Legal Theory


Three Pictures of Contract: Duty, Power, and Compound Rule

Gregory Klass

There is a fundamental divide among theories of contract law between those that picture contract as a power and those that picture it as a duty. On the power-conferring picture, contracting is a sort of legislative act in which persons determine what law will apply to their transaction. On the duty-imposing picture, contract law places duties on persons entering into agreements for consideration, whether they want them or not. Until now, very little attention has been paid to the problem of how to tell whether a given rule is power conferring or duty imposing—a question that should lie at the center of contract theory.

This Article argues that legal powers have two characteristic features. First, there is an expectation that actors will satisfy the rules with the purpose of achieving the associated legal consequences. Second, the legal rules are designed to facilitate such uses. A law might exhibit these features in either of two ways, which define two types of legal powers. Many laws that create legal powers employ conditions of legal validity, such as legal formalities, designed to guarantee the actor’s legal purpose. The presence of such validity conditions is strong evidence that the law’s sole function is to create a legal power, and I suggest reserving the term “power conferring” for such laws. Other laws anticipate and enable their purposive use without conditioning an act’s legal consequences on the actor’s legal purpose. The structure of such laws suggests that they function both to create powers and to impose duties. I coin the term “compound rule” for laws that satisfy this description and argue that the contract law we have is a compound rule. The dual function of compound rules provides empirical support for pluralist justifications of contract law. An example of such a theory can be found in Joseph Raz’s comments on the relationship between contract law and voluntary obligations.

Efficient Breach Theory Through the Looking Glass

Barry E. Adler

A party in breach of contract cannot sue the victim of breach to recover what would have been the victim’s loss on the contract. The doctrinal rationale is simple: A violator should not benefit from his violation. This rationale does not, however, provide an economic justification for the rule. Indeed, efficient breach theory is founded on the proposition that a breach of contract need not be met with reproach. Yet the prospect of recovery by the party in breach—that is, the prospect of negative damages—has received scant attention in the contracts literature. Close analysis reveals potential costs to disallowance of negative damages, particularly where a party with private information about the benefits of termination also has an incentive to continue under the contract. These costs can arise both ex post, at the time of a performance-or-termination decision, and ex ante, in anticipation of that decision. Nevertheless, allowance of negative damages could impose its own costs, where background information would create an incentive to repudiate a contract before either party could gather more information, for example. Ex ante contractual provisions, such as liquidated-damages or specific-performance clauses, permit parties some latitude to balance the costs of disallowance and allowance of negative damages, albeit imperfectly. Common law limitations on the mitigation duty may be seen as a mechanism to approach this balance in the absence of an explicit con- tractual solution.

Choosing Interpretive Methods: A Positive Theory of Judges and Everyone Else

Alexander Volokh

In this Article, I propose a theory of how rational, ideologically motivated judges might choose interpretive methods, and how rational, ideologically motivated laymen—legislators, litigation organizations, lobbyists, scholars, and citizens—might respond. I assume, first, that judges not only have ideological preferences but also want to write plausible opinions. Second, I assume that every method of statutory or constitutional interpretation has a “most plausible point” along a spectrum of possible decisions in a given case. As a result, if a judge decides to use any particular interpretive method, that method will pull him towards its “most plausible point,” possibly making him deviate from his own ideal point.

When a judge can choose an interpretive method, he selects the one that (taking these deviations into account), among other things, allows him to stay as close as possible to his favored outcome. Thus, any given method is chosen only by judges whose ideal points, roughly speaking, are not too distant from that method’s most plausible point. This behavior creates a selection bias. An interpretive method’s political valence under a regime of free interpretive choice thus differs systematically from what it would look like if that method were mandatory. As a result, one might favor mandating an interpretive method even though one is politically closer to the current practitioners of a different method.

A judge can choose not only which interpretive method to use but also whether to use the same method from case to case. This Article argues that an individual judge’s choice of interpretive method does not usually substantially affect the methods that other judges use. Therefore, even though ideologically motivated judges (or litigation groups) might want to make the method they prefer in most cases mandatory for everyone, it can often be rational for these judges to deviate from that preferred method in instances where a different method would produce a more appealing outcome.

