Thursday, December 21, 2023

Guest Post: Politics as a New Differentiator Between American Business Courts: A View on the Debate Between Former Attorney General Barr and Vice Chancellor Laster

Today's guest post comes to us from Anthony Rickey of Margrave Law:

The Thanksgiving weekend witnessed a debate between former Attorney General William Barr and attorney Jonathan Berry and Vice Chancellor Travis Laster over whether Delaware risks “driving away” corporations through “flirtation with environmental, social and governance [“ESG”] investment principles.”  Reuters reports that Chancellor McCormick further criticized Barr’s article at a Practicing Law Institute event, and Vice Chancellor Will  commented in a Bloomberg Law interview.  Professor Stephen Bainbridge has published two posts on the controversy.

When giants wrestle, wise men stay out from underfoot.  Nonetheless, I think the debate merits a close look because, however much I agree with Vice Chancellor Laster on matters of doctrine, I suspect that similar articles will become more common in the future.  Three factors influence my prediction:  a) Delaware has weakened its reputational bulwark against accusations of partisanship, b) the influence of politics in corporate law has increased (largely via ESG) and c) other states are now seeking to differentiate themselves from, rather than imitate, the Delaware Court of Chancery.

Delaware Dissolves One of Its Fundamental Corporate Law Pillars

The heart of Barr’s argument is that Delaware risks following “many blue states [that] are using ESG to inject the progressive political agenda on climate, race, and other issues into corporate governance,” and that “red states are developing potentially attractive alternatives.”  I think Vice Chancellor Laster has by far the best of the doctrinal debate on this point.  Formally, nothing in Delaware law preferences “progressive” governance over “conservative” governance, however one defines those terms.

 But Delaware recently eliminated one of its longstanding bulwarks against this accusation:  the requirement that the Court of Chancery and the Delaware Supreme Court be split between Republicans and Democrats.  On January 30, a federal court approved a consent judgment between (Democrat) Governor John Carney and a former Democrat (now independent) plaintiff declaring that the “major political party” requirement of the Delaware Constitution violates the First Amendment.  In theory, each political party is still limited to a bare majority of the seats on both courts.  But these protections are porous:  for instance, the Washington, D.C. City Council has similar restrictions, and its seats tend to be occupied by Democrats and “Independents” who are former Democrats.

So far, Delaware’s courts remain politically balanced.  But tradition is a weak restraint on politicians once they set their sights on other goals.  For instance, traditionally at least one vice chancellor and justice resided in each of Delaware’s three counties.  Today, Kent County has no resident justice and no resident judicial officer listed on the Court of Chancery’s website.  Tradition seems no more likely to sustain political diversity than geographic diversity.

Delaware’s Blue State Disadvantage

Questions of political balance will, I suspect, become a larger topic as politics intrudes more deeply into corporate law—and especially as conservatives begin to use litigation in a way once dominated by the political left.   (For instance, Professor Ann Lipton recently described a derivative lawsuit filed by several communities of Catholic nuns against Smith & Wesson in Nevada, mentioning another derivative suit against Starbucks filed by a conservative plaintiff challenging Starbuck’s DEI policies.)  Corporate law is a matter of doctrine, but politics is as much a matter of appearance as precedent.  And here, respectfully, I think Delaware is vulnerable:  however neutral the doctrine, its critics will not need to look far for examples if they seek to portray Delaware to outsiders as “blue”-leaning.

Take the recent decision involving a books-and-records action by a Disney stockholder, discussed both by AG Barr and Vice Chancellor Laster.  As the Vice Chancellor stated, the Disney decision found that “the demand was pretextual because the plaintiff was rather acting as a front for a politically motivated group.”  But looking closer at Disney, one criticism of the (conservative) plaintiff stands out:  he “reviewed but made no edits to the Complaint.”   The decision cites no precedent holding a previous litigant to that standard.  I went back and looked at Disney’s briefs:  they offered no examples either.  Indeed, I can’t find any case criticizing a books-and-records plaintiff for not editing (as opposed to simply reviewing) a draft complaint.  Disney appears to find fault in the plaintiff’s law firm going out and finding a plaintiff—an accusation that can be leveled at every plaintiff’s shop that makes “fraud monitoring agreements” with multiple pension funds.

