Wednesday, May 29, 2013
This is the fifteenth in a series of posts reviewing Margaret Jane Radin's Boilerplate: The Fine Print, Vanishing Rights and the Rule of Law.
Cheryl Preston is the Edwin M Thomas Professor of Law at Brigham Young University's J. Reuben Clark Law School.
Professor Radin’s book is a monumental effort to bring together in one place various facets of the seemly intractable problem of non-negotiated standard term contracts and to offer creative insights at each step. This legal problem is not new: Judge Cowen in Cole v. Goodwin, 19 Wend. 251, 273-74 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1838), was adamant that a common carrier could not post a notice of its intent not to be liable at the station and claim that each passenger entering the train gave contractual consent to waiving liability. To hold otherwise would change the deal from “give me a due reward [cost of passage], and I will be accountable as a common carrier” to “‘give me the same reward,’ (for the carrier fixes it; it may be less, but it may also be more,) ‘and yet, I claim to throw all risk upon you, or such a degree of it as I please.’” The judicial mindset later changed, and by the early 1900s courts lined up with businesses in generally enforcing such terms. Nonetheless, early courts ran interference with unconscionability and equivalent doctrines. The evolution to multitudes of daily online contracts hidden behind links, without size limitations, signatures, or someone to explain terms, as well as the increasing reluctance of judges to interfere, requires new analysis such as that offered by Radin.
Once the problem is exposed, the more difficult endeavor is framing a feasible solution. By characterizing such contracts as a form of “democratic denigration,” Radin suggests that the fundamental remedy is for legislatures, acting as democratic representatives of the people, to draw limits around powerful economic actors’ ability to override the default rules of enlightened contract doctrine. Radin argues that boilerplate schemes make a “sham” of democratic governance because they take away entitlements given through the democratic process “after extended debate and fierce political struggle.” Democratic ordering “at least give[s] us a voice” because politicians can be voted out if people are unhappy with what they enact.
Returning to the polity for a solution is dubious for three reasons. First, outside of copyright and perhaps employment, it is something of a stretch to say that the democratic process has created protections that such contracts “delete.” The regulatory rules that exist are at best default, subject expressly to the right to contract around them. What we seem to have lost, rather, is a judiciary willing to maintain reasonable boundaries of the kind envisioned by Karl Llewellyn and other Realist scholars.
Second, most consumers seem utterly content to be bound to terms they would not read even if such terms were brought forcefully to their attention, could not understand if read, and could not appropriately evaluate as risks. But the same problem applies to voters. Until consumers are educated or fall victim to such a contract, they will not understand the problem enough to vote out politicians who do not protect them. An unorganized few cannot change elections any more than they can convince firms to change undesirable contract terms.
Third, current legislative bodies seem effectively “influenced” by the same business interests that control consumers by contract. Money buys lobbyists, makes campaign contributions, and spins information, just as it hires the lawyers who draft and defend these contracts and the programmers and marketers who decide how to hide them. In the current political climate, consumers’ ability to influence change with election votes seems more of a stretch than consumers’ ability to unite to demand fairness with economic votes.
While Radin leans toward tort law as a solution, in Chapter 10 she offers a range of interesting possibilities for giving consumers the knowledge to make intelligent choices in contracting. Her suggestions include rating agencies, seals of approval programs, and contract term filter technology. Given the irrationality of reading all form contracts, workable initiatives depend on some surrogate to synthesize contract content and create a basis of comparison that a consumer can digest and act upon in seconds. Without a government mandate, how can consumer power be marshaled to organize and fund such programs? What existing organization has the resources to educate consumers or issue legal standards with sufficient credibility? A Statement of Principles issued by the American Law Institute might be influential, but the painful process of birthing a timid Principles of the Law of Software Contracts, and a failed revision to Article 2, show that the same powers and influences compete in that arena as well.
Until social change is possible, the courts remain the best defense of those unable to evoke sufficient power and money on their own behalf. As law professors, we need to train students to value principles of fairness and balance. As legal scholars, we need to encourage judges and contract drafters to stop exploitation.[Posted, on Cheryl Preston's behalf, by JT]