Category Archives: X-Men

X-Men: Days of Future Past and Thoughts on Due Process

This guest post was written by Joe Suhre, of Suhre & Associates, LLC, a firm with offices in Chicago, Illinois, Dayton, Ohio, and Columbus, Ohio. Joe previously wrote guest posts on Defending Loki and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The Most Important Movie of the Year?

Recently, US-authorized drone strikes killed several American citizens accused of being a threat to the country based on their terrorist affiliations and unapologetic rhetoric opposing US policy.

Oh, wait . . . that was the beginning of X-Men: Days of Future Past.

You probably already know that this article will have multiple spoilers, so if you haven’t yet seen the latest iteration of Marvel’s X-Men, you should go see it soon. Then come back and tell me in the comments whether you believe in my assessment of this film or not.

What’s the Big Deal?

If you have seen Days of Future Past already, did you see what I saw? I will admit it is somewhat hidden, but only because we are trained to ignore it, since it just gets in the way.

I am talking about due process—due process, as in the opposite of capricious verdicts and judgments based on prejudice, fear, and political expediency; as in that little right we inherited from our Founding Fathers, who had experienced the lack of due process first hand and decided the Constitution wasn’t complete until we included it in the Bill of Rights.

You might disagree with me when I say the framers of the Constitution had the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past in mind when they insisted that due process be inviolate, so let’s review the instances in the movie and then see if we face the same issues today.

First Class 

Everything really started at the end of X-Men: First Class when, in a mercurial moment, mutants went from heroes to goats on the beach in Cuba, incurring the wrath of the instantly allied US and Soviet fleets. The Soviets would obviously have no problem firing on a small contingent of Americans, but why did the generals calling the shots in Washington order the execution of US citizens without due process? And why were the American Sailors, so soon after World War II, willing to “just follow orders,” especially after hearing Agent MacTaggert screaming over the com that the situation was contained?

I guess their justification for such an attack was fear; fear based on ignorance and concern for safety. Which, by the way, is the same tactic currently exercised by law enforcement across the country. In fact, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, police kill 400 – 500 innocent people each year out of fear for their own safety, significantly more than the 33 officers killed by firearms each year in the line of duty.

A 2012 example of irrational fear in Cleveland, not unlike the attack levied against the mutants on the beach, involved a man and woman whose car backfired. The retaliation by police to the possible gunfire from the car resulted in a force of 60 police cars pursuing the now frightened couple and ended with 115 officers firing 140 bullets into the car in less than 30 seconds. The unarmed couple was pronounced dead on the scene.

Kennedy Assassination

Speaking of no due process, although the details were sketchy on how the US government accused Magneto of complicity in the JFK assassination, it is clear that government suspicion that Magneto manipulated the “magic bullet” was justification for his incarceration.

Of course, in 1963 Erik Lehnsherr’s incarceration was illegal, but now after several rounds in congress and many court challenges, the President on December 26, 2013 signed into law that the government can arrest anyone on suspicion only and detain them indefinitely without trial. Welcome to Magneto’s world.

Not that I subscribe to the rhetoric of Magneto, but you have to admit that being thrown in solitary without due process, tends to sap any loyalty one might have for King and country; whether you are a German Jew or a US Citizen of the wrong color, species, or ideology.

Vigilante Justice

One element of vigilante justice that makes it not only illegal but immoral as well is that the vigilante, lynch mob, or angry villagers with torches and pitch forks don’t feel bound by due process. Their aim is to dispense justice, quickly—right or wrong. What drives the vigilante is fear that justice won’t happen without them taking over.

Vigilante justice in Detroit occurred in April of this year when a man hit a 10-year old boy with his truck. The driver stopped to help but was immediately beaten into a coma in retaliation even though surveillance cameras would later show the boy ran in front of the oncoming truck leaving no time to stop. Concern for due process would have allowed the mob to see that the man was not at fault after a thorough investigation.

But in another universe, maybe the boy was a mutant, and his fellow mutants felt that there would be no justice unless they acted on their own. Thus was the mindset of Mystique as she set about finding and executing Trask. It all seemed clear what she had to do since nobody else was willing to stop Trask from continuing with his plans against mutants. Due process wasn’t on her mind, and as it usually does, her vigilante justice backfired.

Due Process and Personhood

Without getting into a history lesson on civil rights in America, one doctrine that kept slaves and minority races under the boot of the majority was the belief that they didn’t fully qualify as human. The majority claimed belief in rule of law, due process, and justice, yet denied an equal share of this philosophy to those deemed as “less human.” This belief also fueled the Holocaust in Germany, where enslavement and execution of “untermenschen” or “subhumans” was ok, to the tune of eleven million dead.

Trask was quick to play on this flaw in humanity when he was able to convince the powers that were, that mutants, by virtue of their differences also didn’t deserve consideration as humans and should be targeted as enemies. His deep seated prejudice was made plain when, suspecting a Vietnamese general to be a mutant, he said to others in the room driven to panic, “Don’t shoot it.”

