t]he Constitution is barebones about electors.”26 26.Id.Show More Consequently, a state may appoint its electors “in whatever way it likes.”27 27.Id.Show More And if, according to the Court, a state’s choice to punish faithless electors is covered by the Electors Clause, surely a state’s choice to use popular voting by combination of in-person and mail-in ballots (or exclusively mail-in, as is the case in states like Oregon28 28.Sen. Ron Wyden, Opinion, Oregon Has Used Vote by Mail Since Electing Me in 1996. Those Who Say It Can’t Work Are Lying., NBC News (Apr. 30, 2020, 9:00 AM), https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/oregon-has-used-vote-mail-electing-me-1996-those-who-ncna1195646 [https://perma.cc/PU6T-PWTV].Show More) as its manner of appointing electors also falls under the clause’s protection.29 29.Cf. Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112, 291 (1970) (Stewart, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (noting that hosting a “popular election” qualifies as a “manner” of appointing electors).Show More Some may, nevertheless, point out that the decision to implement mail-in ballots has often been made by state election commissions rather than the legislature. However, even when this is the case, courts have suggested that this falls under “Manner.”30 30.See, e.g., Trump v. Wis. Elections Comm’n, 983 F.3d 919, 926–27 (7th Cir. 2020) (citing Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, 113 (2000) (Rehnquist, C.J., concurring)) (“Chief Justice Rehnquist suggested that the proper inquiry under the Electors Clause is to ask whether a state conducted the election in a manner substantially consistent with the ‘legislative scheme’ for appointing electors.”).Show More

Therefore, when the President or Congress uses their own powers to undermine a state’s decision to utilize mail-in ballots in a presidential election (e.g., vetoing USPS funding), the result appears to be a conflict of powers between the federal and state governments. The next section will discuss this in more detail.

C. When Powers Collide

Let us begin with a realistic hypothetical: The Pennsylvania General Assembly is severely concerned about an ongoing pandemic and wants to avoid crowding during the presidential election. The Assembly thus passes a bill requiring mail-in ballots to automatically be sent to every registered voter in Pennsylvania—said ballots include the presidential candidates. Concerned that swing states moving to mail-in voting will hurt his reelection chances, the president vetoes an appropriations bill that includes USPS funding, and orders the Postmaster General to have USPS no longer treat election-related mail as First-Class Mail. Due to the President’s actions, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians are not able to receive or send in their ballot in time, and thus may not vote in the presidential election (among other elections).

Pennsylvania sues the president’s administration, arguing that its actions violate Pennsylvania’s exclusive power under the Electors Clause to appoint its electors in a manner chosen by its legislature: mail-in voting.31 31.Two states in fact raised this argument in lawsuits leading up to the 2020 general election. See Complaint at 7, 63, Pennsylvania v. DeJoy, No. 2:20-cv-04096 (E.D. Pa. filed Aug. 21, 2020); Complaint at 107–08, Washington v. Trump, No. 1:20-cv-03127 (E.D. Wash. filed Aug. 18, 2020).Show More The president’s administration responds by asserting that it has the power under the Presentment Clause and Take Care Clause to do what it did. Who wins here? There is, as of now, no clear answer, for it took the COVID-19 pandemic to highlight that this conflict of powers even exists.

