Putting Pretext in Context: Employment Discrimination, the Same-Actor Inference, and the Proper Roles of Judges and Juries

The course of federal employment discrimination litigation is replete with instances of lower federal courts attempting to define and apply broad rules that, usually, though not always, have the effect of defeating plaintiffs’ claims of discrimination. The same-actor inference, first applied by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals 1991, aptly exemplifies this trend. The essence of the same-actor inference is that an individual who harbors discriminatory animus toward a protected class of persons would not knowingly hire a member of that class and then fire that same individual on account of his or her protected status. Since 1991, a circuit split has emerged on the question of who should evaluate the import of same-actor facts in a given case. Several circuits have followed the Fourth Circuit and employ the inference to justify summary judgment, directed verdicts, and judgments notwithstanding the verdict, all in favor of defendant-employers. Other circuits, in contrast, expressly reserve to the jury the decision regarding how to weigh same-actor facts. The Supreme Court has yet to resolve this split. This paper argues that the history of employment discrimination litigation, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and public policy considerations require that it be juries, not courts, who determine the import of same-actor facts in a given employment discrimination case.

Originalism, Popular Sovereignty, and Reverse Stare Decisis

Although all interpretive methods must grapple with the issue of stare decisis, the issue is particularly acute for originalists due to the potentially radical discontinuity between original meaning and modern doctrine. An unmediated enforcement of original understanding of the Constitution would likely reverse countless precedents and impose unacceptably high costs in terms of the rule of law. On the other hand, upholding a precedent despite its variance with the original understanding undermines the very legitimacy of legal review according to most theories of originalism. Focusing on the most common normative basis for originalism, popular sovereignty, the article identifies those cases capable of a principled application of stare decisis and those judicial errors that ought to be treated as presumptively in need of being overturned.

Popular sovereignty both reflects and builds upon the normative theory of democratic rule—government by the majoritarian consent of the governed. The costs of judicial error under this approach waxes and wanes depending on the degree of departure from the people’s will and the constraints placed on the ability of political majorities to respond to the court’s error. The greater the intrusion into the democratic process, the greater the costs of judicial error and, accordingly, the greater the need for “weightier” pragmatic arguments if precedent is to control. Judicial errors that leave an issue under the control of political majorities generally impose such low costs in terms of constitutional legitimacy that the pragmatic considerations of stare decisis may come to the fore. On the other hand, judicial errors that completely remove a matter from majoritarian politics impose such high costs in terms of constitutional legitimacy that they ought to be treated as presumptively in need of overruling—a presumption I refer to as reverse stare decisis.

Fair Use Harbors

The doctrine of fair use was originally intended to facilitate those socially optimal uses of copyrighted material that would otherwise constitute infringement. Yet the application of the law has become so unpredictable that would-be fair-users can rarely rely on the doctrine with any significant level of confidence. Moreover, the doctrine provides no defense for those seeking to make fair uses of material protected by anti-circumvention measures. As a result, artists working in media both new and old are unable to derive from copyrighted works the full value to which the public is entitled. In this Essay, we propose a solution to the uncertainty and unpredictability that plague the doctrine: non-exclusive safe harbors that define minimum levels of copying as per se fair uses. These bright-line rules would provide the clarity needed to facilitate countless productive uses that are currently being chilled. Furthermore, by providing an ex ante test for identifying uses as fair, these safe harbors provide a framework for salvaging fair use in the digital age.