Category: Jurisprudence


SCOTUS Chides Posner/Easterbrook in Jones v. Harris

In a gentle rebuke to two famous academic judges, Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook, today the US Supreme Court told them a debate they were airing in a recent case was not for federal judges but for Congress.

The Court, in Jones v. Harris, unanimously vacated as erroneous Easterbrook’s opinion that went out of its way to disagree with well-settled judicial interpretations of a relatively simple federal statute. Posner’s contending opinion engaged directly with the economic and market theories on which Easterbrook drew, both judges wrongly making debate out of the wisdom rather than the meaning of the statute.

The statute says an adviser to mutual funds is “deemed to be a fiduciary with respect to the receipt of compensation for services.”   For thirty years, virtually all federal courts take that to mean adviser fees cannot be so disproportionate to services rendered as to indicate lack of an arms-length sort of bargain.    Testing that requires considering all relevant factors.

The Court affirmed that interpretation and test as correct, in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito. Easterbrook erred when instead saying the fiduciary duty language required only that advisers disclose fees and that no other factor is relevant. The Court indicates that his dissertation on competition in the mutual fund industry and theories of market behavior is irrelevant to federal court business in the case.

Posner’s opinion, in the form of a dissent from the Circuit’s refusal to rehear the case en banc, engaged Easterbrook directly on economic theories and views of market efficacy, including debating empirical academic studies reaching opposite conclusions. The Supreme Court rebuked both, saying their job was to apply the statute not debate its wisdom. Read More


Traditional v. Economic Analysis and Cardozo v. Posner

Scholars continue to debate the merits of traditional legal analysis compared to contemporary economic analysis of law. Each has virtues and both pose trade-offs. Adding to the extensive discourse, now available on SSRN is my new article probing the comparative appeal of these two approaches.

I offer a novel approach to the longstanding debate. I focus on judicial opinions of Benjamin Cardozo and Richard Posner. I use the context of tort law, where economic analysis has enjoyed most impressive success. I chose these two judges because their opinions appear more often than any other judge’s in current torts casebooks and they epitomize the competing methods.

My analysis led me to conclude that Cardozo’s traditional approach has the better of Posner’s economic approach. I would be delighted to hear criticism of the paper and its conclusions.


William Prosser and the Privacy Torts

I recently posted on SSRN a draft of my forthcoming article (with Professor Neil M. Richards of Washington University School of Law).  The piece is called Prosser’s Privacy Law: A Mixed Legacy, 98 California Law Review __ (forthcoming 2010).  It was written as part of a symposium “Prosser’s Privacy at 50.”

By way of background for those readers not familiar with William Prosser, he was the leading torts scholar of his generation — the undisputed king of the subject throughout the middle of the twentieth century.  And he played a profound role in shaping the privacy torts — four causes of action recognized by most states today.  His article, Privacy, 48 Cal. L. Rev. 383 (1960), still stands as one of the most influential articles in privacy law.

For this symposium, Neil and I examined Prosser’s influence and concluded that his legacy was mixed.  Here’s the abstract of our paper:

This article examines the complex ways in which William Prosser shaped the development of the American law of tort privacy. Although Prosser certainly gave tort privacy an order and legitimacy that it had previously lacked, he also stunted its development in ways that limited its ability to adapt to the problems of the Information Age. His skepticism about privacy, as well as his view that tort privacy lacked conceptual coherence, led him to categorize the law into a set of four narrow categories and strip it of any guiding concept to shape its future development. Prosser’s legacy for tort privacy law is thus a mixed one: He greatly increased the law’s stature at the cost of making it less able to adapt to new circumstances in the future. If tort privacy is to remain vital in the future, it must move beyond Prosser’s conception.

Comments are welcome.


Rethinking Free Speech and Civil Liability

I’ve been meaning to announce, but keep forgetting to get around to it, that my article with Neil Richards was recently published — Rethinking Free Speech and Civil Liability, 109 Columbia Law Review 1650 (2009).  Here’s the abstract:

One of the most important and unresolved quandaries of First Amendment jurisprudence involves when civil liability for speech will trigger First Amendment protections. When speech results in civil liability, two starkly opposing rules are potentially applicable. Since New York Times v. Sullivan, the First Amendment requires heightened protection against tort liability for speech, such as defamation and invasion of privacy. But in other contexts involving civil liability for speech, the First Amendment provides virtually no protection. According to Cohen v. Cowles, there is no First Amendment scrutiny for speech restricted by promissory estoppel and contract. The First Amendment rarely requires scrutiny when property rules limit speech.

Both of these rules are widely-accepted. However, there is a major problem – in a large range of situations, the rules collide. Tort, contract, and property law overlap significantly, so formalistic distinctions between areas of law will not adequately resolve when the First Amendment should apply to civil liability. Surprisingly, few scholars and jurists have recognized or grappled with this problem.

