The Unconscionability Game: Strategic Judging and the Evolution of Federal Arbitration Law
Aaron-Andrew P. Bruhl
This Article uses recent developments in the enforcement of arbitration agreements to illustrate one way in which strategic dynamics can drive doctrinal change. In a fairly short period of time, arbitration has grown from a method of resolving disputes between sophisticated business entities into a phenomenon that pervades the contemporary economy. The United States Supreme Court has encouraged this transformation through expansive interpretations of the Federal Arbitration Act. But not all courts have embraced arbitration so fervently, and therefore case law in this area is marked by tension and conflict. The thesis of this Article is that we can better understand developments in arbitration doctrine by viewing the case law as the product of an ongoing strategic interaction between courts with differing preferences regarding the spread of arbitration. As the Supreme Court has shut off most other means of resisting arbitration, the state law doctrine of unconscionability has in the last several years become a surprisingly attractive and successful tool for striking down arbitration agreements. The nature of unconscionability analysis is that it is flexible, which provides opportunities for courts skeptical of arbitration to use the doctrine to evade the Supreme Court’s pro-arbitration directives while simultaneously insulating their rulings from Supreme Court review. Sophisticated resistance to arbitration is just one side of the story, however. The approach employed in this Article examines the judicial system as a whole, including the ways pro-arbitration courts respond, sometimes indirectly, to what they perceive as manipulation of unconscionability. The suspicion that some courts are disfavoring arbitration drives pro-arbitration courts to change their strategies, such as by establishing new doctrine that facilitates monitoring and shifts decisionmaking authority. This strategic framework can help us make sense of otherwise puzzling trends in arbitration doctrine and can help us predict what moves will be next. Although the specific subject matter is arbitration, this analysis is also aimed at those interested in more general problems of judicial federalism.