Denying Due Process 

I dare say, in a classroom most students would see the injustice and immorality of denying human rights to any individual based on race. Maybe racist attitudes are fading away in our culture. Let’s hope so. But my discussion has not been about the obvious ethnic lessons of X-Men: Days of Future Past. I have been talking about due process and why we should be aware of its importance.

To whom are we willing to deny due process today? Do you think we should afford all people the right of presumed innocence? Or are some crimes so heinous that it is hard to restrain us from rushing to judgment and bypassing due process? Unfortunately, I have seen instances where many people feel that for some crimes due process isn’t important and should be suspended. Let me toss around a few words. Let’s see what your emotional response is to arresting:

  • Drunk drivers;
  • Terrorists;
  • Child molesters;
  • Rapists;
  • Drug dealers

A police officer arrests and handcuffs a man.

You have the right to . . . oh never mind, just get in the car @$&hole.

The question is, are we willing to trust our system of justice when it comes to these types of crimes? Or do we treat these individuals as “mutants . . .” to be feared and condemned as guilty before they are even tried? In the case of a drunk driving arrest, you are presumed guilty. Your license is suspended and you are given a notice of suspension. Police officers in these cases are judge, jury, and executioner. It is a very efficient system.

However, putting justice in the hands of the people can be slow. It was a risky move by the founding fathers. Many feel that people show too much mercy and not enough justice. They fight for mandatory sentences, new laws, and regulations that take authority away from the judge and jury. They allow exceptions to every right we have in an attempt to control our “unruly” system.

I like what Charles Xavier said to Raven at the end of X-Men, “I have been trying to control you since the day we met and look where that’s got us . . . I have faith in you Raven.” Perhaps we should have faith in each other as well.

Due process isn’t perfect, but it is fair. It is foundational to our freedom. In light of the alternative, it is a pretty big deal. Is it significant enough to suggest that X-Men: Days of Future Past is the most important movie of the year?

Ask me again in ten years.

The Wolverine: Grand Theft Superpower

When I saw The Wolverine I was reminded of this post on “Superpowers as Personal Property,” which considers the idea of treating “stealing” superpowers as theft.  If you’ve seen The Wolverine you probably know where I’m coming from.  If you haven’t, read on but beware: major spoilers follow.

Continue reading

The Wolverine

The Wolverine is the latest X-Man movie from Fox, the sixth in the series overall. It’s set after the events of X-Men III: The Last Stand, and is in continuity with the earlier (admittedly dreadful) X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Unlike that one, this movie is actually okay. It focuses on Wolverine’s connections with Japan, introducing Mariko Yashida (first appearance, Uncanny X-Men # 118, 1979) and several other characters from the comics, including Yukio and Viper.

In this post we’re going to take a look at one of the legal issues, specifically the issue of inheritance, which is actually pretty key to the plot. But we’ll have to do so with a disclaimer: the movie is set in Japan, and neither of us know much if anything about Japanese law, either in general or particularly about estates and inheritance. So we’re forced to analyze it in the context of American law, and we’ll do so in comparison to prevailing opinions, not any particular state’s law.

There are major spoilers inside. Continue reading

Mutant Discrimination: GINA, Genetics and How Professor Xavier is Breaking the Law

This guest column was contributed by Dan Vorhaus, an attorney at Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, P.A. and Editor of the Genomics Law Report.

Previous posts here at Law and the Multiverse have discussed the status of mutants under several of our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, including the applicability of constitutional protections afforded by the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th amendment and statutory protections afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

There remains, however, one key piece of important anti-discrimination legislation that has yet to be considered in evaluating the legal protections afforded mutants under the law: the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, or GINA.

I. GINA and Mutant Genetics: A Primer.

GINA represents a historic achievement. Enacted in 2008 after 13 years of debate, many have called it the “first civil rights bill of the 21st century.” Five years later it remains the first and only piece of federal legislation to specifically address the use and effects of genetic information.

Broadly speaking, GINA is divided into two parts. Title I of GINA prohibits health insurers from using genetic information to deny coverage or to set premiums or payment rates. Title II prohibits employers from requesting genetic information or using genetic information in hiring, firing and other employment-related decisions.

GINA’s unique focus on genetic information makes the law of particular relevance to mutants. “Mutants,” as we now know thanks to decades of research by devoted and largely off-panel comic book scientists, are individuals who possess at least one mutated copy of the so-called “X-Gene.” The gene appears to promote the development of superhuman powers and abilities, typically post-puberty.

While much remains unknown about the X-Gene’s structure and function, scientists specializing in mutant genetics have isolated its protein product(s) as evidenced by the deployment of mutant suppression drugs in X-Men: The Last Stand (the drug in question is derived from the mutant Leech). From this we can extrapolate that the location of the X-Gene in the Homo sapiens genome is known and, importantly, that mutations within the gene can be identified through genotyping or even targeted sequencing of the X-Gene itself.

With the identification of the X-Gene and the subsequent decline in cost of genomic sequencing technology, there are a number of scenarios in which a genetic test to “diagnose” a mutant at an early stage, particularly before he or she has developed any superhuman (and frequently super-destructive) abilities, might be desirable. But in light of GINA’s passage, are such genetic tests legal?