Perhaps some may argue that Pennsylvania has no real claim because the federal government never had to create USPS in the first place,32 32.But see John Nichols, Congress Has a Constitutional Duty to Preserve and Promote the Post Office, Nation: Budgets Blog (Mar. 22, 2013), https://www.thenation.com/‌article/archive/congress-has-constitutional-duty-preserve-and-promote-post-office (arguing that the Postal Clause creates a congressional “responsibility” to establish a post office).Show More meaning Pennsylvania is not entitled to its service. This Essay submits that the answer is not so simple though. For example, suppose a traveler comes across a river and is told she has two choices to cross said river: a bridge or a boat. She is affirmed by, of all people, the boat’s owner that this choice is hers alone to make. The traveler ultimately chooses the boat. Moments before the traveler enters the boat, however, the boat owner dismantles the engine, rendering the boat inoperable. The traveler exclaims, “Hold on, I thought you said that I had the power to choose how to cross the river?” The boat owner responds, “Yes, you had the power to choose how to cross the river, but I have the power as the boat’s owner to dismantle its engine. Now you must use the bridge!” Are we to pretend that the traveler really had a choice here? That does not feel right. Sure, the boat owner had no obligation to provide the boat in the first place, but it is nevertheless there. And so long as it is there, and travelers are told that they have the power to choose to use it to cross the river, it seems disingenuous to claim that they really have this power if the boat owner can make the boat unusable at any moment to disrupt a traveler’s choice.

Likewise, USPS exists. Perhaps it does not need to exist,33 33.See Michael Kent Curtis, The Curious History of Attempts to Suppress Antislavery Speech, Press, and Petition in 1835–37, 89 Nw. U.L. Rev. 785, 827–28 (1995) (“The postal power included the power not to establish post offices and post roads.”). But see Nichols, supra note 32.Show More but it does. And so long as it exists, the states have the exclusive power to choose to use popular vote by mail-in ballots as their manner of appointing electors. Otherwise, if we accept the notion that the federal government can use its powers to deliberately sabotage a state’s choice to use mail-in ballots in the presidential election, then the Electors Clause is essentially made null. It would not convey the “broadest power of determination” to the states.34 34.Chiafalo v. Washington, 140 S. Ct. 2316, 2324 (2020) (quoting McPherson v. Blacker, 146 U.S. 1, 27 (1892)).Show More

With this said, the question then becomes how to balance the states’ exclusive power under the Electors Clause to run their presidential elections by mail-in ballot with the federal government’s powers to fund and manage USPS. The Supreme Court itself has no clear or consistent method for determining when one constitutional provision takes precedent over another.35 35.Andrew M. Hetherington, Comment, Constitutional Purpose and Inter-Clause Conflict: The Constraints Imposed on Congress by the Copyright Clause, 9 Mich. Telecomm. Tech. L. Rev. 457, 485 (2003).Show More Part III posits, nevertheless, that the solution rests within the very subtext of our Constitution.

III. Constraints on Federal Power Under the Electors Clause

In one corner of the ring, we have the federal government. In the other corner, we have the states. Both claim authority over the power to control the use of mail-in ballots in presidential elections. Perhaps, though, there is no need for such a fight. Perhaps the solution to this conflict can be solved easily by simply reframing the issue. This Part does just that. Instead of viewing the mail-in ballot crisis as a conflict between powers, this Part asserts that these powers should be recognized as concurrent. That is, both the federal government and states have legitimate claims to power over the use of mail-in ballots in presidential elections. When framed this way, it becomes possible to look to constitutional doctrines that arise in other instances of concurrent powers, such as the Dormant Commerce Clause, to conclude that within the Electors Clause exists an inferred restraint on federal powers that can be used to balance the competing interests of the federal government and the states in the case of mail-in ballots. This Part lays out such a theory and then goes into said theory’s implications and potential critiques.

A. The Theory

The theory is this: If the federal government uses its powers to discriminate against a state’s power under the Electors Clause to determine the manner in which its electors are appointed, the federal government’s action is per se unconstitutional. If the federal government, nevertheless, uses a legitimate power in a manner that only incidentally impacts a state’s appointment of electors, then this action is permissible so long as the burden is not excessive. Now, how do we get here?