Automating Contract Law

George S. Geis

The study of contract law is undergoing a difficult transition as it moves from the theoretical to the empirical. Over the past few decades scholars have focused largely on developing economic theories that offer a normative approach to setting the legal rules governing voluntary exchange. The time has now come to test whether these theories provide a meaningful basis for choosing our laws—in other words, to ask whether empirical data supports the theoretical models that contracts scholars have posited. Unfortunately, this type of empirical analysis has proven exceptionally difficult to conduct, and some commentators are beginning to question whether it will ever be possible to test and revise our economic theories of contract in a meaningful manner. Yet the problem of harnessing information to support complex decisions is not unique to contract law. This Essay explores the possibility that recent technological developments from the field of organizational knowledge management—including advances in meaning-based computing algorithms—will soon make it easier to conduct empirical work in contract law on a much larger scale.

Intellectual Property for Market Experimentation

Michael Abramowicz, John F. Duffy

Intellectual property protects investments in the production of information, but the relevant literature has largely neglected one type of information that intellectual property might protect: information about the market success of goods and services. A first entrant into a market often cannot prevent other firms from free riding on the information its entry reveals about consumer demand and market feasibility. Despite the existence of some first-mover advantages, the incentives to be the first entrant into a market may sometimes be inefficiently low, thereby giving rise to a net first-mover disadvantage that discourages innovation. Intellectual property may counteract this inefficiency by providing market exclusivity, thus promoting earlier market entry and increasing the level of entrepreneurial activity in the economy. The goal of encouraging market experimentation helps to explain certain puzzling aspects of current intellectual property doctrine and provides a coherent basis for appreciating some of the current criticisms of intellectual property rights.

Toward One America: A Vision in Law

The Honorable J. Harvie Wilkinson III

Madison Lecture

In his Madison Lecture, Judge Wilkinson urges a new purpose for American law: the explicit promotion of a stronger sense of national cohesion and unity. He argues that the judicial branch should actively seek to promote this nationalizing purpose and suggests seven different ways for federal courts to do so. He contends further that a nationalizing mission for law is needed at this moment in American history to counteract the demographic divisions and polarizing tendencies of our polity. This purpose need not entail the abdication of traditional values of judicial restraint, should not mean the abandonment of the traditional American credo of unity through pluralism, and must not require the sacrifice of the law’s historic commitment to the preservation of order and the protection of liberty. But the need for a judicial commitment to foster a stronger American identity is clear. The day when courts and judges could be indifferent to the dangers of national fragmentation and disunion is long gone.

Trademark Litigation as Consumer Conflict

Michael Grynberg

Trademark litigation typically unfolds as a battle between competing sellers who argue over whether the defendant’s conduct is likely to confuse consumers. This is an unfair fight. In the traditional narrative, the plaintiff defends her trademark while simultaneously protecting consumers at risk for confusion. The defendant, relatively speaking, stands alone. The resulting “two-against-one” storyline gives short shrift to the interests of nonconfused consumers who may have a stake in the defendant’s conduct. As a result, courts are too receptive to nontraditional trade- mark claims where the case for consumer harm is questionable. Better outcomes are available by appreciating trademark litigation’s parallel status as a conflict between consumers. This view treats junior and senior trademark users as proxies for different consumer classes and recognizes that remedying likely confusion among one group of consumers may cause harm to others. Focusing on the interests of benefited and harmed consumers also minimizes the excessive weight given to moral rhetoric in adjudicating trademark cases. Consideration of trademark’s consumer-conflict dimension is therefore a useful device for critiquing trademark’s expansion and assessing future doctrinal developments.

Two and Twenty: Taxing Partnership Profits in Private Equity Funds

Victor Fleischer

Private equity fund managers take a share of the profits of the partnership as the equity portion of their compensation. The tax rules for compensating general partners create a planning opportunity for managers who receive the industry standard “two and twenty” (a two percent management fee and twenty percent profits interest). By taking a portion of their pay in the form of partnership profits, fund managers defer income derived from their labor efforts and convert it from ordinary income into long-term capital gain. This quirk in the tax law allows some of the richest workers in the country to pay tax on their labor income at a low rate. Changes in the investment world—the growth of private equity funds, the adoption of portable alpha strategies by institutional investors, and aggressive tax planning—suggest that reconsideration of the partnership profits puzzle is overdue.

