Tagged: contracts


Love and Contracts, and Fairness Too

It is not an easy thing to keep the concepts of love and contracts in the same mental frame, but Martha Ertman in Love’s Promises comes as close as any legal scholar ever has in showing the affinities between the two. Indeed, the case she makes for the positive role that enforceable contracts and unenforceable deals play in structuring and protecting what she calls (in a nonjudgmental way) Plan B families is compelling. (Examples of Plan B families are cohabiting households and those led by adoptive parents or parents who have used reproductive technologies.) I am particularly struck by how persuasive the book is in presenting negotiation processes (between cohabitants; prospective spouses; donors and recipients of gametes; and birth and adoptive parents) as generally salutary and beneficial, quite independently of the specific contracts and deals that might arise from them.

We know from experience that almost all family relationships are constructed around informal negotiations, compromises, and arrangements, the details of which are usually implicit and assumed. At the end of the day, Martha is encouraging all of us, regardless of our familial, sexual, and parental predilections, to make the bargaining and the deal-making more explicit. Martha’s book makes a compelling case for why Plan B families can benefit considerably from embracing agreements of all sorts.

Martha’s love affair with contracts, of course, fits nicely with our pervasive twenty-first century capitalist ethos that prioritizes choice, autonomy, and self-determination. Sometimes it seems as if all (or almost all) of us in this country are libertarians of some stripe or another, with some of us emphasizing autonomy in personal and sexual matters and others of us emphasizing economic freedom. On the other side of both sets of debates stands the intermeddling government (if we are feeling polite) or evil bureaucrats (if we are feeling less polite).

Martha is undoubtedly correct that when the government, for example, regulates the use of reproductive technologies (as several European countries have done), it tends to do so at the expense of Plan B families. Nonetheless, it is important to avoid simple dichotomies that present the private as the “good” and the public as the “bad” or “problematic.” Ultimately, I do not believe we can have a fair and normatively appealing contract-based regime in family law without significant involvement by the state. This is because the relationships that Martha writes about are often characterized by significant power and economic disparities. A regime of “pure contract law” (note the scare quotes) can exacerbate rather than mitigate the effects of those disparities.

As Martha recognizes, for example, there are usually considerable power and economic disparities between birth and adoptive parents. In order for Post-Adoption Contract Agreements (PACAs) to protect the interests of birth parents effectively and fairly, it may be necessary not only for courts to interpret them in ways that are favorable to birth parents, but for the government more generally to inform them of the PACA option, educate them about their advisability, and guide them through their enforcement.

There can also be significant power and economic disparities within married and unmarried relationships. When it comes to the former, we need to make sure, through government policies, educational campaigns, and judicial enforcement mechanisms, that a contract regime of prenuptial agreements does not unduly favor wealthier prospective spouses who might be able, if left entirely to their own devices, to set the terms of one-sided contracts. As for unmarried partners, we need to make sure that the more economically powerful parties in cohabiting relationships are not able to dance around contractual obligations after those relationships end in ways that are unfair to the less powerful partners (usually those who work more inside the home).

To her credit, Martha does not allow her passion for contracts to blind her to economic and social realities as reflected in power imbalances within many family relationships. As a result, while the descriptive parts of the book celebrate stories of love and contracts, the normative parts are infused with calls for thoughtful enforcement mechanisms aimed at promoting not only freedom of choice, also but fairness for homemakers (of all genders, sexual orientations, and economic classes). Although the contract aspects of Love’s Promises may get most of the attention (as reflected, for example, in Judge Richard Posner’s blurb on the book’s back cover celebrating “free choice” and “private contractual arrangements”), they are only one part of the story that Martha tells.

It would be a mistake, then, to view Love’s Promises as a simple clarion call for the private ordering of family law. Yes, Martha has great faith in the power of agreements to clarify, structure, and protect families of all kinds. But to accomplish those objectives in fair and just ways, she makes clear that we need laws and policies that are highly attuned to disparities in power imbalances and social biases that harm those who, for reasons of choice, gender, or relative powerlessness, are more involved in homemaking than in moneymaking. To me that is as an important takeaway from Love’s Promises as is its fusion of love and families on the one hand and contracts and deals on the other. The contracts may be the sexy part, but the guaranteeing fairness is the hard one.


