Skip Navigation

UNL News Blog

Nebraska Law Prof: Hobby Lobby ruling opens door to more companies using religion to avoid legal mandates

June 30th, 2014

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday in favor of Hobby Lobby, which had argued religious beliefs prevented it from providing certain birth control insurance coverage to its employees. The Affordable Care Act requires such coverage.

University of Nebraska law professor Eric Berger describes it as an important decision that will attract a good deal of attention.

Some quotes from Berger:

– “The Court held that the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate as applied to closely held corporations like Hobby Lobby violates the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.”

–”Justice Alito, writing for a five-member majority, took paints to paint the decision narrowly but, as Justice Ginsburg argued in her dissent, the opinion can and will be used to say that corporations (and others) can cite religious beliefs to try to exempt themselves from all kinds of legal requirements.”

– “Only time will tell whether those efforts will succeed, but there probably will be a good amount of litigation of this sort, with corporations citing religion to try to avoid legal obligations with which they would otherwise have to comply.”

UNL Experts: Rare mix spawned Pilger’s twin tornadoes

June 18th, 2014

Tornado experts at UNL say “twin tornadoes,” such as the deadly pair that struck Pilger Monday, are unusual but not unheard of.

  • Contact: Matthew Van Den Broeke, assistant professor, earth and atmospheric sciences,  402-472-2418 or mvandenbroeke2@unl.edu
  • Adam Houston, associate professor, earth and atmospheric sciences 402 472-2416 or ahouston2@unl.edu
UNL’s Adam Houston (third from left) stands with members of the Vortex 2 unmanned aircraft system group and the Tempest unmanned aircraft. Houston is an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at UNL.
Matthew Van Den Broeke
Al Dutcher

However, such tornadoes may happen more frequently than weather observers realize, because the second funnel often is obscured by rain, said Adam Houston, associate professor of atmospheric sciences. Houston’s research involves using unmanned aircraft, commonly called drones, to observe tornadoes.

Houston said he has seen twin tornadoes twice in his career, once in June 2010 in Colorado and another instance in 2004 in southern Kansas. In both cases, the second funnel had been “wrapped” in rain and became visible only when the rain cleared.

The Pilger tornado, which left two people dead and leveled most of the town of 360, was a rare instance where both funnels were visible in broad daylight, Houston said.

Matthew Van Den Broeke, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences who specializes in severe weather, said he needs more data to get a better sense of how the Pilger storm differed from other tornadoes.

“At this point I can say the storm was the type that typically produces strong tornadoes and the double-tornado event was unusual — quite unusual, in fact to have two tornadoes of that strength in close proximity,” he said.

State climatologist Al Dutcher, who also is on the UNL faculty, told the Associated Press Tuesday that it’s fairly common to have major storms with more than one tornado — but in most cases, one twister grows stronger and larger while the other weakens and shrinks. He said the strength of both funnels likely increased because they had no nearby storms competing for wind and moisture and the atmosphere was highly unstable.

The National Weather Service was on the scene Tuesday trying to measure each tornado’s strength. A preliminary review confirmed that two tornadoes formed southwest of Pilger and traveled together, about a mile apart. The northern tornado struck Pilger before the two twisters merged, Van DeWald, lead meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Valley, said in a Lincoln Journal-Star report. The storm is estimated to be a “monster” EF-4, near the top of the scale that rates tornado strength.

According to Houston, when a storm produces two tornadoes, one typically is older and losing strength, while the other is new and building strength. It is rare for two twisters to form simultaneously. Usually when they do, they are two vortexes embedded in a larger-scale vortex.

Houston, on sabbatical to conduct research at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said he has only seen photos and videos of Monday’s tornadoes. He said he is eager to see the National Weather Service’s data on the storm.

Houston said there is much more to learn about how tornadoes develop and move. In 2010, his research team successfully demonstrated that drones could be used to gather atmospheric data about the storms. He seeks additional funding to continue using unmanned aircraft to investigate the powerful and often devastating storms.