While there is ample room for disagreement about the scope and mechanics of the reform alternatives, this Article establishes that the status quo is an untenable position as a matter of tax policy. Among the various alternatives, perhaps the best starting point is a baseline rule that would treat carried interest distributions as ordinary income. Alternatively, Congress could adopt a more complex “Cost-of-Capital Method” that would convert a portion of carried interest into ordinary income on an annual basis, or Congress could allow fund managers to elect into either the ordinary income or “Cost-of-Capital Method.” While this Article suggests that treating distributions as ordinary income may be the best, most flexible approach, any of these alternatives would be superior to the status quo. These alternatives would tax carried interest distributions to fund managers in a manner that more closely matches how our tax system treats other forms of compensation, thereby improving economic efficiency and discouraging wasteful regulatory gamesmanship. These changes would also reconcile private equity compensation with our progressive tax system and widely held principles of distributive justice.

Are All Legal Probabilities Created Equal?

Yuval Feldman, Doron Teichman

At the core of the economic analysis of law lies the concept of expected sanctions, which are calculated by multiplying the severity of the sanction that is applied to wrongdoers by the probability that it will be applied. This probability is the product of several sequential probabilities involving the different actors responsible for sanctioning wrongdoers (e.g., police, prosecutors, judges, jurors, etc.). Generally, legal economists treat different legal probabilities as fungible, simply multiplying them much like any other sequential probabilistic situation. This Article challenges this assumption, demonstrating that people perceive and are affected by different types of legal probabilities in distinct ways. More specifically, it shows that uncertainty associated with the substance of the law and uncertainty associated with imperfect enforcement should not be treated equivalently.

To demonstrate this point, this Article presents a series of between-subjects experimental surveys that measure and compare participants’ attitudes toward compliance in conditions of uncertainty. Study participants—several hundred students from Israel and the United States—answered questions in the context of one of several variations on the same hypothetical scenario. While the expected sanction was the same in each variation, the source of uncertainty differed. These studies confirmed that people are less likely to comply when uncertainty stems from the imprecision of law’s substance than when uncertainty stems from the imperfect enforcement of clear law.

Originalism Is Bunk

Mitchell N. Berman

Critical analysis of originalism should start by confronting a modest puzzle: Most commentators suppose that originalism is deeply controversial, while others complain that it means too many things to mean anything at all. Is one of these views false? If not, how can we square the term’s ambiguity with the sense that it captures a subject of genuine debate? Perhaps self-professed originalists champion a version of originalism that their critics don’t reject, while the critics challenge a version that proponents don’t maintain.

Contemporary originalists disagree about many things: which feature of the Constitution’s original character demands fidelity (framers’ intent, ratifiers’ understanding, or public meaning); why such fidelity is required; and whether this interpretive obligation binds judges alone or citizens, legislators, and executive officials too. But on one dimension of potential variability—the dimension of strength—originalists are mostly united: They believe that those who follow some aspect of a provision’s original character must give that original aspect priority over all other considerations (with a possible exception for continued adherence to non- originalist judicial precedents). That is, when the original meaning (or intent, etc.) is adequately discernible, the interpreter must follow it. This is the thesis that self- professed originalists maintain and that their critics (the non-originalists) deny.

Non-originalists have challenged this thesis on varied wholesale grounds, which include: that the target of the originalist search is undiscoverable or nonexistent; that originalism is self-refuting because the framers intended that the Constitution not be interpreted in an originalist vein; and that originalism yields bad outcomes. This Article proceeds differently. Instead of mounting a global objection—one purporting to hold true regardless of the particular arguments on which proponents of originalism rely—I endeavor to catalogue and critically assess the varied arguments proffered in originalism’s defense.

Those arguments are of two broad types—hard and soft. Originalism is “hard” when grounded on reasons that purport to render it (in some sense) inescapably true; it is “soft” when predicated on contingent and contestable weighings of its costs and benefits relative to other interpretive approaches. That is, hard arguments seek to show that originalism reflects some sort of conceptual truth or follows logi- cally from premises the interlocutor already can be expected to accept; soft arguments aim to persuade others to revise their judgments of value or their empirical or predictive assessments. The most common hard arguments contend that originalism is entailed either by intentionalism or by binding constitutionalism. Soft arguments claim that originalist interpretation best serves diverse values like democracy and the rule of law. I seek to show that the hard arguments for originalism are false and that the soft arguments are implausible.

The upshot is not that constitutional interpretation should disregard framers’ intentions, ratifiers’ understandings, or original public meanings. Of course we should care about these things. But originalism is a demanding thesis. We can take the original character of the Constitution seriously without treating it as dispositive. That original intents and meanings matter is not enough to render originalism true.