II. Mutant Discrimination in a Post-GINA World.

We start with a pair of scenarios in which genetic testing for the X-Gene might be of interest.

First, a health insurer could require applicants to submit to testing in an attempt to screen in individuals with beneficial mutations (e.g., those resulting in unique healing abilities) or screen out individuals with X-Gene mutations capable of generating catastrophic levels of claims exposure (e.g., as a result of an at-times-uncontrollable ability to rearrange matter), thereby helping to more accurately project the insurer’s exposure.

Second, an employer might use the X-Gene test to gain valuable insight about a prospective hire. For instance, a research laboratory might use the X-Gene diagnostic test to double-check that the reserved but well-qualified physicist it is considering for an open position won’t demolish the lab – and everyone and everything within it – if an experiment goes awry.

Prior to GINA’s passage, testing in either scenario would have at least been arguably permissible, although various other anti-discrimination laws, including those discussed in previous posts, might have served as the basis for an effective challenge. Post-GINA, however, the analysis is crystal clear: both of the above examples of X-Gene screening are illegal.

The text of the statute itself offers no ambiguity:

  • A health insurer “...shall not request, require, or purchase genetic information for underwriting purposes.” (§ 101)
  • It is unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire, or to discharge, any employee, or otherwise to discriminate against any employee with respect to the compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment of the employee, because of genetic information with respect to the employee.” (§ 202)

 Although Congress did provide limited exceptions to the general prohibition on requesting and using genetic information in the insurance and employment contexts, none of the exceptions are targeted at mutants, tests specifically designed to test for X-Gene mutations or are otherwise applicable to the scenarios discussed above.

III. Professor Xavier and Pro-Mutant Genetic Discrimination

While GINA may operate to protect mutants from certain forms of genetic discrimination, we should not forget that the statute is crafted broadly and protects against the misuse of any individual’s genetic information. In other words, just as mutants are protected by GINA, so too are they bound by it.

Consider the case of Professor Xavier’s world-renowned school, variously referred to as “Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters” and the “Xavier Institute for Higher Learning.”

While little is known of Xavier’s closely-guarded school, it appears to satisfy the definition of an employer subject to Title II of GINA. (GINA applies to all private employers with 15 or more employees. With roughly a dozen identified faculty members, and likely additional faculty members and administrative and support staff on the payroll, Xavier’s school likely crosses the 15-person threshold.)

Xavier’s school also has an unbroken track record of employing mutants as faculty. While it may seem logical and even desirable to employ mutants in a school dedicated to the education and training of mutants, GINA prohibits the use of genetic information in hiring and other job-related decisions without exception. Even in situations where genetic information might appear to be a legitimate criterion for assessing fitness to perform a particular job, GINA forbids its use by an employer.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that Xavier requires prospective faculty members to submit to a traditional genetic test as a condition of their application and/or hiring. In addition to his well-known psionic powers which allow him to identify mutants using only his mind, many or all of the individuals applying to work at the school have manifest mutant powers. Nevertheless, GINA is clear that genetic information, however acquired, may not be used “in regard to hiring, discharge, compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” 29 CFR § 1635.4. No matter how he comes by the information, if Xavier is indeed using genetic information in employment-related decisions, this would be a clear violation of GINA.

Since none of Xavier’s existing faculty members are likely to bring a discrimination claim, how might one arise? The most likely scenario: a gifted but non-mutant individual, perhaps one even possessed of other superpowers derived from, for example, an alien genesis or technological enhancements, seeks a position at Xavier’s school as an instructor but is turned away. Such an individual would be well-positioned to bring a successful genetic discrimination claim under GINA against Professor Xavier and his school. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title II of GINA, provides detailed instructions for filing just such a charge.

As with any new piece of legislation, it will take some time before GINA’s full implications for both mutants and humans become clear. Final regulations for Title II of GINA were published in 2010, but public examples of GINA-in-action remain few and far between, and illustrate the many uncertainties and difficulties of enforcement.  For example, given the EEOC’s difficulty subpoenaing documents from Nestle in a recent enforcement action, one can only imagine the considerable challenges that would await the Commission in attempting to gather the evidence needed to successfully establish a claim of discrimination under GINA.

Nonetheless, the law of GINA is clear, and the coming years may require the Commission and other regulatory bodies to overcome those challenges in order to appropriately enforce GINA both for and against the mutant population. Count on Law and the Multiverse and the Genomics Law Report to continue to keep you apprised of all the latest in GINA, mutants and genetic discrimination law.