The first step is to recognize that when, say, the president vetoes an appropriations bill to fund USPS, and state X’s legislature votes to conduct its 2020 elections—including the presidential election—entirely by mail-in voting, the two constitutional powers implicated in these decisions are not entirely exclusive. Rather, imagine a Venn diagram, where one bubble is the president’s Presentment Clause power and the other is state X’s Electors Clause power. For the most part, these bubbles do not overlap; however, there is a tiny sliver where the bubbles touch, and in this sliver, it states, “Determining whether mail-in ballots will be a viable form of voting for state X’s citizens in the presidential election.” Thus, within that tiny sliver, the federal government’s power to fund and manage USPS and the states’ power to determine the manner of appointing their electors transform from being exclusive powers into what can best be described as concurrent.

When we accept this concurrent nature, we can look to how the Supreme Court has historically resolved state–federal power conflicts in which the powers were exclusive in some ways but “concurrent . . . [in] other ways.”36 36.See Commerce Clause Limitations on State Regulation, UMKC, http://law2.umkc.edu/‌faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/statecommerce.htm [https://perma.cc/5L7E-E6XZ] (last visited Mar. 22, 2021).Show More For instance, we can look to the Dormant Commerce Clause, which arises in cases in which a state’s action impacts interstate commerce. The Commerce Clause confers upon Congress the power to, among other things, “regulate Commerce . . . among the several States.”37 37.U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 3.Show More This power has, however, been deemed “not absolutely exclusive,” given the clause’s silence on the states’ power to regulate interstate commerce.38 38.See Frank Pommersheim, Broken Landscape: Indians, Indian Tribes, and the Constitution 41 (2009).Show More Faced with this uncertainty, the Supreme Court laid out the following standard that has become known as the Dormant Commerce Clause: When a state statute intentionally discriminates against interstate commerce, the statute is per se unconstitutional, and will only survive if demonstrated that there is “no other means to advance a legitimate local purpose.”39 39.United Haulers Ass’n, Inc. v. Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Mgmt. Auth., 550 U.S. 330, 338–39 (2007). This is, needless to say, an extraordinarily high bar to meet.Show More If, however, said statute’s effects on interstate commerce are “only incidental,” the statute will only be struck down if it imposes an undue burden on interstate commerce.40 40.See id. at 346 (quoting Philadelphia v. New Jersey, 437 U.S. 617, 624 (1978)).Show More

Given the uncertainty surrounding how federal and state powers interact in situations like the 2020 mail-in ballot crisis, it seems only reasonable to turn to the Dormant Commerce Clause as a helpful doctrinal analogy to provide guidance on navigating through this state–federal powers conflict. And in doing so, we arrive at the following conclusion: The federal government may not use its federal powers to purposefully discriminate against the states’ choosing of a manner of appointing electors; it may, however, generally use its federal powers in a way that only incidentally impacts the states’ Electors Clause powers.

There is, naturally, one key difference between the Dormant Commerce Clause and the Electors Clause, in that the former resolves a conflict between an enumerated federal power and an implied state power, whereas the latter is intended to resolve a conflict between two enumerated powers. This is why this Essay is not claiming there to be a “Dormant Electors Clause”; rather, the constraint on federal powers is derived from the explicit structure of the U.S. Constitution. This is also why it seems necessary to include a disclaimer that this Essay’s theory could presumably work in reverse: A state may not use its Electors Clause power to discriminate against the practice of a federal power (though one may need to get extra creative to imagine what such a scenario might look like). Regardless, turning to the Dormant Commerce Clause jurisprudence for guidance to develop a doctrinal framework in these Electors Clause cases appears to be the fairest and most constitutionally sound method to respect both federal and state government interests while resolving the conflicts of power that have arisen in the mail-in ballot crisis.