The conflict between the two rules is vividly illustrated by the law of confidentiality. People routinely assume express or implied duties not to disclose another’s personal information. Does the First Amendment apply to these duties of confidentiality? Should it? More generally, in cases where speech results in civil liability, which rule should apply, and when? The law currently fails to provide a coherent test and rationale for when the Sullivan or Cohen rule should govern. In this article, Professors Daniel J. Solove and Neil M. Richards contend that the existing doctrine and theories are inadequate to resolve this conflict. They propose a new theory, one that focuses on the nature of the government power involved.

In Columbia Law Review’s Sidebar, Professor Timothy Zick has a very thoughtful response piece entitled “Duty-Defining Power” and the First Amendment’s Civil Domain.


Book Review: Daniel Markovits, A Modern Legal Ethics

A Modern Legal Ethics, by Daniel Markovits.  Princeton University Press: New York 2008.  Pp. 361.  $29.95

Daniel Markovits’s A Modern Legal Ethics could change the way we think about legal ethics, although not necessarily far enough or in only the right directions.

The main argument is elegant and provocative.  Markovits contends that a central issue in legal ethics should be the “problem of integrity.”  Lawyers must be able to integrate their professional commitments into their moral lives.  This is the most important insight of the book.  Other commentators have noted the problem of integrity, but Markovits offers the most sustained and nuanced discussion.  His argument opens up new avenues for thinking about the rules governing lawyers.

On Markovits’s telling, the lawyer’s integrity is directly challenged by her professional obligations.  Good lawyering requires what, on ordinary morality, would be considered lying and cheating.  These “lawyerly vices” are endemic to the adversarial system, so they can’t be cured by tailoring the rules governing lawyers.  Neither is avoiding these vices an option, given their incompatibility with integrity.

For Markovits, there are better and worse ways to solve this problem.  Most theories of legal ethics utilize what he calls (after David Luban) the “adversarial system excuse,” or the consequentialist view that the lawyerly vices are justified as part of a legal system that is just overall.  Here, if the overall practice is justified, then the integrity issues fall away.  Impersonal approaches can only accidentally or incidentally resolve integrity problems.

Interpersonal theories of legal ethics (which he calls “Kantian” approaches) don’t fare any better.  On these approaches, principles of legal ethics are acceptable only if they fulfill specified criteria (e.g., that they could be reasonably consented to, that they could not be reasonably rejected, etc.).  Yet, Markovits argues, concentrating on fulfilling such criteria raises the same problem as with impersonal approaches: any resolution to the problem of integrity is a byproduct, rather than an important end in itself.

Markovits thinks we must take the “lawyer’s point of view” in order to solve the problem of integrity in the right way, which requires a “first-personal” approach to morality.  Markovits calls his version “role-based redescription.”  If there were a distinctive, morally worthy role for lawyering, then the lawyer could preserve her integrity by redescribing her professional obligations to lie and cheat as requirements of fulfilling this role.

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Natural Law, Imperialism, and the Birth of Free Exercise Jurisprudence

I have been researching Reynolds v. United States (1879), the Supreme Court’s first Free Exercise case, on and off for several years. For those who are interested, my paper on the topic is now available for download at SSRN. My interest in the case is historical rather than doctrinal. I am interested in what Reynolds, which held that religious polygamy was not protected by the First Amendment, and the anti-polygamy crusade that followed tell us about constitutional politics in the nineteenth century. Historians have generally situated the case within the context of the post-Civil War politics of Reconstruction. The anti-polygamy crusade kicked off by Reynolds is seen as an extension of Reconstruction into the West. I offer a new interpretation.

I began my research by asking myself what the theory of the First Amendment put before the Court by the Reynolds’s lawyers looked like. The Court — following the arguments of the Attorney General — characterized the Mormons as claiming that all religiously motivated action was exempt from the criminal law. This sort of absolutist position, the Court and the government pointed out, would allow absurd results such as the inability to criminalize religiously motivated murders. The Court, however, was knocking down a straw man. The Mormons never in fact made this claim. Rather, they argued that the First Amendment only protected religiously motivated conduct that was not malum in se, that is wrong in and of itself as opposed to being wrong merely because of the law (malum prohibitum). Actions could be judges as malum in se, they went on to argue, by appeal to a set of well-established natural law arguments. These arguments were based in part by a series of more-or-less positive analogies to non-Western legal systems. The Court responded implicitly to this argument by analogizing Mormons to Indians and the federal government to the British Raj. In other words, the Court in effect looked at “The Mormon Question” through the lens of imperialism.

This imperial analogy was more than a one-off rhetorical fillip in the Court’s opinion. It shows up all over the anti-polygamy battles, where it is important for distinguishing the situation in Utah from the situation in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction South. It also gets picked up on in the first generation of cases that invoke Reynolds and its progeny as precedent. These cases, known as The Insular Cases, arose in the context of the United States’ conquest of the Philippines in the Spanish American War of 1898 and addressed the question of the federal government’s authority to engage in imperialism and colonialism abroad. In these cases Reynolds was seen not as a First Amendment case as much as a case about the scope of Congressional power over a conquered people. My paper thus suggests that Reynolds and the anti-polygamy battles need to be seen not only in the context of the domestic debates over Reconstruction that proceeded them. Rather, Reynolds and its heirs must also be seen as a prelude to the international debates over imperialism that followed the Spanish American War.

