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Sunday, July 12, 2015

"No Contracts"

For all that lawyers and law professors traffic in language, sometimes I think language is to lawyers as water must be to fish. That is, if you live in it, it's kind of hard to step back and realize the universe could be constituted out of some other medium.

Cutie-fish-in-waterUp here, the cable provider is Charter, and it runs a lot of commercials. The actor in the commercial for its business services trumpeted yesterday that one of the benefits of subscribing was "no contracts!"  Well, you and I both know that there HAS to be a contract. God knows Charter will be disclaiming SOMETHING - like, for example, the potential for consequential damages to a business if the internet connection goes down.  

What we all know is that "no contracts" actually means something other than its literal meaning.  "No contracts" means only that the subscriber won't be held to a fixed term, and will be able to cancel its service without much notice to Charter. OMG, the plain meaning is precisely the opposite of the plain meaning!

The particular conceit of the smartest people in our profession - and I mean both practitioners and professors - is that words and sentences are capable, with the right skills, of exactitude that approaches an asymptotic limit. Within a certain school of contract law theorists, this gets expressed as the idea of an "incomplete contract," as though the idea of a complete contract, one that contemplates EVERY possible state contingency, is something any more conceivable than the Kabbalists' notion of God (the Ayn Sof - "there is no end"). I put the term "complete contract" in the same conceptual category as I do non-words like "gruntled," "dain," and "combobulated." 

Below the break, I fulminate on this idea - that plain meaning is like Schrödinger's cat, existing and not existing at the same time - in the context of statutes (i.e. King v. Burwell) and contracts. (Full disclosure: I'm the guy who, when any student in my contracts class says the words "mutual intention of the parties," starts making "woo-woo" noises and acting out the Vulcan mind-meld.)

I don't usually wade into the great issues of the day, but I thought I ought to read the King v. Burwell opinions.  If you put aside the politics, Chief Justice Roberts's opinion is a pretty well-trod exercise in the interpretation of a text: what does it mean for a health care exchange to be "established by the state"? Does that mean state itself  has to put the exchange in place under its law, or does it also mean an exchange that the federal government has established for the state as the default?  

For contracts professors, it's not too surprising.  If you read Justice Traynor's opinion in Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. G.W. Thomas Drayage & Rigging Co., a seminal case in the law of interpretation, it's the same "literal reading" versus "contextual reading" of an indemnity clause. Indeed, if you look at the language in PG&E, it's the equivalent of Charter's "no contracts," and the court says, "Oh no, it can't possibly mean that!"

Two implications come to mind.

First, whether language ever really maps even an individual purpose or intention, much less the elusive "mutual intention of the parties" in a contract or "congressional intent" is the subject of the piece I posted on SSRN several weeks ago: Lexical Opportunism and the Limits of Contract Theory. My point there is that the elusiveness of language as map undercuts attempts to make broad economic or moral theoretical statements about contract law; I suspect it's the same for statutory interpretation. The text is the text and, in any hard case about its application, we are all opportunists.

Second, it's also almost impossible to state a rule for when you ought to abide by the plain textual meaning or look at the context. Sometimes "no contracts" could really mean "no contracts." There are some documents whose very value is in their formalism - letters of credit, negotiable instruments, promissory notes - and you really do do a disservice by allowing a contextual reading of the language.  Hence, Judge Kosinski's criticism of the PG&E rule in the Trident case: it "casts a long shadow of uncertainty over all transactions negotiated and executed under the law."

Personally, I don't know what the hell "established by the State" was supposed to mean, and was relieved to have the ACA once again upheld because I think it's good policy (or better than the non-policy that existed  before). 

But in terms of the language issue, I can't help hearing the debate as though I'm listening to two fish argue how wet the water is.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on July 12, 2015 at 08:04 AM in Article Spotlight, Legal Theory, Lipshaw | Permalink

Comments

"The text is the text and, in any hard case about its application, we are all opportunists."

Well said.

Posted by: David Raeker-Jordan | Jul 12, 2015 10:46:44 AM

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