Van Den Broeke, whose research has focused on the radar structures of tornadoes and supercell storms, said his brief review of radar data during the storm revealed it had some unusual structures, such as a large central precipitation core and a relatively small echo appendage where a tornado would usually be located.

UNL film studies professor Wheeler Dixon enthusiastic about new Godzilla movie

May 12th, 2014

A quote from Wheeler Winston Dixon’s blog “Frame by Frame:”

http://blog.unl.edu/dixon/2014/05/09/godzilla-2014/

“No pun intended of course, but this new version of Godzilla, a carefully calculated reboot of the entire franchise by director Gareth Edwards, is going to be one of the biggest films of the summer. I really think this film will restore the much-damaged franchise to its original vitality and intensity, just as Christopher Nolan did with the Batman reboots. Add in Bryan Cranston in one of the leading roles, and who is going to stay away? Not me!”

Contact Professor Dixon at  402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu

Expert Alert: UNL’s Ari Kohen discusses breakdown of peace talks between Israel and Palestine

April 24th, 2014

One day after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced a reconciliation between his majority Fatah party and Hamas, Israel broke off  its peace talks with the Palestinians.

The  Israeli announcement Thursday effectively ends more than a year of U.S.-backed negotiations to establish an independent Palestine.  Israeli Prime Minister  Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that he would “never negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by terrorist organizations committed to our destruction.”

Some observations from Ari Kohen, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist who teaches courses on Israel and the Middle East, restorative justice and political philosophy at the Harris Center for Judaic Studies:

– “We should be honest about a few things here,” he said. “These were ‘peace talks’ in name only; they hadn’t been leading anywhere and they weren’t going to lead anywhere.”

–  Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas could benefit Israel and the peace process if it forces Hamas to focus on politics instead of militancy. “Ignoring Hamas or pretending it’s impossible to negotiate with them is just bluster for its own sake, or for the sake of delaying.”

– “Israel’s policy of expanding settlements while the peace process stagnates is a long-term loser for the country, though the Netanyahu government either doesn’t understand this or is pretending not to.”  It leaves less territory for a Palestinian state and makes it less likely that any Palestinian government can reach a peace deal, Kohen says.

For more details, visit Kohen’s blog at  http://kohenari.net/post/83734596604/israel-breaks-off-peace-talks.

To contact Kohen for interviews, call 402-770-5647 or email at akohen2@unl.edu

Ari Kohen

DEPARTMENT OF POLITICAL SCIENCE

537 Oldfather Hall
Lincoln, NE 68588
Email: akohen2@unl.edu
Phone: (402) 472-8192

Ari Kohen is a political scientist who teaches courses on Israel and the Middle East, restorative justice, and political philosophy at the undergraduate and graduate levels. His research focuses principally on classical and contemporary political thought. His first book examined the philosophical grounding of the idea of human rights; his current book project looks at the ways in which we think about heroic behavior and the most choice-worthy lives.

Expert Alert: Thoughts on the upcoming Oscars by film studies prof Wheeler Winston Dixon

February 11th, 2014

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar of film history, theory and criticism.

Here are a few of his thoughts about the 86th Annual Academy Awards, to air March 2 on ABC:

– “It continues to amaze me how few people understand that this isn’t some sort of national poll of either critics or audiences; it’s an industry event.”

– “Directing will go to Alfonso Cuarón for ‘Gravity,’ though Steve McQueen for ‘12 Years a Slave’ is a strong contender, and in my opinion should get the nod.”

– “Best Actor to Matthew McConaughey for ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ but Bruce Dern is a strong favorite for ‘Nebraska,’ now that Robert Redford is out of the running. Best Actress to Cate Blanchett for ‘Blue Jasmine,’ which seems to me pretty much a lock.”

–  Other “locks:” “12 Years A Slave”‘ for Best Picture,  Best Supporting Actor to Jared Leto for “Dallas Buyers Club,”  Best Animated Feature to “Frozen.”

