The Federal Arbitration Act as Procedural Reform

Hiro N. Aragaki

Recent Supreme Court decisions such as American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 133 S. Ct. 2304 (2013), and AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011), represent dramatic developments with implications that extend far beyond the arbitration context. These decisions are a product of what the author refers to as the “contract model” of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). Heretofore largely unquestioned, the contract model posits the FAA’s original and dominant purpose as the promotion of private ordering in dispute resolution, as free as possible from state regulation. The model has, in turn, helped courts and commentators claim that the FAA requires arbitration agreements to be enforced strictly “according to their terms”—without regard to the way those agreements might compromise procedural values, such as when they preclude classwide relief.

This Article questions both the descriptive accuracy and normative persuasiveness of the contract model. It argues that when placed in their proper historical context, the FAA’s text and legislative history appear equally consistent (if not more so) with a purpose to improve upon the widely discussed procedural failings of the courts circa 1925. From this standpoint, the FAA can be understood as an offshoot of ongoing efforts at the time to reform procedure in the federal courts—efforts spearheaded by figures such as Roscoe Pound and Charles E. Clark, and that eventually culminated in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in 1938. The FAA, in short, was arguably a type of procedural reform.

These insights lead the author to propose a “procedural reform” model of the FAA, one that he contends is both more faithful to the statute’s history (legislative and otherwise) and more adept at answering the difficult questions that confront arbitration law in the age of “contract procedure.” The author considers two recent examples to illustrate.

This article appears in the December 2014 Issue: Volume 89, Number 6