The Scarlet Witch and Insanity

Christopher writes:

In fairly recent issues of Avengers, the Scarlet Witch has returned from being in hiding (of a sort) for years. Her last real interaction with her old team and mutant kind was not a pleasant one. She went mad and attacked the Avengers, leading to the deaths of Ant-Man in an explosion and her own husband, the Vision, at the hands of a berserk She-Hulk, and Hawkeye  was lost to a Kree warship as her reality warping powers basically engineered the worst day ever for the team. Not long after that an event called House of M happened and it ended with her essentially depowering thousands of mutants, many of whom were killed in the aftermath by religious terrorists.
My question is: once the Avengers vs. X-Men crisis is over, could any of those people affected actually seek legal action against her? I’m sure that the Avengers will forgive her, since they tend to take a lot in stride and be really forgiving even when they should be still rather angry, but isn’t it on the shoulders of the government to prosecute for deaths anyway? And not to mention thousands of mutants who have lost their powers who might not have wanted it, and the families of those killed in the aftermath? Frankly, how can she possibly actually remain a hero and not stuck in jail for the next millenium?
The Scarlet Witch’s madness is a great example of comic book writers’ (understandable) tendency to overlook the consequences of their larger-than-life plots.  So would Wanda be on the hook either criminally or civilly?  Or would she have a viable insanity defense?
I. Insanity
We’ve talked about the insanity defense a few times before (here, for example), usually concluding that it doesn’t apply.  This may be one of the cases in which it does.  The Scarlet Witch’s madness may have been caused by some sort of possession or it may have been a more common sort of mental illness, perhaps related to the deaths of her children.  Psychic possession could be a kind of insanity or it could simply eliminate the mental state required to commit a crime; either way, that would be an effective defense.  But what if the Scarlet Witch wasn’t being actively controlled but was merely ‘ordinarily’ mentally ill?
Unlike many supervillains, Wanda may actually be legally insane.  As Dr. Strange describes her in Avengers #503: “Reality controls her. … Reality, eventually, as she knows it, starts to slip away. Elude her.  Blur.  … She loses herself, her reason. … [Y]ou’d say to yourself, this sounds like a person who has lost control of themselves on a deep psychological level.  You’d say this sounds like a disturbed person.”  That sounds a lot like it would satisfy the most common insanity test, the M’Naghten test: whether “the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”
II. Liability
But supposing Wanda wasn’t insane, she could face both civil and criminal liability.  However, in the US system the government is not strictly required to prosecute any particular crime, and you can imagine how it might be reluctant to try to go after someone as powerful as the Scarlet Witch.  Even so, the depowered mutants, Ant-Man’s survivors, and Hawkeye’s survivors could probably all sue her in civil court.  The nice thing about a civil case is that if the Scarlet Witch doesn’t show up after appropriate efforts are made to serve her with process, then the plaintiffs could get a default judgment.  I don’t know if she has bank accounts or other assets that could be seized to satisfy a default judgment, but if she does then that could provide some relief to the injured parties without having to actually get her to show up in court.
III. Conclusion
The Scarlet Witch has a plausible insanity defense.  However, while she might not be guilty of a crime or liable for any torts, I’m not sure that makes Captain America’s decision to offer her a spot in the Avengers more sensible than it would if she had committed the crimes in a sane state (although she declined the offer).

Cerebro and Privacy Laws

The X-Men movies feature Professor X’s Cerebro device, which amplifies the power of telepathic mutants, allowing them to find other mutants anywhere in the world.  In X-Men: First Class, Professor X and Magneto collaborate with the US government to assemble a team of mutants.  Although the movie is set in the early 1960s, Cerebro (nowadays called Cerebra) is also used in stories set in the modern day.  What’s more, it’s used to collect information on mutants around the world.  This caught the attention of Law and the Multiverse reader Mathias Ullrich, who wrote a great guest post on the subject using First Class as an example:

A data-protection consideration of Prof. Xavier’s recruiting methods according to German law

When reading the article about the responsibility of Prof. Xavier as the principal of a full time school some weeks ago, I started wondering about Prof. Xavier’s way of recruiting. As a data protection officer in Germany, my attention turns to data protection concerns.

As I’m not so familiar with the X-Men, I’ll stick to the movie X-Men: First Class. To analyze the whole process, I divide it into the different relevant steps:

1) data acquisition by telepathy

2) merging the data with another database (e.g. the CIA database) in order to get real addresses

3) offering specific services

4) deletion / blocking of the personal data

Some basics about the German data protection law: The German implementation of the European Data Protection Directive (“Directive 95/46/EC”) is one of the strictest implementations in Europe and is probably the strictest data protection law in the world. It’s called the “Bundesdatenschutzgesetz” or BDSG in short. In general it says that data processing of personal data is forbidden, unless there is an authorization of it in either the BDSG or other laws. So every data acquisition and processing needs an authorization.

Is German law applicable?

The first question we need to answer is if German law applies, when somebody in the world is acquiring customer data. The answer is quite simple: if there is an acquisition of personal data from German citizens, then German law can be used. This is similar to the discussions regarding Google Analytics or Facebook.

What kind of organization are the X-Men?

As stated in a recent blog post, Xavier’s School is a private school.

Step 1: the acquisition

When Professor Xavier searches for mutants, he is gathering data about the health status and some other information about potential students. Health status is one of the so-called “special kinds” or sensitive kinds of personal data according to §3 Abs. 9 BDSG, alongside racial and ethnic origin, political or religious belief and some more.

Acquiring and processing these kinds of personal data has some special rules. As said before, the German data protection law forbids unauthorized data processing, so we need to find permission.

From the reaction of the mutants visited by Magneto and Professor X, I assume none of them gave permission for acquiring the data. So I would also say that Professor X did not inform the people concerned about the concrete use of the data. This is mandatory. It is illegal to acquire data without the knowledge of the person concerned (§33 Abs. 1 BDSG).