B. The Implications

If a court were to recognize and apply this federal constraint, at least two important implications would follow for mail-in voting. First, the federal government could not use its powers over USPS to deliberately undermine a state’s decision to use mail-in ballots in a presidential election. Accordingly, when then-President Trump openly stated that he was vetoing an appropriations bill to fund USPS specifically because he did not want the funding to assist mail-in voting, he behaved unconstitutionally. Conversely, if, say, Congress defunded USPS for some neutral reason (e.g., obsession with free market values) that only incidentally made it harder to vote by mail, this would almost assuredly be permissible. Of course, the question then becomes how courts would remedy a violation. It seems quite unlikely, for instance, that they could enjoin the President from vetoing a bill. At the very least, the lawsuits against the Trump administration suggest that courts could enjoin USPS from instituting policy changes aimed at making mail-in voting more difficult.41 41.See supra text accompanying note 12.Show More

Furthermore, this federal constraint could indirectly preserve mail-in voting for other elections beyond the presidential one. As noted in Part II.A, the Elections Clause grants Congress exclusive preemptive authority over the regulation of congressional elections, meaning states would have a tougher time arguing that Congress, and the executive by delegation, violated the Constitution by making it more difficult to use mail-in ballots in congressional elections. These elections, however, do not exist on separate ballots. Typically, a ballot will contain all elections relevant to a voter, including presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, etc. Consequently, if a court enjoined the federal government from certain actions negatively impacting mail-in voting because it found discrimination against states’ Electors Clause powers, this would mean that all elections on a ballot containing the presidential election would be protected by proxy.42 42.Midterm elections would naturally not benefit from this though, since there would be no presidential election on the ballot.Show More

C. The Critiques

One critique of this Essay’s theory could be that it violates the Supremacy Clause. It seems odd, after all, to claim that a state action can displace a federal action. The Supremacy Clause, however, has no relevance here, since the Electors Clause is part of the enumerated Constitution, and thus part of the “supreme Law of the Land.”43 43.U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2.Show More And since the Supreme Court rejects any hierarchy of constitutional provisions, the Electors Clause may not be preempted.44 44.See Ken Hyle, When Constitutional Rights Clash: Masterpiece Cakeshop’s Potential Legacy, 9 ConLawNOW 200, 202 (2018).Show More

Another critique may point to the fact that the Supreme Court has previously held that Congress has some regulatory powers over presidential elections. In Burroughs v. United States, for example, the Court upheld an act requiring candidate committees, including those for presidential candidates, to keep account of all contributions received or donated by them.45 45.290 U.S. 534, 548 (1934).Show More The Burroughs Court reasoned that Congress possessed the power to preserve the integrity of presidential elections.46 46.See id. at 544–45.Show More As Professors Dan Coenen and Edward Larson note though, there is a difference between controlling the manner in which electors are appointed (e.g., popular vote by mail-in ballots) and adopting electoral procedures necessary to implement said manner (e.g., campaign finance laws to quell the possibility of corruption within a popular election).47 47.See Dan T. Coenen & Edward J. Larson, Congressional Power over Presidential Elections: Lessons from the Past and Reforms for the Future, 43 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 851, 904 (2002) (“Ballot-and-equipment laws simply do not control systems for selecting electors, substantive selection criteria, or candidates who might qualify as proper electors. Rather such laws concern only the implementing procedures to be used if one available substantive manner of selection—that is, the election manner—is chosen by the state.”).Show More Hence, Burroughs does not support any notion that the federal government may encroach on the states’ Electors Clause powers.

Conclusion

The Covid-19 pandemic revealed a conflict of federal and state powers that shook the 2020 election to its core. And while the 2020 election has passed, the practice of mail-in voting will likely remain prevalent in the future. Moreover, unforeseeable future crises could further change up how states choose to conduct their elections. Consequently, this conflict must be resolved, and this Essay argues that restraining federal powers from being used to discriminate against states’ Electors Clause powers is a fair and constitutional means of doing so.