– To be taken with “a huge grain of salt:”  – Best Supporting Actress is a three-way toss-up between Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle;” Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years A Slave;” and June Squibb, “Nebraska.”  Best Original Screenplay is too close to call, though “Nebraska”’s Bob Nelson has a decent shot.

– Thomas Vinterberg’s superb film “The Hunt” should win Best Foreign Language Film, though this category continues to rankle. “To pick simply one film to represent the entire world is really a suspect enterprise.”

For more details, visit Dixon’s “Frame By Frame” blog:

http://blog.unl.edu/dixon/2014/01/16/the-86th-annual-academy-awards/

To contact Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472-6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu

Expert Alert: Richard Moberly — “no” on clemency for Edward Snowden

January 8th, 2014
Richard Moberly is a Harvard-educated law professor who is an expert on the law of secrecy. He teaches employment law, evidence and the law of secrecy at the University of Nebraska College of Law.
He’s been following the case of NSA leaker Edward Snowden case and he does not think Snowden should be granted clemency.
This blog post explains why.
Some excerpts:
– “I can’t ignore that Snowden . . . also leaked substantial information about the NSA’s ability to collect foreign cell phone and internet data. This program is clearly legal and no one has raised an argument that it is not. “
– “In my view, the costs of this leak outweigh any benefit from the leak about the domestic program.
–” I think we should only protect national security whistleblowers who publicly reveal conduct that is unquestionably illegal.”

– “In other words, Snowden’s supporters believe the debate about the program’s legality supports clemency, while I think the debate is the best argument against clemency.”

Here’s a brief bio of Professor Moberly:

Professor Richard Moberly joined the law faculty at the University of Nebraska College of Law in August 2004, after practicing as an attorney with McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP in Atlanta, Georgia. After receiving his B.A. degree in History, summa cum laude, from Emory University, Professor Moberly graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and served as an editor of the Harvard Law Review. After law school, he served as a law clerk for the Honorable N. Carlton Tilley, Jr., United States District Judge for the Middle District of North Carolina.

Professor Moberly’s research interests include employee whistleblower protection and the law of secrecy. He has published numerous articles on whistleblowing and retaliation, including an empirical study of Sarbanes-Oxley claims published in the William & Mary Law Review and an analysis of the Supreme Court’s approach to retaliation cases, which was published in the Case Western Reserve Law Review.  A full list of his publications can be found here.

In 2012, Professor Moberly published Whistleblowers and the Obama Presidency: The National Security Dilemma, which appeared in the Employee Rights & Employment Policy Journal, and an article examining the impact the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 has had on whistleblower protections during the last decade, which appeared in the South Carolina Law Review.

Contact information:
Richard Moberly
Associate Dean for Faculty
Professor of Law
University of Nebraska College of Law
P.O. Box 830902
Lincoln, NE  68583-0902
402/472-1256
Twitter: @Richard_Moberly
Law of Secrecy Blog: lawofsecrecy.tumblr.com

UNL Expert Alert: Nebraska law professor Sheppard monitoring congressional effort to stop “patent trolls.”

December 2nd, 2013

Christal Sheppard, an assistant professor at the University Nebraska College of Law, was intimately involved with patent reform legislation in 2011, when she served as  chief counsel on patents and trademarks for the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, passed in 2011, was the most comprehensive change to intellectual property laws in more than 60 years.

In late 2013 or early 2014, Congress is expected to debate and pass a second round of patent reform, designed to rein in so-called “patent trolls” — entities that misuse patents as a business strategy, often by attempting to collect licensing fees based upon vaguely worded patents.

With a dramatic increase in computer software patents in recent decades, the U.S. also is seeing an unprecedented number of patent lawsuits. According to the Washington Post, more than 5,000 firms were named as defendants in patent troll lawsuits in 2011, at a cost of more than $29 billion out of pocket.

Frequently quoted in national publications about patent reform, Sheppard agrees that patent trolls need to be stopped, though she has reservations about some provisions contained in the bill awaiting debate by the House of Representatives.

The Senate also likely will take action soon after the House. President Obama has made patent reform a priority and  is expected to sign legislation that reaches his desk.

