Empirical Legal Studies

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.

Victoria F. Nourse & Jane S. Schacter

In judicial opinions construing statutes, it is common for judges to make a set of assumptions about the legislative process that generated the statute under review. For example, judges regularly impute to legislators highly detailed knowledge about both judicial rules of interpretation and the substantive area of law of which the statute is a part. Little empirical research has been done to test this picture of the legislative process. In this Article, Professors Nourse and Schacter take a step toward filling this gap with a case study of legislative drafting in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Their results stand in sharp contrast to the traditional judicial story of the drafting process. The interviews conducted by the authors suggest that the drafting process is highly variable and contextual; that staffers, lobbyists, and professional drafters write laws rather than elected representatives; and that although drafters are generally familiar with judicial rules of construction, these rules are not systematically integrated into the drafting process. The case study suggests not only that the judicial story of the legislative process is inaccurate but also that there might be important differences between what the legislature and judiciary value in the drafting process: While courts tend to prize what the authors call the "interpretive" virtues of textual clarity and interpretive awareness, legislators are oriented more toward "constitutive" virtues of action and agreement. Professors Nourse and Schacter argue that the results they report, if reflective of the drafting process generally, raise important challenges for originalist and textualist theories of statutory interpretation, as well as Justice Scalia's critique of legislative history. Even if the assumptions about legislative drafting made in the traditional judicial story are merely fictions, they nonetheless play a role in allocating normative responsibility for creating statutory law. The authors conclude that their case study raises the need for future empirical research to develop a better understanding of the legislative process.

David S. Law & Mila Versteeg

It has been suggested, with growing frequency, that the United States may be losing its influence over constitutionalism in other countries because it is increasingly out of sync with an evolving global consensus on issues of human rights. Little is known in an empirical and systematic way, however, about the extent to which the U.S. Constitution influences the revision and adoption of formal constitutions in other countries.

In this Article, we show empirically that other countries have, in recent decades, become increasingly unlikely to model either the rights-related provisions or the basic structural provisions of their own constitutions upon those found in the U.S. Constitution. Analysis of sixty years of comprehensive data on the content of the world’s constitutions reveals that there is a significant and growing generic component to global constitutionalism, in the form of a set of rights provisions that appear in nearly all formal constitutions. On the basis of this data, we are able to identify the world’s most and least generic constitutions. Our analysis also confirms, however, that the U.S. Constitution is increasingly far from the global mainstream.

The fact that the U.S. Constitution is not widely emulated raises the question of whether there is an alternative paradigm that constitutional drafters in other countries now employ as a model instead. One possibility is that their attention has shifted to some other prominent national constitution. To evaluate this possibility, we analyze the content of the world’s constitutions for telltale patterns of similarity to the constitutions of Canada, Germany, South Africa, and India, which have often been identified as especially influential. We find some support in the data for the notion that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has influenced constitution making in other countries. This influence is neither uniform nor global in scope, however, but instead reflects an evolutionary path shared primarily by other common law countries. By comparison, we uncover no patterns that would suggest widespread constitutional emulation of Germany, South Africa, or India.