Let’s go back to the acquisition. In §28 Abs. 6f and 9 BDSG we find the exceptions.

It’s possible to acquire these data without an explicit permission, if

– it is vital to the person concerned and he / she is not able to give the permission (§28 Abs 6, Nr. 1 BDSG)

– the data is has been made public by the person concerned (§28 Abs 6, Nr. 2 BDSG)

– the data is necessary for a legal transaction (§28 Abs 6, Nr. 3 BDSG)

– the data is necessary for medical research, if this research cannot be done without (§28 Abs 6, Nr. 4 BDSG)

– the data is necessary for medical care, if the acquisition is made by a doctor or somebody else with an obligationtoconfidentiality (§28 Abs 7 BDSG)

– the acquisition is made by a political, philosophic or religious organization without financial interest, but only for their members or associated people.

I do not think any of these exceptions apply. That means that the acquisition of the health status of the possible new students is illegal according to German law.

Step 2: the merging

After acquiring the data, I assume Professor X needs to get information about the new students, he wants to visit. Therefore, he merges the data with some database, according to the movie, it might be a CIA database. Here we have the exact same circumstance as in step 1. With just one exception more.

§28 Abs. 8 BDSG says, that the proceeding or transmitting sensitive data is allowed, if it is needed for defense of public safety.

Of course, thinking about maniacs who try to take over the world, the merging sounds legit, but the merging did not fight a concrete danger. It is more a “long term” investment. Unfortunately the acquisition of the data is still illegal and where did the CIA get data about European citizens? But that is another question, which will not be answered here ;-)

So, the merging might be legal, because of the exception for defense of public safety.

Quick note: §28 Abs. 8 BDSG only allows the processing or transmitting of data, not its acquisition.

Step 3: the offering

The last step is the personal visit to the possible new student in order to offer a personal service, in this case a place in Professor X’s private school.

As this is just again data processing, the same legislation applies as in step 2. So, maybe it’s legal because of the defense exception, but that need be discussed.

Step 4: blocking and / or deletion of data?

 In German data protection law, no data should be stored forever. As soon as the purpose of the data has expired, the data needs to be deleted (§35 Abs. 2 BDSG) or at least blocked.

When looking at the reaction by Wolverine, visited by Magneto and Professor X, one can assume that the purpose is expired, as Wolverine seems not to be interested in the offer. As we know, since Wolverine joins the X-Men later, the data may be blocked and not deleted.

Let’s check the terms for blocking instead of deleting, which are stated in §35 Abs 3 BDSG. Blocking data is allowed,

– if there are any laws or other legal issues that prohibit the deletion

– if it can be assumed that a deletion would affect the interests of the person concerned

– if the deletion is not possible or only possible with high effort because of the special way of storing the data

Again I do not think any of the exceptions apply. The data must be deleted, not blocked, at least as far as we are talking about a real database (e.g. the CIA one). If Professor X keeps the information in his mind, this is not affected by German data protection law.

Conclusion

Of course, there are a lot of unanswered questions, which make a final analysis quite difficult. Is telepathy acquisition of personal data and does German law apply here at all? Where is the data stored and how?

Besides that, the conclusion is quite simple. The acquisition was not legal, so every step beyond the first one, such as the uses the data from step 1, was illegal as well. According to §43, Abs. 2 Nr. 1 this is an administrative offense, with a penalty of up to 300,000 Euro in each case.

Translation guide

 Using §1 BDSG as an example:

– ‘§’ or Paragraf means paragraph in English, in this context it is translated to ‘section’.

– ‘Abs.’ is the abbreviation for ‘Absatz’. In this context it is ‘subsection’. In the example an ‘Absatz’ is marked by the brackets.

– The next one is Nr. (‘Nummer’), which means number. It is the next subsection, and in the example it is marked by the normal ‘1.’

– ‘Satz’ means sentence, if referring to a concrete sentence of the text, one uses ‘Satz’.

 

Who Owns Wolverine’s Bones?

Today’s post was inspired by an email from Frank, who asks:

Does Wolverine own his bones? Does Captain America own his shield?

Both of these characters are military agents granted  items by employers. Since I didn’t get to keep my rifle when I left the military, I presume that Cap would have to turn in his shield should he ever leave military service (or, in the case of the Civil War storyline, be prosecuted and presumably discharged).

Wolverine’s a more interesting case. Let’s presume that since adamantium is unbreakable, it will always have value of some kind. Can a body part be repossessed? Can you “own” an artificial organ installed in another person? Would it matter that Wolverine doesn’t need the adamantium to live, because of his healing power?

These are interesting questions!  We’ve previously (and very theoretically) addressed treating superpowers as personal property, but in this case we’re dealing with special equipment rather than intrinsic abilities.  I’m going to address Captain America first, since it’s the easier one to answer.

I. Who Owns Captain America’s Shield?

The answer seems to be “the US military.”  This is true of other military-issue equipment, including weapons and body armor.  And sure enough, the comics treat it that way, with Captain America giving up his shield on the few occasions in which he left service (e.g., Captain America #332).