  1. * J.D. Candidate 2021, Columbia Law School. The author would like to thank Professors Henry P. Monaghan, Jessica Bulman-Pozen, and Richard Briffault for their comments and guidance. Any faults in this Essay are my own.
  2. U.S. Const. art. II, § 1, cl. 2.
  3. It should be noted that this Essay does not cover the post-election litigation that former President Trump instigated to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. This is because such litigation did not present a vertical separation-of-powers conflict, as Trump was bringing forth such litigation as a candidate rather than using any executive power to overturn the results in Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Michigan. For a summary of such cases that were decided on the merits, see Compiling the Truth: A Resource to Refute Trump’s “Stolen Election” Lies, Campaign Legal Ctr. (Mar. 1, 2021), https://campaignlegal.org/‌update/compiling-truth-resource-refute-trumps-stolen-election-lies [https://perma.cc/CG2S-W6KJ].
  4. David Roberts, Voting by Mail Is Fair, Safe, and Easy. Why Don’t More States Use It?, Vox (May 27, 2017, 12:16 PM), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/5/27/‌15701708/voting-by-mail (Washington, Oregon, and Colorado).
  5. See Benjamin Swasey, Map: Mail-In Voting Rules by State—And the Deadlines You Need, NPR (last updated Oct. 14, 2020, 3:00 PM), https://www.npr.org/2020/09/14/‌909338758/map-mail-in-voting-rules-by-state [https://perma.cc/WDA9-5EE4].
  6. Pew Rsch. Ctr., Sharp Divisions on Vote Counts, as Biden Gets High Marks for His Post-Election Conduct 19 (2020), https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/11/20/sharp-divisions-on-vote-counts-as-biden-gets-high-marks-for-his-post-election-conduct/ [https://perma.cc/N8FP-B39F]. This helped to create the highest voter turnout in a U.S. presidential election in over a century. See Kevin Schaul, Kate Rabinowitz & Ted Mellnik, 2020 Turnout Is the Highest in over a Century, Wash. Post (last updated Dec. 28, 2020, 4:29 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/elections/voter-turnout/ [https://perma‌.cc/9U2U-5UPW].
  7. Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter (Apr. 8, 2020, 8:20 AM), https://www.thetrumparchive.com/?dates=%5B%222020-04-07%22%2C%222020-04-08%22%5D [https://perma.cc/6CC4-S4YE].
  8. Complaint at 2–3, New York v. Trump (D.D.C. filed Aug. 25, 2020) (No. 1:20-cv-02340).
  9. See id. at 3; see also Tara O’Neill, USPS Warns CT: Mail-In Ballots Not Guaranteed by November Election, CTPost (Aug. 14, 2020, 8:35 PM), https://www.ctpost.com/‌local/article/USPS-warns-CT-Mail-in-ballots-not-guaranteed-by-15485399.php [https://perma.cc/53SJ-6P8J] (explaining that at least 46 states and D.C. received letters).
  10. Rachael Bade & Donna Cassata, House Passes Bill to Boost U.S. Postal Service amid Trump Attacks, Wash. Post (Aug. 22, 2020, 6:43 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/‌powerpost/house-poised-to-pass-bill-to-boost-us-postal-service-amid-trump-attacks/2020/08/21/c9196fa8-e3c6-11ea-8181-606e603bb1c4_story.html [https://perma.cc/LXJ7-VHX8].
  11. See Deb Riechmann & Anthony Izaguirre, Trump Admits He’s Blocking Postal Cash to Stop Mail-In Votes, AP News (Aug. 13, 2020), https://apnews.com/article/‌14a2ceda724623604cc8d8e5ab9890ed [https://perma.cc/JUN5-UMNS]. Trump eventually signed a stimulus bill granting $10 billion to USPS for Covid-19-related costs, though this happened post-election. See Trump Signs Stimulus Bill with $10 Billion for USPS, PostalReporter.com (Dec. 28, 2020), https://www.postal-reporter.com/blog/trump-signs-stimulus-bill-with-10-billion-for-usps/ [https://perma.cc/7JRE-PHZX].
  12. See Alison Durkee, New York AG Files Multistate Lawsuit, Joins More Than 20 States Suing Postal Service Over DeJoy’s Changes, Forbes (Aug. 25, 2020, 3:09 PM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/alisondurkee/2020/08/25/more-than-20-states-attorneys-general-suing-postal-service-usps-changes-despite-dejoy-reversal/?sh=65898ebb4533 [https://perma.cc/2CCJ-LZKD].
  13. See New York v. Trump, No. 20-cv-2340 (EGS), 2020 WL 5763775, at *13 (D.D.C. Sept. 27, 2020); Jones v. USPS, No. 20 Civ. 6516 (VM), 2020 WL 5627002, at *28–29 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 21, 2020); Washington v. Trump, No. 1:20-cv-03127-SAB, 2020 WL 5568557, at *6–7 (E.D. Wash. Sept. 17, 2020).
  14. The federal government’s subsidization and regulation of USPS is rooted in at least five federal powers—two legislative and three executive:

