Empirical Legal Studies

Kristy L. Fields

The reliability of eyewitness identification has been increasingly questioned in recent years. Despite acknowledgment that such evidence is not only unreliable, but also overly emphasized by judicial decisionmakers, in some cases, antiquated procedural rules and lack of guidance as to how to properly weigh identification evidence produce unsettling results. Troy Anthony Davis was executed in 2011 amidst public controversy regarding the eyewitness evidence against him. At trial, nine witnesses identified Davis as the perpetrator. However, after his conviction, seven of those witnesses recanted. Bogged down by procedural restrictions and long-held judicial mistrust of recantation evidence, Davis never received a new trial and his execution produced worldwide criticism.

On the 250th anniversary of Bayes’ Theorem, this Note applies Bayesian analysis to Davis’s case to demonstrate a potential solution to this uncertainty. By using probability theory and scientific evidence of eyewitness accuracy rates, it demonstrates how a judge might have included the weight of seven recanted identifications to determine the likelihood that the initial conviction was made in error. This Note demonstrates that two identifications and seven nonidentifications results in only a 31.5% likelihood of guilt, versus the 99% likelihood represented by nine identifications. This Note argues that Bayesian analysis can, and should, be used to evaluate such evidence. Use of an objective method of analysis can ameliorate cognitive biases and implicit mistrust of recantation evidence. Furthermore, most arguments against the use of Bayesian analysis in legal settings do not apply to post-conviction hearings evaluating recantation evidence. Therefore, habeas corpus judges faced with recanted eyewitness identifications ought to consider implementing this method.

Joanna C. Schwartz

Every year, medical error kills and injures hundreds of thousands of people and costs billions of dollars in lost income, lost household production, disability, and healthcare expenses. In recent years, hospitals have implemented multiple systems to gather information about medical errors, understand the causes of these errors, and change policies and practices to improve patient safety. The effect of malpractice lawsuits on these patient safety efforts is hotly contested. Some believe that the fear of malpractice liability inhibits the kind of openness and transparency needed to identify and address the root causes of medical error. Others believe that malpractice litigation brings crucial information about medical error to the surface and creates financial, political, and institutional pressures to improve. Yet neither side in this debate offers much evidence to support its claims.

Drawing on a national survey of healthcare professionals and thirty-five in-depth interviews of those responsible for managing risk and improving patient safety in hospitals across the country, I find reason to believe that malpractice litigation is not significantly compromising the patient safety movement’s call for transparency. In fact, the opposite appears to be occurring: The openness and transparency promoted by patient safety advocates appear to be influencing hospitals’ responses to litigation risk. Hospitals, once afraid of disclosing and discussing error for fear of liability, increasingly encourage transparency with patients and medical staff. Moreover, lawsuits play a productive role in hospital patient safety efforts by revealing valuable information about weaknesses in hospital policies, practices, providers, and administration. These findings should inform open and pressing questions about medical malpractice reform and the best ways to continue improving patient safety.

Florencia Marotta-Wurgler & Robert Taylor

Standard-form contracting is the engine of the mass-market economy, yet we know little about what drives it and what factors are associated with its evolution. Understanding change and innovation of the substance, length, and complexity of fine print in the consumer context can help regulators identify sources of potential intervention as well as help them evaluate the effectiveness of mandatory disclosure regimes, which are commonly used as consumer protection tools. This Article studies the rate, direction, and determinants of change in consumer standard-form contracting. We examine what changed between 2003 and 2010 in the terms of 264 mass-market consumer software license agreements. Thirty-nine percent of contracts materially changed at least one term, and some changed as many as fourteen terms. The average contract became more pro-seller as well as several hundred words longer. The increase in length is not due to the use of simpler language. Contract readability has been constant: The average contract is as readable as an article in a scientific journal. The variance of contract length has grown, as has the variance in overall pro-seller bias, resulting in reduced contract standardization over time. Firms that were younger, larger, or growing, as well as firms with inhouse counsel, were more likely to change existing terms and to introduce new terms to take advantage of technological and market developments. Contracts appear to respond to litigation outcomes: Terms that were increasingly enforced by courts were more frequently used in contracts, and vice-versa. The results indicate that software license agreements are relatively dynamic and shaped by multiple factors over time. We discuss potential consumer protection implications as a result of the increased length and complexity of contracts over time.

Albert Choi & George Triantis

Scholars have catalogued rigidities in contract design. Some have observed that boilerplate provisions are remarkably resistant to change, even in the face of shocks such as adverse judicial interpretations. Empirical studies of debt contracts and collateral, in contrast, suggest that covenant and collateral terms are customized to the characteristics of the borrower and evolve in response to changes in market conditions, such as expansion and contraction in credit supply. Building on the adverse selection and moral hazard theories of covenants and collateral, we demonstrate that an expansion (contraction) of credit will lead not only to a decrease (increase) in the interest rate but also a reduction (expansion) of covenants and collateral through lessening (worsening) adverse selection and moral hazard problems. We conclude with some empirical implications of this analysis.

Stephen J. Choi, Mitu Gulati & Eric A. Posner

Contract scholarship has given little attention to the production process for contracts. The usual assumption is that the parties will construct the contract ex nihilo, choosing all the terms so that they will maximize the surplus from the contract. In fact, parties draft most contracts by slightly modifying the terms of contracts that they have used in the past, or that other parties have used in related transactions. A small literature on boilerplate recognizes this phenomenon, but little empirical work examines the process. This Article provides an empirical analysis by drawing on a dataset of sovereign bonds. We show that exogenous factors are key determinants in the evolution of these contracts. We find an evolutionary pattern that roughly separates into three stages: stage one when a particular standard form dominates in the absence of external shocks; stage two when there are external shocks and marginal players experimenting with deviations from the standard form; and stage three when a new standard emerges. We find that more marginal law firms are likely to be leaders in innovation at early stages of the innovation cycle but that dominant law firms are leaders at later stages.