Take that Constitution and…

…forget about it.  I understand that some folks must continue to fight Constitutional battles, inside and outside the courtroom, even if just to try to hold the line against Supreme Court precedents and federal legislation that encroach on the most basic interests and freedoms people need. Note that I can mention these without reference to rights.  Rights – another term that legal academics of all stripes tend to obsess about to the point of distraction from considering the very goods that recognized rights foster and protect.  The goods are not the rights.  Rights shelter goods and interests.  If they are the only form of cover your adversaries will acknowledge, then you better pitch a rights tent.  If representing the good or interest as covered by a right does not help further the good or interest, then don’t use the representation.  Rights and “rights” are neither objectively problematic nor objectively wonderful.  What’s important is which interests and goods we decide to foster collectively,  how we decide this, and whether law is a suitable social method for fostering any given worthwhile interest or good.  If law is an appropriate mechanism for the task, then there are interesting empirical questions about whether the law should be strongly interventionist, requiring very specific conduct to facilitate and foster these goods or interests, or whether it should be more subtle, creating background institutions and norms which increase the chance that these goods and interests will flourish.

Now, consider areas of law that start not from rights but from duties, areas like tort (publicly created duties, originating in common law or in legislation) or contracts (privately created duties, originating at the nexus of individual agreements and legal endorsement of certains types of agreement but not others – some agreements are endorsed or disqualified by courts, some by legislatures).  Not coincidentally, torts, contract, and restitution have historically been grouped together as the law of obligations, in both Anglo and Continental traditions.  And not coincidentally, these bodies of law presuppose interconnectedness and relationships. The foundational or mythic state of nature that animates contracts, torts, and restitution is one that assumes that people are always and inevitably embarking on relationships, sometimes on purpose sometimes accidentally.  But whether they mean to get involved with each other or not, whether they set out to affect other people or not, people connect.  Connection is basic.  Then the question becomes, which sort of connections engender which sorts of obligations?

Obviously, one can argue for thinner and thicker versions of legal obligation and sometimes such arguments rely on philosophical theories like liberalism (neo or otherwise) or conservativism (neo or otherwise).  But it is interesting to note that reflective legal scholars and lawyers engaged (knowingly or not) in normative jurisprudence regarding the law of obligations actually tend not to invoke the usual political philosophies that undergird and drive so much of the discourse about the Constitution.  A hypothesis about what why that’s so: if our starting point for thinking about and creating law is connection – the inevitable ties that will arise among social creatures – our starting point is already complicated and textured in ways that cry out for more particularistic arguments than those generated by wholesale political theories of any stripe.  Political theories that start from the individual rather than the connectedness of individuals can be more general and less nuanced because it is easier to oversimplify the individual than it is to oversimplify connection.  Likewise, areas of legal discourse and practice that answer to broad political theories tend to obscure particularities that matter tremendously in the course of actual lived experiences.

Mary Anne Franks’s discussion of creepshots and outing anonymous bloggers reveals the significance of starting from assumptions of connection rather than assumptions of individuality.  In our culture, the rhetoric of free speech and consent is premised on a particular Constitutional background.  The minute somebody invokes the phrase “free speech” they will be heard as invoking the First Amendment and the entire kit and caboodle of the Constitution.  This then spills over to and colors how “consent” and “privacy” get discussed – they are understood as subordinate matters, less important than and bounded by the explicitly Constitutionally acknowledged good of free speech.  It is ironic that these are the terms of the debate about an episode in an environment so often characterized as thoroughgoingly social – the web and websites where people go to interact.  If we all forgot about the Constitution, very different first questions might come to mind when thinking about creepshots. Namely, who is affected by the site and how?  What sort of connections does it foster or stunt?  Are these connections we collectively should concern ourselves with? Should we use law to structure the connections that inevitably arise from activity on the web?  If so, what do the parties (intended or unintended)  in  these connections owe to one another, morally, ethically, and legally?