    1. The Postal Clause – The Constitution empowers Congress “[t]o establish Post Offices and post Roads.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 7. The Postal Clause grants Congress the power to regulate “the carriage of the mail, and all measures necessary to secure its safe and speedy transit, and the prompt delivery of its contents.” Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727, 732 (1877). Thus, when Congress established USPS, it was vested exclusive control over “the processing, transmission[,] and delivery” of mail shipped through USPS. See Commonwealth v. Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind, 335 A.2d 832, 838 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1975). Moreover, the Postal Clause allows Congress to control the administration of USPS. See, e.g., Sarah Anderson, Scott Klinger & Brian Wakamo, How Congress Manufactured a Postal Crisis — And How to Fix It, Inst. for Pol’y Stud. (July 15, 2019), https://ips-dc.org/how-congress-manufactured-a-postal-crisis-and-how-to-fix-it/ [https://perma.cc/4PET-7UF4] (examining how Congress has used its power to control USPS through its retirement funding).

    2. The Appropriations Clause – The power to fund USPS—and all federal agencies—is vested in Congress under the Appropriations Clause, establishing that “[n]o Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 9, cl. 7. Consequently, the Appropriations Clause accords Congress the “power of the purse” to, for instance, grant USPS a $25 billion relief package. See Sean M. Stiff, Cong. Rsch. Serv., R46417, Congress’s Power over Appropriations: Constitutional and Statutory Provisions 1 (2020), https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46417 [https://perma.cc/LE9R-SWET].

    3. The Presentment Clause – The President has the power to veto “[e]very [b]ill” passed by Congress, including an appropriations bill. See U.S. Const. art. I, § 7, cl. 2. Under this power, the President may veto a $25 billion USPS relief package, as Trump threatened during his Presidency. See Riechmann & Izaguirre, supra note 10. Congress would need a two-thirds majority to override said veto.

    4. The Vesting & Take Care Clauses – Many scholars would agree that the executive has the power—if not duty—to faithfully execute powers delegated to it by Congress. See, e.g., Julian Davis Mortenson & Nicholas Bagley, Delegation at the Founding, 121 Colum. L. Rev. 277, 280–81 (2021). The Constitution, after all, vests “[t]he executive Power” in “a President of the United States,” and states that the executive “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” U.S. Const. art. II, § 1, cl. 1; id. art. II, § 3. Congress delegates much rulemaking authority to the Postmaster General. See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 3061(c)(4)(A) (2018). Thus, nondelegation doctrine concerns aside, the Postmaster General—wielding executive power—may “faithfully execute” their congressionally assigned role by “promulgat[ing] regulations generally as to the conduct of [USPS],” including policy changes such as refusing to treat election-related mail as First-Class Mail. See Daniel L. Pines, The Central Intelligence Agency’s “Family Jewels”: Legal Then? Legal Now?, 84 Ind. L.J. 637, 672 n.306 (2009) (quoting Ex parte Willman, 277 F. 819, 821 (S.D. Ohio 1921)).

    Naturally, one may be able to point to other powers, but the preceding five seem to be most relevant, at least in the context of mail-in voting.