For those interested, here is an abstract of the paper: Read More


Dismembered Goats and the Philosophy of Contract Law

My latest offering is now up on SSRN for your enjoyment. This particular paper began with a simple question: “Why did people in the ancient world formalize their contracts by hacking up a goat?” Here’s the abstract for the paper that resulted:

In the ancient Near East, contracts were often solemnized by hacking up a goat. The ritual was in effect an enacted penalty clause: “If I breach this contract, let it be done to me as we are doing to the goat.” This Article argues that we are not so far removed from our goat-hacking forbearers. Legal scholars have argued that contractual liability is best explained by the morality of promising or the need to create optimal incentives in contractual performance. In contrast, this Article argues for the simpler, rawer claim that contractual liability consists of consent to retaliation in the event of breach. In the ancient ritual with the goat, the retaliation consented to consisted of self-help violence against life and limb. The private law in effect domesticates and civilizes retaliation by replacing private warfare with civil recourse through the courts. It thus facilitates the social cooperation made possible by the ancient threats of retaliation while avoiding the danger of escalation and violence that such private violence presented. This civil recourse theory of contractual liability provides an explanation for a number remedial doctrines that have proven difficult for rival interpretations of contract law to explain, including the penalty clause doctrine, limitations on expectation damages, and the basic private law structure of contractual liability. Finally, this Article responds to some of the most powerful objections that might be made against a civil recourse theory of contractual liability.

The article, “Consent to Retaliation: A Civil Recourse Theory of Contractual Liability,” is, to my knowledge, the first full-length article on civil a recourse theory and contract. Civil recourse, of course, has been a much discussed topic in the philosophy of tort law, where it has been championed by John Goldberg and Benjamin Zipursky. My take on the normative foundations of civil recourse, however, is a bit different than theirs. Hence, in addition to illuminating the mystery of the hacked up goats, my hope is that the article will contribute to debates in the philosophy of contract law and the philosophy of private law more generally. Enjoy!


The Future of Rewards

This is the last in my series of posts on rewards.  I want to give a nod to Nate, who pointed out to me that the first society to rely heavily on rewards as a regulatory tool was Liliput (as described in Gulliver’s Travels:

“Although we usually call reward and punishment the two hinges upon which all government turns, yet I could never observe this maxim to be put in practice by any nation except that of Lilliput . . .  And these people thought it a prodigious defect of policy among us, when I told them that our laws were enforced only by penalties, without any mention of reward.  It is upon this account that the image of Justice . . . [has] a bag of gold open in her right hand, and a sword sheathed in her left, to show she is more disposed to reward than to punish.”

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Price Gouging

The double-blizzard in DC (described this morning as “The Ice Planet Hoth”) raises the issue of price gouging and rationing.  I always teach price gouging in my Unfair Competition class because it helps students think about the question of when market practices should be regulated.  Every state, after all, gives its attorney general some kind of power to bring an action under some circumstances against merchants who charge “exorbitant” prices.  Why is this appropriate?

It is easy to make the case against price controls, even in an emergency.  They lead to shortages because the incentive to stock the price-controlled good is reduced and consumer demand does not reflect scarcity. Nevertheless, people tend to be very critical, for example, of gas stations that jack up prices at the pump following a hurricane or stores that raise prices of necessities after an earthquake.

One possibility is that a local store or gas station, in effect, becomes a monopoly under extreme conditions (a natural or man-made disaster) and thus price gouging statutes are a kind of antitrust scheme (albeit an arbitrary one–since these state statutes rarely define what an unfair price is and are enforced bluntly after the fact).  Another thought is that we only care about unfair prices when the good in question seems really important.  Many of these statutes only cover gas or food, for instance.  Or perhaps the issue is that society wants a rationing scheme in emergencies but doesn’t want to bear the administrative costs, so we resort to jawboning by state officials and a few prosecutions to enforce a rationing norm.


Reward Characteristics and Transaction Costs

I want to continue my discussion of rewards as a regulatory tool by focusing on: (1) the traits that rewards can have; and (2) how transaction costs affect the decision to choose rewards rather than property rights or sanctions.

One significant decision for a reward is whether it should be what I’ll call “ex ante” or “ex post.”  In other words, the state could say “We will give you a specific sum if you do something.”  Or the reward could be structured as: “If you do something, then we will give you a reward.”  The former usually involves a more specific valuation (a bounty or a subsidy), while the latter tends to be more indefinite (salvage or a medal).  Another important issue is whether the reward will be a lump sum, a percentage, or some bundle of benefits.  Once again, valuation difficulties play a significant role in this decision, as the % reflects greater uncertainty about how valuable a particular action (such as a qui tam suit) should be.

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