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Zombie federalism and moral disagreement

Last week I posted a link to “Zombie Federalism,” an April Fools’ presentation I gave last year at the Stanford Law School’s Center for Law and the Necrosciences. Much to my surprise, it provoked a quasi-serious reply from Michael Smith:

As readers of my own work should know, I am inclined to disagree with Baude. As I explain in my essay, Prosecuting the Undead: Federal Criminal Law in a World of Zombies, battling the armies of the undead will require the living to present a unified front, and a federal standard of zombie personhood will prevent the fragmentation of this front. Leaving states to define whether zombies are persons would lead to uneven legal treatment of the undead, which could undermine the uniform prosecution of these zombies under the federal criminal law.

While I am happy to see additional attention to the important field of zombie law, adopting a theory of zombie federalism threatens the ability of the living to combat the undead in the coming zombie apocalypse.

A few thoughts, somewhere on the line between serious and joke:

First, Smith’s essay automatically assumes that all zombies will be evil enemies of the human race. Maybe that is true, but what if it is not? And given that most of us do not believe in zombies in the first place, how much confidence should we give to our beliefs about what nonexistent zombies would be like if they did exist?

Second, if Smith is right that all zombies would be an inherent threat to humanity, there is nothing to fear from federalism. No U.S. state would want to enable the decimation of the human race, and so no state would grant rights to evil zombies.

Third, that means that zombie federalism matters if, and only if, there is disagreement, at the state level, about whether the newly discovered zombies really are evil. And in the case of disagreement on such a fundamental, existential question, why should we be so sure that we — or really, Congress, the president and the Supreme Court — know the right answer ex ante? Surely the federal government needs and has the power to manage spillovers, but that does not automatically imply a top-down answer to the hard fundamental questions.

The one serious point is that much of the above applies, mutatis mutandis, to other cases of disagreement over fundamental questions.

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).
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