  15. See supra notes 7–10 and accompanying text.
  16. See U.S. Const. amend. X.
  17. See, e.g., infra section III.A.
  18. See, e.g., Nathaniel F. Rubin, The Electors Clause and the Governor’s Veto, 106 Cornell L. Rev. Online 57, 60 (2021).
  19. U.S. Const. art. II, § 1, cl. 2.
  20. Cf. Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654, 705 (1988) (Scalia, J., dissenting) (asserting that the language of the Vesting Clause “does not mean some of the executive power, but all of the executive power”); see also Robert G. Natelson, The Enumerated Powers of States, 3 Nev. L.J. 469, 470 n.11 (2003) (listing the Electors Clause as one of the few exclusive state powers enumerated in the Constitution).
  21. The two exceptions being Maine and Nebraska, which appoint two electors based on the statewide vote and the rest based on results within each congressional district. Meilan Solly, Why Do Maine and Nebraska Split Their Electoral Votes?, Smithsonian Mag. (Nov. 5, 2020), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-do-maine-and-nebraska-split-their-electoral-votes-180976219/ [https://perma.cc/7AMV-MVK6].
  22. U.S. Const. art. I, § 4, cl. 1.
  23. See Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Ariz., Inc., 570 U.S. 1, 13–15 (2013).
  24. See infra Part III.A.
  25. See Michael T. Morley, Dismantling the Unitary Electoral System? Uncooperative Federalism in State and Local Elections, 111 Nw. U.L. Rev. Online 103, 108 (2017) (noting that there is “a strong textual basis for believing that Congress’s authority over presidential elections is limited to its powers to enforce the constitutional right to vote and under the Spending Clause”).
  26. Chiafalo v. Washington, 140 S. Ct. 2316, 2324 (2020) (emphasis added) (quoting McPherson v. Blacker, 146 U.S. 1, 27 (1892)).
  27. Id.
  28. Id.
  29. Sen. Ron Wyden, Opinion, Oregon Has Used Vote by Mail Since Electing Me in 1996. Those Who Say It Can’t Work Are Lying., NBC News (Apr. 30, 2020, 9:00 AM), https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/oregon-has-used-vote-mail-electing-me-1996-those-who-ncna1195646 [https://perma.cc/PU6T-PWTV].
  30. Cf. Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112, 291 (1970) (Stewart, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (noting that hosting a “popular election” qualifies as a “manner” of appointing electors).
  31. See, e.g., Trump v. Wis. Elections Comm’n, 983 F.3d 919, 926–27 (7th Cir. 2020) (citing Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, 113 (2000) (Rehnquist, C.J., concurring)) (“Chief Justice Rehnquist suggested that the proper inquiry under the Electors Clause is to ask whether a state conducted the election in a manner substantially consistent with the ‘legislative scheme’ for appointing electors.”).
  32. Two states in fact raised this argument in lawsuits leading up to the 2020 general election. See Complaint at 7, 63, Pennsylvania v. DeJoy, No. 2:20-cv-04096 (E.D. Pa. filed Aug. 21, 2020); Complaint at 107–08, Washington v. Trump, No. 1:20-cv-03127 (E.D. Wash. filed Aug. 18, 2020).
  33. But see John Nichols, Congress Has a Constitutional Duty to Preserve and Promote the Post Office, Nation: Budgets Blog (Mar. 22, 2013), https://www.thenation.com/‌article/archive/congress-has-constitutional-duty-preserve-and-promote-post-office (arguing that the Postal Clause creates a congressional “responsibility” to establish a post office).
  34. See Michael Kent Curtis, The Curious History of Attempts to Suppress Antislavery Speech, Press, and Petition in 1835–37, 89 Nw. U.L. Rev. 785, 827–28 (1995) (“The postal power included the power not to establish post offices and post roads.”). But see Nichols, supra note 32.
  35. Chiafalo v. Washington, 140 S. Ct. 2316, 2324 (2020) (quoting McPherson v. Blacker, 146 U.S. 1, 27 (1892)).
  36. Andrew M. Hetherington, Comment, Constitutional Purpose and Inter-Clause Conflict: The Constraints Imposed on Congress by the Copyright Clause, 9 Mich. Telecomm. Tech. L. Rev. 457, 485 (2003).
  37. See Commerce Clause Limitations on State Regulation, UMKC, http://law2.umkc.edu/‌faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/statecommerce.htm [https://perma.cc/5L7E-E6XZ] (last visited Mar. 22, 2021).
  38. U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 3.
  39. See Frank Pommersheim, Broken Landscape: Indians, Indian Tribes, and the Constitution 41 (2009).
  40. United Haulers Ass’n, Inc. v. Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Mgmt. Auth., 550 U.S. 330, 338–39 (2007). This is, needless to say, an extraordinarily high bar to meet.
  41. See id. at 346 (quoting Philadelphia v. New Jersey, 437 U.S. 617, 624 (1978)).
  42. See supra text accompanying note 12.
  43. Midterm elections would naturally not benefit from this though, since there would be no presidential election on the ballot.
  44. U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2.
  45. See Ken Hyle, When Constitutional Rights Clash: Masterpiece Cakeshop’s Potential Legacy, 9 ConLawNOW 200, 202 (2018).
  46. 290 U.S. 534, 548 (1934).
  47. See id. at 544–45.
  48. See Dan T. Coenen & Edward J. Larson, Congressional Power over Presidential Elections: Lessons from the Past and Reforms for the Future, 43 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 851, 904 (2002) (“Ballot-and-equipment laws simply do not control systems for selecting electors, substantive selection criteria, or candidates who might qualify as proper electors. Rather such laws concern only the implementing procedures to be used if one available substantive manner of selection—that is, the election manner—is chosen by the state.”).