As it’s currently drafted, Sheppard says, the patent legislation treat symptoms and not the underlying causes.

“The biggest problem is there are too many patents and they’re too ambiguously written,” she said. “If they attacked it on that end, we’d be better off because there wouldn’t be all those patents out there of questionable value.”

More of Sheppard’s takes:

– Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. “I’m sympathetic to the problems they’re trying to solve, but  . . . it (the House bill) weakens patent rights for both patent trolls and for those who have legitimate patents they want to protect. It probably hurts small businesses and inventors more than it hurts bigger companies.”

– “Fee shifting” provisions, to allow the winning party to recover legal expenses, could backfire.  Intended to encourage those facing spurious patent infringement claims to defend themselves in court,  fee shifting  “could have a chilling effect on people with meritorious claims, because they could be liable for so much more in the attorneys’ fees being racked up.”

–  Allowing parent companies to be joined in patent lawsuits could have unintended consequences. “Transparency is fantastic, but if they pierce the corporate veil to get to parent companies, they’ve eviscerated business law so that companies cannot protect themselves.”

–  Of Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, who has made national headlines for his battle against patent trolls – “He’s trying to find another way to deal with it. The problem is, he can’t. It’s a matter of federal jurisdiction.” Sheppard also doubts the Federal Trade Commission has jurisdiction to resolve the matter.

– Sheppard did not join more than 60 law professors who signed a letter in support of the pending legislation – “The problem is, that while some of the provisions are well meaning, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Supporting a bill in this form, to me, seems problematic  . . . the bill seems to be too broad at this juncture.”

–  She expects significant changes before the proposal passes. “The thing is, it’s going to get better and better as it goes.  They’re open to suggestions for improving the bill. It will be changed and it will be less problematic.”

CONTACT:  Christal Sheppard, assistant professor, University of Nebraska College of Law, 410-458-4054 (cell);  402-472-1250 (office); christalsheppard@unl.edu

Expert alert: Iran agreement “risky,” Nebraska law professor, former DoD attorney, says

November 26th, 2013

The interim nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Iran brings high risk and few immediate advantages, says University of Nebraska Law Professor Jack Beard, who specialized in arms control and nuclear nonproliferation when he served as associate deputy general counsel for the Department of Defense.

“It’s risky because Iran has a well-established history of deception and denial,” Beard said after news of the agreement broke this week.

“Iran is already very much on the way to having the components for a nuclear weapon,” he said. “The hope of the U.S. government appears to be that this (agreement) will slow that process. But it isn’t designed to do anything irreversible to Iran’s program.”

The agreement, designed to stand for six months with the possibility that a more comprehensive accord  will be negotiated in the future, freezes much of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a modest easing of economic sanctions. It has been criticized by Israel and others because it allows Iran to retain the infrastructure to  continue low-level uranium enrichment that could be ramped up to produce weapons-grade material.

During a speech Monday in San Francisco, President Obama defended the agreement, deriding the criticism as “tough talk and bluster.”

“(It) might be the easy thing to do politically, but it’s not the right thing for our security,” he said. “We cannot close the door on diplomacy, and we cannot rule out peaceful solutions to the world’s problems.”

Previously on the faculty of the UCLA School of Law, Beard has been an assistant professor of law at the Nebraska College of Law since 2011, where he teaches courses on international law, national security law, the law of armed conflict, arms control and space and cyber law.  While with the Department of Defense, he handled legal matters relating to arms control agreements, basing agreements in the Middle East and programs assisting the states of the former Soviet Union in dismantling weapons of mass destruction. .

Nuclear proliferation is the number-one security threat facing the nation and the world, Beard said, yet the general public seems far less concerned about it today than in past decades.

“It doesn’t get the attention it should,” he said. “Even though nuclear weapons are way more destructive and more readily available than in the past, it oddly ends up being something people put aside.”

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, in place since 1970, already bars Iran from possessing or building nuclear weapons, Beard said.

The question is Iran’s access to the materials that could be used to make a bomb.