So that’s that.  On to the much trickier case of Wolverine.

II. Who Owns Wolverine’s Bones?

Of course, what we mean here is the adamantium bonded to Wolverine’s skeleton, not the bones themselves.  In some ways it’s similar to having a plate or screws put in place by an orthopedic surgeon, or a device like a pacemaker implanted by a cardiologist.  The patient still has all of his or her parts, there are just some new bits added.

Normally the patient owns those bits, however, and they are just like any other piece of personal property.  In the UK, for example, “on implantation, an implant becomes the property of the person in whom it has been implanted and it remains his or her property even if it is subsequently removed. Following the patient’s death, it forms part of his or her estate unless there is any specific provision to the contrary.”  Department of Health and Social Security Health Notice HN(83)6 (1983).  The situations appears to be the same in the US, although I was unable to find such a specific statement.  I assume it is likewise the same in Canada, which is really the relevant jurisdiction here.

(Note that the situation with implanted devices is distinct from naturally-occurring organs and tissues.  The courts have pretty universally held that people do not have a property right in their own bodies or the parts thereof.  See, e.g., Moore v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 51 Cal.3d 120 (1990).)

So under normal circumstances, Wolverine would appear to own the adamantium in his body.  But these are not normal circumstances.  Wolverine was a soldier, but he was also brainwashed by the Weapon X project.  So while he may have technically signed some sort of agreement giving the Canadian government ownership of the adamantium, the circumstances under which the agreement was made mean that it is probably not binding, either because of fraud or Wolverine’s mental incompetence.

But what if there had been no brainwashing and the Weapon X project had been completely forthright with Wolverine?  Is it even possible for someone to own a part of another person’s body?  What if it can be removed without (permanently) harming them?

These are interesting questions with no clear answer.  At least one commentator, writing in the context of microchip implantation, has argued that it is both possible and desirable to extend existing law to reach the conclusion that “anything within an individual’s body [is] the property of that individual.”  Elaine M. Ramesh, Time Enough? Consequences of Human Microchip Implantation, 8 Risk: Health Safety & Env’t 373, 403 (1997).  I agree with that conclusion, even if it is difficult to point to a particular legal principle that supports it.

Another approach is to consider not the property right but the remedy.  Supposing that the Canadian government did own the adamantium, how could it enforce that right?  It’s true that Wolverine could probably survive the removal of the adamantium, but it would be extremely intrusive even if the pain could be minimized through anesthesia.  It seems doubtful that a court would order such an operation.  Involuntary medical operations are generally limited to prisoners and people who have been involuntarily committed and even then there are significant due process safeguards.  Washington v. Harper, 494 US 210 (1990).  I suspect the law is similar in Canada, though Wolverine seems to spend most of his time in the US these days.

III. Conclusion

Not all superhero equipment is created equal, even equipment that came from the military.  Captain America will have to give up his shield if he retires, but Wolverine probably owns his adamantium bones, or can at least retain possession of them as long as he lives, which should be a very long time!

Xavier’s School for Gifted Plaintiffs

Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters (aka the Xavier Institute) has existed in several most versions of the X-Men as a place of safety for young mutants, a training ground for future X-Men, and a private school.  These purposes are somewhat in tension, however, and students are sometimes injured either in the course of instruction or because of attacks on the school.  That leads to today’s question from Frank, who asks: “Is Professor X responsible for minor students in a parental capacity? What happens when one of them is injured or killed while at school?”

There are a few different aspects to this question.  First there’s the question of the school’s institutional liability, and second there’s the question of Professor X’ (and the teachers’) personal liability.

I. Institutional Liability

Xavier’s School is a private school in New York.  It’s usually written as a charitable school.  In some states this would entitle it to a certain degree of immunity, but New York (unlike, e.g., New Jersey) rejected the doctrine of charitable immunity several decades ago.  Bing v. Thunig, 2 N.Y.2d 656 (1957). So if the school can be sued, what could it be sued for?

The most likely cause of action is negligence: negligently allowing students to take part in dangerous activities, negligently failing to prevent superpowered students from harming one another, negligently failing to protect the students from outside threats, etc.

Normally one isn’t liable for failing to protect someone else from harm, but certain special relationships (e.g. parent/child) can create a duty to rescue, protect, or supervise.  Schools have such a relationship with students:

Schools are under a duty to adequately supervise the students in their charge and they will be held liable for foreseeable injuries proximately related to the absence of adequate supervision.  Schools are not insurers of safety, however, for they cannot reasonably be expected to continuously supervise and control all movements and activities of students; therefore, schools are not to be held liable for every thoughtless or careless act by which one pupil may injure another.  A teacher owes it to his or her charges to exercise such care of them as a parent of ordinary prudence would observe in comparable circumstances.  The duty owed derives from the simple fact that a school, in assuming physical custody and control over its students, effectively takes the place of parents and guardians.