Zachary Elkins, Tom Ginsburg & James Melton

It was with great interest that we read David Law and Mila Versteeg’s thoughtful article on the influence of the U.S. Constitution. Their piece contributes some very useful and clearly-drawn empirical benchmarks, which will undoubtedly advance the conversation about the historical role of the U.S. Constitution in interesting and even provocative ways. Law and Versteeg provide many empirical nuggets to consider.

Joshua D. Blank & Nancy Staudt

Many people—perhaps most—want to make money and lower their taxes, but few want to unabashedly break the law. These twin desires have led to a range of strategies, such as the use of “paper corporations” and offshore tax havens, that produce sizable profits with minimal costs. The most successful and ingenious plans do not involve shady deals with corrupt third parties, but strictly adhere to the letter of the law. Yet the technically legal nature of the schemes has not deterred government lawyers from challenging them in court as “nothing more than good old-fashioned fraud.”

In this Article, we focus on government challenges to corporate financial plans—often labeled “corporate shams”—in an effort to understand how and why courts draw the line between legal and fraudulent behavior. The scholars and commentators who have investigated this question nearly all agree: Judicial decision making in this area of the law is erratic and unpredictable. We build on the extant literature with the help of a new, large dataset, and uncover important and heretofore unobserved trends. We find that courts have not produced a confusing morass of outcomes (as some have argued), but instead have generated more than a century of opinions that collectively highlight the point at which ostensibly legal planning shades into abuse and fraud. We then show how both government and corporate attorneys can exploit our empirical results and explore how these results bolster many of the normative views set forth by the scholarly and policymaking communities.

James Salzman

Ecosystem services are created by the interactions of living organisms with their environment, and they support our society by providing clean air and water, decomposing waste, pollinating flowers, regulating climate, and supplying a host of other benefits. Yet, with rare exception, ecosystem services are neither prized by markets nor explicitly protected by the law. In recent years, an increasing number of initiatives around the world have sought to create markets for services, some dependent on government intervention and some created by entirely private ventures. These experiences have demonstrated that investing in natural capital rather than built capital can make both economic and policy sense. Informed by the author's recent experiences establishing a market for water quality in Australia, this Article examines the challenges and opportunities of an ecosystem services approach to environmental protection. This Article reviews the range of current payment schemes and identifies the key requirements for instrument design. Building off these insights, the piece then examines the fundamental policy challenge of payments for environmental improvements. Despite their poor reputation among policy analysts as wasteful or inefficient subsidies, payment schemes are found throughout environmental law and policy, both in the U.S. and abroad. This Article takes such payments seriously, demonstrating that they should be favored over the more traditional regulatory and tax-based approaches in far more settings than commonly assumed.

Catherine M. Sharkey

Previous empirical studies have examined various aspects of medical malpractice damages caps, focusing primarily upon their overall effect in reducing insurance premium rates and plaintiffs' recoveries, and(to a lesser degree) upon other effects such as physicians' geographic choice of where to practice and the "anchoring" effect of caps that might inadvertently increase award amounts. This Article is the first to explore an unintended crossover effect that may be dampening the intended effects of caps. It posits that, where noneconomic damages are limited by caps, plaintiffs' attorneys will more vigorously pursue, and juries will award, larger economic damages, which are often unbounded. Implicit in such a crossover effect is the malleability of various components of medical malpractice damages, which often are considered categorically distinct, particularly in the tort reform context. This Article challenges this conventional wisdom.

My original empirical analysis, using a comprehensive dataset of jury verdicts from 1992, 1996, and 2001, in counties located in twenty-two states, collected by the National Center for State Courts, concludes that the imposition of caps on noneconomic damages has no statistically significant effect on overall compensatory damages in medical malpractice jury verdicts or trial court judgments. This result is consistent with the crossover theory. Given the promulgation of noneconomic damages caps, the crossover effect may also partially explain the recently documented trend of rising economic (as opposed to noneconomic) damages in medical malpractice cases.

Lee Epstein, Daniel E. Ho, Gary King & Jeffrey A. Segal

Does the U.S. Supreme Court curtail rights and liberties when the nation's security is under threat? In hundreds of articles and books, and with renewed fervor since September 11, 2001, members of the legal community have warred over this question. Yet, not a single large-scale, quantitative study exists on the subject. Using the best data available on the causes and outcomes of every civil rights and liberties case decided by the Supreme Court over the past six decades and employing methods chosen and tuned especially for this problem, our analyses demonstrate that when crises threaten the nation's security, the justices are substantially more likely to curtail rights and liberties than when peace prevails. Yet paradoxically, and in contradiction to virtually every theory of crisis jurisprudence, war appears to affect only cases that are unrelated to the war. For these cases, the effect of war and other international crises is so substantial, persistent, and consistent that it may surprise even those commentators who long have argued that the Court rallies around the flag in times of crisis. On the other hand, we find no evidence that cases most directly related to the war are affected.

We attempt to explain this seemingly paradoxical evidence with one unifying conjecture. Instead of balancing rights and security in high stakes cases directly related to the war, the justices retreat to ensuring the institutional checks of the democratic branches. Since rights-oriented and process-oriented dimensions seem to operate in different domains and at different times, and often suggest different outcomes, the predictive factors that work for cases unrelated to the war fail for cases related to the war. If this conjecture is correct, federal judges should consider giving less weight to legal principles established during wartime for ordinary cases, and attorneys should see it as their responsibility to distinguish cases along these lines.