Iran has been using a technique called enrichment, using sophisticated centrifuges to make enriched uranium isotopes that could be used for nuclear power – or to build a bomb.

“The key to making a nuclear weapon is the fissile material,” Beard said. “What Iran is apparently trying to do is make the components.”

Under the agreement, Iran will have access to about $8 billion in frozen economic assets and a promise that the U.S. will not enact new economic sanctions during the next six months, Beard said.  In return, Iran has agreed to scale back its nuclear program and to submit to inspections.

But it does not eliminate Iran’s centrifuges and it does not irreversibly stop Iran from enriching uranium, Beard said.
“As long as they have that capability, we have the menace of Iranian nuclear weapons in our future,” he said.

“If you really want to stop them from building nuclear weapons, you should make them stop enriching uranium and let someone else do it, if they want it for peaceful purposes. In fact, the U.N. Security Council has repeatedly demanded that Iran halt its uranium enrichment activities.”

Beard said the agreement also raises concerns among U.S. allies in the region, who “are increasingly concerned that the United States is not being tough enough or serious enough about Iran.”  The concerns arise from Saudi Arabia, “which dreads an Iranian nuclear weapon as much or more than anyone,” as well as Israel, Beard said.

The risk of the agreement is that it relieves Iran of some of the economic pressure to halt its program during the next six months.

“This appears to be a sort of calculated gamble by the administration, that the Iranians will have to show compliance over the next six months, or they’re going to lose whatever gains they get out of this. “

Though Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iranian president earlier this year, to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seemed to thaw U.S.-Iran relations, Beard said it remains to be seen whether there’s been a change of philosophy in the Iranian government.

“Their policy up until now has not been one of serious cooperation,” he said. “We’re left with the question of whether the economic toll of these sanctions has made them re-evaluate in any way their position on nuclear capabilities.  They have not yet forsaken these capabilities, in particular their ability to enrich uranium to make a nuclear weapon.

“Their track record is not good, but it doesn’t mean there can’t be a change of thinking.”

The agreement could open the door to a more lasting accord, he said.

‘”This gives us a chance to see if we have an ability to work toward something more meaningful,” Beard said. “It doesn’t in and of itself solve any problems, it’s an opening for solving a problem.”

“I suppose you can always applaud talking, instead of fighting,” he said. “Although at some point the argument can also be made that it could be a dangerous form of appeasement. For the time being, no one wants a military conflict, but the stakes are very high if they achieve this weapon, for ourselves and our allies.”

CONTACT: Jack Beard, assistant professor of law, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 402-472-1460 or jbeard2@unl.edu

UNL Expert Alert: New filibuster rule “a big change”

November 21st, 2013

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid invoked “the nuclear option” and the Senate voted to eliminate the filibuster in confirmation votes for most presidential appointees.

Is it the end of the world as we know it?

Probably not, says John Hibbing, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist.

Here are some of his thoughts:

  • The long-term impact depends on how the American people react: “On the one hand, it sounds bad not to be able to do things on a majority vote.  On the other hand, (the rules change) is a clear violation of the normal pattern of behavior in the Senate.”
  • “The country probably can withstand a policy of approving judicial and executive nominations with a simple majority vote of the U.S. Senate, instead of the 60 votes required to end a filibuster.”
  • Still, “It is a big change – and it’s not going to do anything to smooth ruffled partisan feathers.”
  • “The interpretation rises and falls by the extent to which you believe the filibuster has gotten out of hand.”

Historically, the filibuster was used sparingly, as a protection of minority rights.  In recent years, filibusters have become more frequent, to the point that some believe they block government function. The latest battle came in the nomination of corporate lawyer Patricia Millett to a seat on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Republican minority opposed her confirmation because it could tip the philosophical balance of the appellate court, which reviews many federal regulations and has served as a training ground for future U.S. Supreme Court Justices.  Thursday’s filibuster-ending vote cleared the way for her confirmation, likely next month.

Hibbing says he thinks filibustering probably had gotten out of hand.

