Current Issue

Volume 84, Number 3

June 2009

Myth of Mess? International Choice of Law in Action

Christopher A. Whytock

Choice of law is a mess—or so it is said. According to conventional wisdom, choice-of-law doctrine does not significantly influence judges’ choice-of-law decisions. Instead, these decisions are primarily motivated by biases in favor of domestic over foreign law, domestic over foreign litigants, and plaintiffs over defendants. They are also highly unpredictable.

This Article argues that these “mess” claims do not accurately describe at least one domain of choice of law—international choice of law—and it demonstrates what is at stake in this debate for global governance. Part I provides a brief overview of choice-of-law doctrine in the United States. Part II documents the mess claims. Part III then shows how the mess claims, if correct, would be bad news for global governance. Choice-of-law doctrine can increase or decrease global economic welfare, enhance or undermine transnational rule of law, and facilitate or hinder transnational bargaining. The extent of these effects, and whether they are beneficial or harmful, depends largely on the degree to which choice-of-law doctrine actually influences judges’ international choice-of-law decisions and the extent to which those decisions are biased and unpredictable. The mess claims thus imply that if choice of law has any systematic effects on global governance they are likely to be harmful.

Part IV uses statistical analysis of an original dataset of published international choice-of-law decisions by U.S. district courts in tort cases to present evidence that choice-of-law doctrine indeed influences these decisions; that these decisions are not biased in favor of domestic law, domestic litigants, or plaintiffs; and that they are actually quite predictable. The mess claims, it turns out, may be myths—at least in transnational tort cases.

Part V explores the broader implications of my analysis. In particular, it explains why these findings are encouraging from a global-governance perspective and why they might plausibly extend to unpublished international choice-of-law decisions and domestic choice-of-law decisions. Overall, the Article’s findings suggest that the conventional wisdom exaggerates what is wrong with choice of law and implicitly underestimates its contributions to global governance.


Securing Fragile Foundations: Affirmative Constitutional Adjudication in Federal Courts

The Honorable Marsha S. Berzon

Madison Lecture

In this speech, delivered as the annual James Madison Lecture, Judge Marsha Berzon discusses the availability of judicial remedies for violations of the Constitution. Judge Berzon reflects on the federal courts’ tradition of allowing litigants to proceed directly under the Constitution—that is, without a statutorily based cause of action. This is a tradition that extends much further than the mid-twentieth century cases most commonly associated with affirmative constitutional litigation— Brown, Bolling, & Bivens, for example—and has its roots in cases from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Against this long historical tradition of courts recognizing nonexpress causes of action for violations of the Constitution, Judge Berzon surveys the modern Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, a jurisprudence that sometimes requires constitutional litigants to base their claims on the same sort of clear congressional intent to permit judicial redress now required before courts will recognize so-called “implied” statutory causes of action. Judge Berzon suggests that requiring litigants seeking to enforce constitutional norms to point to evidence of congressional intent regarding the availability of judicial redress misapplies separation-of-powers concerns.


In Search of an Enforceable Medical Malpractice Exculpatory Agreement: Introducing Confidential Contracts as a Solution to the Doctor-Patient Relationship Problem

Matthew J.B. Lawrence

Scholars have argued that the malpractice system would be better off if patients had the option of waiving the right to sue for malpractice in exchange for a lower fee. Some doctors have tried to follow this advice by having their patients sign medical malpractice exculpatory agreements, but courts usually have refused to enforce these agreements, invoking a void-for-public-policy rationale. This Note argues that a doctor could maximize the odds that a court would enforce her medical malpractice exculpatory agreement by somehow ensuring that she will never find out whether her patient decided to sign. A case study of the law in New York highlights the ambiguity in the void-for-public-policy rationale as to whether the simple fact that the doctor-patient relationship is implicated in a medical malpractice contract is fatal to enforcement, or whether such a contract could be enforced if it were nonadhesive and clearly worded. A behavioral-economic analysis of the patient’s decision to sign a medical malpractice exculpatory agreement reveals a reason why the agreements may be categorically barred: Some patients might unwillingly agree to sign for fear of signaling distrust or litigiousness to their doctors. A confidential contract—in which the offeror never knew whether the offeree had accepted or not—would avoid this signaling effect. A provider using such a contract could distinguish those cases in which the doctor-patient relationship alone seemed to justify nonenforcement as not involving this prophylactic measure.