Empirical Legal Studies
Economic theory that suggests underperforming boards of directors should be
fearful of an ouster vote by shareholders underappreciates the complexity of shareholder
voting decisions. Skill at enhancing firm value has less to do with whether
directors win votes and stay at the helm of public companies than previous commentators
have presumed. Instead, like incumbent politicians, managers of some of
the largest U.S. firms tend to stay in charge of firms because they understand—and
take advantage of—the political dynamics of corporate voting. This Article presents
a competing theory of shareholder voting decisions, one that suggests that shareholder
voting in corporate elections is not dissimilar from citizen voting in political
elections. Next, the Article presents the evidence. Using a hand-collected dataset
from recent board elections, the Article compares the explanatory power of a standard
economic variable (long-term stock price returns) and a political variable
(money budgeted for campaigning) on election outcomes. Based on the data, directors’
ability to enhance firm value (as measured by stock price returns) is not significantly
related to whether they win reelection. Rather, the likelihood of being
returned to office appears to be a function of typical election politics—how much
was spent by challengers to persuade shareholder voters. These findings have at
least two implications. First, the theory that shareholder voting may be politicized
helps point the way to how the SEC ought to craft reforms—and, just as important,
how not to craft them. Recent SEC reform efforts have the laudable goals of creating
new conduits for shareholders to participate in firm affairs, increasing
shareholder-nominated candidate success, and disciplining incumbent managers.
The results of this study suggest that these reforms will not achieve the stated goals.
Even with these reforms, the board continues to have an important political advantage,
which likely translates into real votes. As the research here shows, the outcome
of elections depends on persuasion and, not simply, as the SEC contends, on shareholders’
director nominees being presented alongside those of management.
Second, the evidence and theory about shareholder voting presented here has significant
implications for understanding mergers and acquisitions, particularly hostile
acquisitions. The theory is that acquirers have steep incentives to target firms
with poor performance. In most cases, however, such acquisitions depend on winning
a vote from shareholders. Thus, if there is any disciplinary effect created by the
prospect of takeovers, it depends crucially on understanding what motivates shareholder
voting behavior. If voting shareholders respond to political motivations, not
economic ones, then the performance of target board members might not be as
relevant as takeover theorists had previously surmised.
Because punishable guilt requires that bad thoughts accompany bad acts, the
Model Penal Code (MPC) typically requires that jurors infer the mental state of a
criminal defendant at the time the crime was committed. Specifically, jurors must
sort the defendant’s mental state into one of four specific categories—purposeful,
knowing, reckless, or negligent—which will in turn define both the nature of the
crime and the degree of the punishment. The MPC therefore assumes that ordinary
people naturally sort mental states into these four categories with a high degree of
accuracy, or at least that they can reliably do so when properly instructed. It also
assumes that ordinary people will order these categories of mental state, by
increasing amount of punishment, in the same severity hierarchy that the MPC
The MPC, now turning fifty years old, has previously escaped the scrutiny of comprehensive
empirical research on these assumptions underlying its culpability architecture.
Our new empirical studies, reported here, find that most of the mens rea
assumptions embedded in the MPC are reasonably accurate as a behavioral matter.
Even without the aid of the MPC definitions, subjects were able to distinguish regularly
and accurately among purposeful, negligent, and blameless conduct.
However, our subjects failed to distinguish reliably between knowing and reckless conduct. This failure can have significant sentencing consequences for certain
crimes, especially homicide.
Do campaign contributions affect judicial decisions by elected judges in favor of their contributors’ interests? Although the Supreme Court’s recent decision in
Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. relies on this intuition for its logic, that intuition has largely gone empirically untested. No longer. Using a dataset of every state
supreme court case in all fifty states over a four-year period, we find that elected judges are more likely to decide in favor of business interests as the amount of campaign contributions received from those interests increases. In other words, every dollar of direct contributions from business groups is associated with an increase in the probability that the judge in question will vote for business litigants. Surprisingly, though, when we disaggregate partisan and nonpartisan elections, we find that a statistically significant relationship between campaign contributions and judicial decisions in favor of contributors’ interests exists only for judges elected in partisan elections, and not for judges elected in nonpartisan ones. Our findings therefore suggest that political parties play an important causal role in creating this connection between campaign contributions and favorable judicial decisions. In the flurry of reform activity responding to Caperton, our findings support judicial reforms that propose the replacement of partisan elections with nonpartisan methods of judicial selection and retention.
Congress enacted the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PSLRA) to reduce plaintiffs’ lawyers’ influence in securities fraud class actions. The PSLRA’s presumption that the class member with the largest financial interest would be named lead plaintiff was meant to place the class, instead of its lawyers, in charge of the litigation. Congress hoped that institutional investment funds, such as public pension funds, would serve as the new lead plaintiffs. At first, it seemed that the PSLRA was successful at installing institutional investors as lead plaintiffs and reducing the power imbalance between class counsel and their clients.
Today there are new fears that plaintiffs’ lawyers have co-opted securities class actions by paying-to-play. “Paying-to-play” describes the practice of lawyers making campaign contributions to public pension funds’ political leadership in order to gain favorable consideration by the funds for appointment as class counsel. Many reforms have been proposed and enacted in response to paying-to- play fears. Aside from a few anecdotal reports, however, no examination of campaign contributions from plaintiffs’ lawyers to elected officials exists in the legal literature. This Note presents the first comprehensive report on campaign contributions that serve as the basis for paying-to-play concerns. My data suggest that law firms do indeed contribute to the investment funds that select them as class counsel, ruling out one possible response to paying-to-play fears, namely, that these contributions are not being made in the first place. This Note also provides guidance for future research, and in doing so, touches upon issues such as the reasons that firms donate and how funds make counsel-selection decisions.