Is Contract Law Really Pragmatic?
I’ll begin by joining the others who’ve written in already to praise Larry’s excellent Contracts in the Real World. It is highly accessible, entertaining, and offers a ream of examples to make concrete some abstract and hard doctrinal problems. Larry has the gift of making complex problems seem simple – much more valuable and rare than the common academic approach of transforming hard questions into other hard questions! This would be an ideal present to a pre-law student, or even to an anxious 1L who wants a book that will connect the cases they are reading, like Lucy, Baby M, or Peevyhouse, to problems that their peers are chatting about on Facebook.
Larry’s typical approach is to introduce a salient modern contract dispute, and then show how the problem it raises was anticipated or resolved in a famous contract case or cases. Larry often states that contract “law” steers a path between extremes, finding a pragmatic solution. This approach has the virtue of illustrating the immediate utility of precedent for guiding the resolution of current disputes, and comforts those who might believe that courts are always political actors in (caricatured) Bush v. Gore or Roberts/Health Care Cases sense. It has the vice of de-emphasizing state-by-state differences in how contract law works, as well as the dynamic effects of judicial decisions on future contracts. But I think that for its intended audience, these vices can be easily swallowed.
I wanted to offer one question to provoke discussion: is it actually true that politics is as removed from contract law as Larry’s narrative appears to suggest, and how would we know? The contracts law professor listserve is full of laments about judges turn away from Traynor & his perceived progressive contract doctrines – and I certainly know of colleagues who teach that there are “liberal” and “conservative” versions of the parol evidence rule, for instance. But what does this actually mean, and how does it connect with the scholarship on judicial politics generally? As it turns out, this question has been understudied, probably because political scientists have yet to find a way carefully operationalize what a “liberal” or a “conservative” outcome in a contracts case would be, and thus to usefully regress case outcomes against a judge’s political priors. Many authors (Sunstein et al. 2004; Christy Boyd and I, 2010) have found ideological effects outside of the typical con law regime (particularly in “business law” areas). But I’m aware of a few empirical papers analyzing the political valence of how contract doctrine comes to be. (Snyder et al. n.d.) Some have suggested that contract law is a particularly hard area to study because selection effects loom so large. I would also note that most contract law “work” occurs at the state court level, where ideological measures are either explicit or very obscure.
If we found good measures, my own hypothesis would be that a particular judge’s worldview matters a great deal to how he or she resolves contract disputes – with priors about how much a person should be responsible for their own choices, and their perspective on market discipline, shaping how they understand the facts and thus apply the law. Contract cases are powerfully controlled by judges – probably more so than in other areas of private law. Contract doctrine would reflect these individual choices, and we’d thus be left not withone “pragmatic” contract law, but rather many competing strands. I’d thus close by urging readers of Larry’s book to think a bit about the cases not picked out and illuminated in the narrative – where the judges are less wise and more human.