Mirand v. City of New York, 84 N.Y.2d 44, 49 (1994).  So while a school may not be liable for every injury caused by a student, it will be liable if the injury was the result of inadequate supervision.  What’s more, since Xavier’s is a residential school, this duty is basically continuous, because “Ordinarily, the duty of care imposed on a school district, and in this case a private school, terminates upon a student’s release from their physical custody.”  David XX v. Saint Catherine’s Center for Children, 699 N.Y.S.2d 827, 830 (App. Div. 1999).

So the school’s liability will ultimately come down to whether the teachers and staff acted reasonably and whether the injury was foreseeable.  If the teachers follow all the right protocols but a superpowered delinquent blows up the school, well, that’s tough.  Similarly, a random attack by evil mutants may be unforeseeable, so it doesn’t really matter whether the school took reasonable precautions to protect the students from such an attack or not.

II. Personal Liability

“A school district, like any other employer, may be held vicariously liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior for a tort committed by an employee in the course of the performance of the employee’s duties.”  Mary KK v. Jack LL, 611 N.Y.S.2d 347, 348 (App. Div. 1994).  Of course, the employee is also still liable (and the employer can turn around and seek compensation from the employee for any damages the employer has to pay out), but most plaintiffs prefer to sue the party with deeper pockets.

But as the quote suggests, the employer is only liable under certain circumstances.  As the Mary KK court said, “What constitutes the scope of employment is generally a jury question, but” there are some guidelines.  “An act falls within the scope of an employee’s duties when the employee is doing his master’s work, no matter how irregularly, or with what disregard of instructions. On the other hand, there is no respondeat superior liability for torts committed for personal motives unrelated to the furtherance of the employer’s business.”  Murray v. Watervliet City School Dist., 515 N.Y.S.2d 150, 152 (App. Div. 1987).  More specifically, courts and juries look at factors such as:

the connection between the time, place and occasion for the act; the history of the relationship between employer and employee as spelled out in actual practice; whether the act is one commonly done by such an employee; the extent of departure from normal methods of performance; and whether the specific act was one that the employer could reasonably have anticipated

Riviello v. Waldron, 47 N.Y.2d 297, 303 (1979).  Sometimes the school might be vicariously liable, but it won’t be liable for the actions of “rogue” (no pun intended) employees.

III. Conclusion

We certainly hope Xavier’s has a serious insurance policy (or three).  Not only could it be sued, but it’s a magnet for serious injuries.  Waivers can help for voluntary activities, but not there are limits to what can be waived.  Of course, if the school goes beyond negligence and into the realm of gross negligence or intentional misconduct then its insurer may not cover it at all.

Are the X-Men Human? A Federal Court Says No

Thanks to Neal for alerting us to a recent episode of Radiolab, which discusses a real life legal issue involving Marvel characters, including the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man (although the episode focuses on the X-Men).

In brief: Attorneys for a company that imported Marvel character action figures noticed that imported dolls were subject to a higher tax than toys, per the Harmonized Tariff Schedule.  More importantly, dolls were distinguished from toys by “representing only human beings and parts and accessories thereof.”  The company sued for a declaration that the action figures did not represent human beings and so should be classified as toys, subject to the significantly lower tax.  Ultimately the Court of International Trade agreed with the company and held that mutants, the Fantastic Four and related villains, and Spider-Man and related villains were all non-human.  Toy Biz, Inc. v. United States, 248 F.Supp.2d 1234 (Ct. Int’l Trade 2003).

The case actually went on for several years, and some earlier decisions in the case were also reported: Toy Biz, Inc. v. United States, 123 F.Supp.2d 646 (Ct. Int’l Trade 2000); Toy Biz, Inc. v. United States, 132 F.Supp.2d 17 (Ct. Int’l Trade 2001); Toy Biz, Inc. v. United States, 219 F.Supp.2d 1289 (Ct. Int’l Trade 2002).  The 2001 opinion shows that Toy Biz was not universally successful: a Silver Samurai figure was held to be a doll, for example.

A final note: the Harmonized Tariff Schedule has since been changed to eliminate the distinction between dolls and other toys, which are now in the same category.

Update: Thank to Stephen for alerting us to the related case of Kamar Int’l v. United States, 10 C.I.T. 658 (Ct. Int’l Trade 1986).  That case dealt with whether E.T. the Extraterrestrial dolls represented an “animate” object, which would result in a lower tax rate than for toys in general (the customs classifications have changed a lot over the years, apparently).   The Court of International Trade agreed with the plaintiff, despite the United States’ arguments that E.T. was a fictional alien and thus not an animate object.  The Court cited as precedent the classification of Star Wars toys as toy figures of animate objects because “as depicted in the movie Star Wars they are living beings endowed with animal life.”  Kamar, 10 C.I.T. at 661.

The Court’s analysis (and the analysis in the Marvel toy cases) shows that sometimes the courts have to look to the “subjective characteristics of mythical or fictitious characters” in order to classify them properly.  It’s almost too bad the distinction between human and non-human toys was abolished, otherwise somebody at Customs could get paid to “research the subjective characteristics of fictitious characters” (aka “read comic books and watch movies”).  Sounds like a pretty nice job to me!

