Extremely Broad Laws

Extremely broad laws offend due process. Although the problem has not been lost on courts, their solution to date has been haphazard: casting breadth as a species of uncertainty—ambiguity or vagueness—and repurposing uncertainty-focused doctrine accordingly. The trouble is, breadth and uncertainty are not the same. They have different analytic features and raise distinct concerns, making the tools designed to resolve uncertainty ill-suited to reining in breadth. Vague and ambiguous laws deprive people of notice about what the law requires. They evoke the Star Chamber and Kafka stories—the dread of inhabiting an incomprehensible legal order. With broad laws, the issue is not notice but reach. Broad statutes can be plenty clear about what they require. The problem is they sweep in too much everyday conduct, arousing worry about outsized power and arbitrary enforcement. Here, the literary specter is not Kafka, but Orwell, and the nightmare is not an opaque legal system; it is a police state. Extremely broad laws, in this sense, are problematic for the same basic reason as general warrants: they afford state officials practically boundless justification to interfere with private life. After expounding the problem abstractly, I close by exploring how courts might tackle the breadth problem in practice—and I ultimately suggest that judges should be empowered to hold statutes “void-for-breadth.”