The Public Law of Private Promising, And Not Even That: LPE 101 for Contracts

Noah Zatz—

What would a 1L Contracts course look like from a law and political economy perspective? I can’t claim to have designed my course from the ground up to answer that question—and indeed I am intentionally more eclectic than that. Nonetheless, several of my choices—about how to thematize the material and what to include at all—clearly reflect an LPE approach.

From start to finish, I present Contracts—perhaps the quintessential “private law” topic—as a study in public power. That is among the main reasons to start with remedies (as many Contracts professors do). Ultimately, the question is whether a government institution (a court) will render a judgment and back it up with the threat of publicly authorized violence: seizing property to satisfy a judgment or throwing someone in jail for contemptuously defying a court order. I underline this point on the first day of class by assigning a recent ACLU report on incarceration for nonpayment of private consumer debt. This reading also challenges conventional field boundaries, enabling students to follow a thread of debt and poverty that connects their Contracts class to Ferguson and racialized mass incarceration.

The publicness of Contracts goes beyond the brute fact that it is law. Rather, the field reflects policy judgments about when to make the force of law available to private parties. Although invocations of party intent typically submerge this point, it actually appears on the surface of the most conventional place to start Contracts: the very first section of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts. “A contract is a promise or a set of promises for the breach of which the law gives a remedy, or the performance of which the law in some way recognizes as a duty.”  Well then, when and how does “the law” (speaking for we, the people) choose to transform private promises into legal duties? Continue reading