Foreword

Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn’t broken

but simply unfinished1.Read: Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem, CNNPolitics (Jan. 20, 2021), https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/20/politics/amanda-gorman-inaugural-poem-transcript/index.html [https://perma.cc/AX6X-GU86].Show More

Amanda Gorman

If a foreword were to be limited to one word, and one word only, this foreword’s one word would be joy. It is a joy to introduce to you a diverse group of authors and their writings on the past, present, and future of a social justice movement that we now know must be founded on intersectional solidarity.

The papers in this collection are blunt. Their messages are confident and unapologetic. The authors trace our faltering progress in a century-long struggle for legal and social justice for people of color, for women, for LGBTQ+ folks, and for others whom white supremacy has silenced and erased. The authors do not hesitate to call out some of their would-be fellow travelers—including, I dare say, themselves—for failures to listen and lift up marginalized points of view. The authors address divergent topics and apply distinct methodologies, but, I suggest, their objectives converge as each seeks to articulate the conditions necessary for an intersectional understanding that produces durable alliances.

So, as you move ahead into these papers, prepare yourself for joy: The joy of listening to authors voicing complex concepts clearly. The joy of hearing about the ancestors whose works they have studied and deployed. The joy of feeling the energy that is produced as we begin to learn how to resist, even as we never deny, the suffering imposed by the conjoint forces of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. The joy of finding new alliances as we work to shed our own “public and private rituals” that have “help[ed] maintain the culture of domination.”2.bell hooks, Teaching To Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom 27 (1994).Show More The joy of knowing that it “is not a naive fantasy” for us to try to act “as a catalyst for social change across false boundaries.”3.Id. at 72.Show More

  1. * Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law.
  2. Read: Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem, CNNPolitics (Jan. 20, 2021), https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/20/politics/amanda-gorman-inaugural-poem-transcript/index.html [https://perma.cc/AX6X-GU86].
  3. bell hooks, Teaching To Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom 27 (1994).
  4. Id. at 72.