Magneto’s Scheme in the X-Men Movie

This is a question we got a while back from Christopher, who wondered about Magneto’s evil plot in the 2000 X-Men movie.  In the movie, Magneto devises a plan to win respect for mutants by turning the world’s leaders into mutants, starting with a particularly anti-mutant U.S. Senator, which would force them to see things from the mutant perspective.  But what if the plan backfired, and anti-mutant sentiment led to an effort to remove the leaders from office?  In particular Christopher wanted to know about the President.*  There are four ways we can think of for getting rid of the President: two might actually work, one is tenuous for legal reasons, and one is tenuous for practical reasons.

* If you’re wondering, Senator Kelly could have been removed by expulsion by the Senate itself, impeachment, or constitutional amendment (more on those last two later).  The Senate, like the House, has the power to decide whether its members meet the constitutional requirements for election but may not do so in order to discipline its members.  Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486 (1969).

I. Impeachment

Strictly speaking, impeachment refers to charging an official with misconduct, not the resulting trial or getting kicked out of office.  It’s basically an indictment.  At the federal level, the President can be removed from office on impeachment for and  conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.  U.S. Const. art. II, § 4.  Getting the ball rolling requires a simple majority in the House, but conviction requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate.  The conviction cannot be reviewed by the federal courts.  Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224 (1993) (NB: this was a case about a federal judge named Nixon, not former President Nixon, who was almost-but-not-quite impeached before he resigned).  Nor can the new President (i.e. the former Vice President) use the pardon power  to reinstate the ex-President.  U.S. Const. art. II, § 2, cl. 1 (impeachment is expressly excluded from the pardon power).

On the one hand, it’s unlikely that being a mutant would qualify as a “high crime or misdemeanor.”  The phrase is misleading to modern ears, and it encompasses more than just criminal acts and includes maladministration and subversion of the Constitution.  But even these broader terms require some kind of overt act or omission; simply existing as a mutant wouldn’t seem to qualify.  On the other hand, no one is perfect, and some trumped-up charge could probably be dug up.  Besides, the impeachment and conviction aren’t reviewable by the courts: once you’re out, you’re out.

The major downside of the impeachment route is that it’s still a trial, and since the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court would preside over the case, it’s unlikely that Congress could make a complete mockery of the proceedings.  The President would have the opportunity to present evidence and call witnesses, which buys a lot of time for building public support against removal.

II. The 25th Amendment

The 25th Amendment addresses the problem of Presidential succession.  This includes not only what to do if the President dies, resigns, or is removed from office (the Vice President takes over) but also what to do if the President is nonfatally disabled (the Vice President takes over as acting President).  This second option can be voluntary (e.g. for a planned surgery during which the President will be incapacitated) or involuntary (e.g. an unplanned incapacitation).  It’s the involuntary option that interests us because it can effectively be used to stage a coup, albeit one that needs considerable Congressional support.

The way the process works is that the Vice President and the majority of the Cabinet transmit a written declaration of the President’s disability to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House.  This makes the Vice President the acting President.  The President can then challenge this declaration.  Ultimately, Congress decides the issue: if two-thirds of both houses vote that the President is indeed disabled, then the VP remains acting President.

The advantages here are that there’s no need for trumped-up charges, the executive branch can start the process, there’s no intervention by the judicial branch, the VP immediately assumes power, and Congress only has 21 days to decide the issue, so there’s a limit on how much time the President has to gather public support.  The downside is that it requires a majority of the Cabinet, who presumably are fans of the President, and two-thirds of both houses, which is a higher bar than impeachment.  And it’s probably still pretty difficult to sell mutant status as such a disability that the President couldn’t discharge his or her duties, although some mutations come close, particularly dangerous, uncontrolled ones.

III. Adding a Qualification for Office

Now we come to the legally tenuous approach.  Congress could try to force a new qualification for office on the President, but we don’t think it would work without a constitutional amendment.  The Constitution specifically lists the qualifications to be President and doesn’t provide for adding any new ones.  It’s also not one of Congress’s specifically enumerated powers.  The houses of Congress are explicitly empowered to judge the qualifications of their own members, which suggests they are not empowered to do so for the Presidency.  Finally, Powell v. McCormack and U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995) suggest that the qualifications to be President, like those for federal legislators, are constitutionally fixed and cannot be altered by Congress or the states (except by amendment).

Besides, the President would assuredly veto the bill, and overriding it would require a two-thirds vote in both houses.  It would probably be easier to go the impeachment route.

IV. Constitutional Amendment

And here we come to the wildly impractical but guaranteed effective nuclear option.  There’s no reason the President couldn’t be removed by amendment, either explicitly (“Amendment 28: John Smith, currently President of the United States, is hereby removed from office.”) or implicitly by barring mutants from holding office, notwithstanding all that stuff about equal protection and due process.

The downside is that it would be completely impractical unless virtually the entire country were rabidly anti-mutant.  The upside is that an amendment could affect all mutant office-holders at once, which the other three methods could not.

V. Conclusion

Magneto’s plan, though criminal and insane, would probably not have backfired.  Removing mutant politicians from office would have been difficult, fairly slow, and politically divisive at best and effectively impossible at worst.  It’s more likely that the mutant politicians, if they refused to resign, would have stuck around at least to the end of their terms.