The change applies to confirmations of the president’s judicial and executive appointtees, though it does not apply to U.S. Supreme Court nominations.

“There was too much obstruction on the executive branch level,” he said. “You lost the election. Let the president get his people in there. If they screw up, then vote them out.”

Hibbing also said he expects partisan payback for the rule change, particularly if the Democratic Party loses its Senate majority.

“The Republicans are probably right – the Democrats will come to regret this. That doesn’t mean it was the wrong thing to do,” he said.

CONTACT:  John Hibbing, Foundation Regents Professor of  Political Science, at 402-472-3220 (office);  402- 817-9623 (cell) or jhibbing1@unl.edu.

UNL Expert Alert: Psychology Professor Dennis Molfese served on national committee on sports-related concussion and youth

October 30th, 2013

Attention: News, Education, Sports Editors

Contact: Leslie Reed, National News Editor, University Communications, 402-472-2059, lreed5@unl.edu; Steve Smith, News Director, University Communications, 402-472-4226, ssmith13@unl.edu

Editors note: Molfese is traveling out of state Oct. 30 and will have very limited availability. Interview requests can be made via the contact information above.

News release website: http://newsroom.unl.edu/releases

UNL’s Molfese among national panel studying youth sports concussions

Lincoln, Neb., Oct. 30, 2013 – Dennis Molfese, director of the new Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is one of 14 authorities who served on a National Academy of Sciences committee that investigated sports-related concussions in youth.

The Committee on Sports-Related Concussions in Youth released its report Wednesday morning at an event in Washington D.C. Citing a “culture of underreporting,” the committee called for a national surveillance system to monitor how often sports-related concussions occur in youth ages 15 to 21; longitudinal studies of the short-term and long-term consequences of concussion; and more research into equipment improvements and rules changes that could reduce the risk of concussion among young athletes.

The report is available at http://go.unl.edu/y6f9.

The committee’s most sobering finding, Molfese said, is that much remains unknown about concussions, their diagnosis and treatment.

“Many policies surrounding concussion are not based on scientific research,” Molfese said. “We need a great deal more information before conclusions can be reached” about how to prevent and treat concussions, he said.

For example, rest is commonly prescribed to recuperate from concussion, Molfese said. But no research definitely indicates how long a student-athlete ought to stay off the field or out of the classroom. In fact, staying out of the classroom could slow the brain’s recovery and result in an academic setback.

Another common yet unsubstantiated belief is that helmets protect against concussion, he said. Helmets protect against skull fractures, but not against the whiplash effect that causes concussion.

“Hit counts” – tracking how often a young athlete experiences a blow to the head – aren’t useful predictors of future concussions, though the risk of long-term disability increases with each concussion and it is believed that “sub-concussive blows” may increase the risk of brain damage.

Concussions today are diagnosed through symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, disorientation, gait and balance problems, Molfese said. CT and MRI scans don’t detect damage to the brain from concussions.  It is not clear whether a person “recovers” from a concussion. Instead of returning to its previous function, the concussed brain may have restructured itself to compensate for the damage, he said.

Molfese said the committee’s investigation makes it clear that concussions should not be taken lightly.

“Concussion is a serious injury. Concussion is brain damage,” he said.

In addition to Molfese, members of the Committee on Sports-Related Concussions in Youth include Robert Graham, George Washington University, chair; Frederick P. Rivara, University of Washington, vice chair; Kristy Arbogast, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; David A. Brent, University of Pittsburgh; B.J. Casey, Weill Cornell Medical College; Tracey Covassin, Michigan State University; Joe Doyle, USA Hockey; Eric J. Huang, University of California, San Francisco; Art C. Maerlender, Dartmouth College; Susan Margulies, University of Pennsylvania; Mayumi L. Prins, University of California, Los Angeles; Neha P. Raukar, Brown University; Nancy R. Temkin, University of Washington; Kasisomayajula Viswanath, Harvard School of Public Health; Kevin Walter, Medical College of Wisconsin; Joseph. L. Wright, Children’s National Medical Center.