Compare Disney to New York State Common Retirement Fund v. Oracle Corp., C.A. No. 11642-VCL, where a pension fund sought books-and-records relating to Oracle’s political donations following the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. F.E.C., 558 U.S. 310 (2010).  One would think that, as in Disney, decisions on political spending are quintessential matters of business judgment.  Yet the plaintiff relied upon an article by then-Chief Justice Strine to contend otherwise.  The trustee of the pension fund seeking records concerning political donations was the New York State Comptroller—himself a politician with interests in political giving.  Rather than take things to trial, Oracle settled quickly.  I can’t find anything in the record suggesting that the Court of Chancery ever considered whether the pension fund’s interests were a “pretext” for the politician’s. 

Doctrinally, it is easy to reconcile Oracle and Disney:  the former settled, creating no law.  But even if the doctrine is clear, it is easy for Delaware’s critics to ask:  would Oracle have settled without a supportive law review article from a sitting justice critiquing Citizens United?  Would Disney have gone to trial if the plaintiff could have cited a similar law review article by a sitting judge supporting Florida’s legislation?

When it comes to politics and optics, the Court of Chancery faces another disadvantage in comparison to other states’ business courts:  it is a court of equity and hears non-business cases.  Take, for instance, this passage from State of Delaware v. City of Seaford, C.A. No. 2022-0030-JTL, involving not corporate governance, but the invalidation of a “fetal remains” ordinance:

In a society divided over the issue of abortion, any decision that touches on that topic carries heightened significance, and particularly so after Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 597 U.S. — (2022). The Dobbs decision overruled Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), which recognized that women have rights to bodily integrity, personal liberty, and self-determination under the United States Constitution, that respecting those rights is necessary to achieve the equality of women and men under the law, and that a woman’s right to make decisions about bodily integrity, parenthood, and family therefore must be balanced against any interests that a government might seek to address when regulating abortion. Particularly after Casey, challenges to laws regulating abortion frequently turned on whether the challenged regulation imposed an undue burden on or a substantial obstacle to the ability of women to exercise their federal constitutional rights.

The passage is dicta.  The very next sentence is: “This case does not involve federal constitutional rights.”  Nevertheless, it is hard not to divine an opinion concerning the propriety of the Dobbs decision from City of Seaford.

As Professor Bainbridge points out, the intersection of politics and corporate law raises a concern because of the “chicken heart” problem created by the recent Marchand decision.  Much of Delaware corporate litigation involves exercises of discretion by a court of equity, and those decisions may be fact-intensive.  This is an advantage when addressing non-political matters, such as whether a particular subspecies of deal protection is or isn’t acceptable.  Political issues raise thornier issues of perception.

Consider a hypothetical:  the board of a chain of general goods stores, mostly concentrated in red states, wants to differentiate itself from companies like Target or Bud Light by supporting a Florida bill like the one Disney criticized.  That board has a good faith belief that the policy will increase sales (and thus stockholder value) in the medium- to long-term.  In the short term, however, it causes a large staff walkout.  A public sector pension fund like New York’s, led by a politician, files a Delaware books-and-records action, and the politician publicly proclaims his antagonism to the Florida law.  Just as the Oracle complaint cited a Delaware Chief Justice’s law review article, the new complaint highlights the Delaware court’s recent report commending (among many other things) the establishment of gender-neutral bathrooms to benefit transgender and nonbinary people.  Doctrinally, the facts still seem to fall within Vice Chancellor Laster’s scope of a good faith business judgment.  Reading Disney and City of Seaford, how confident could one be in advising about the likelihood dismissal of a well-crafted Section 220 action brought by a blue-state politician concerning a matter where Delaware’s political culture is far closer to the plaintiff than the defendants?  About a Caremark claim?  What are the odds that the board settles, as in Oracle, rather than roll the dice that some fact distinguishes a “pretextual” individual from a pension fund led by a respected (but blue state) politician?

As Caremark claims become easier (if still not easy) to win, directors may legitimately wonder whether future lawsuits will extend to their consideration of ESG issues.  And directors may look differently at the risks than judges do.  After all, even if a Caremark claim is unlikely to succeed, or even survive a motion to dismiss, it is unpleasant to be named in complaint and have one’s personal assets placed in jeopardy.  Litigation paradigms that offer routes to avoid lawsuits in the first place, rather than simply winning on a motion to dismiss, may become more attractive.

In considering the decisions above, however, two points are critical.  First, I agree entirely with Vice Chancellor Laster as to the relevant doctrine and make no suggestion that Disney or City of Seaford are wrongly decided.  Second, I’m hardly suggesting that Delaware is a poor forum for conservatives.  I’m a conservative myself (albeit of the pro-choice varietal) and have litigated here for most of my career.  But I doubt that City of Seaford’s description of Casey raised many eyebrows, even among most conservative members of the Delaware bar.  Delaware is a deep blue state.  The implications of Disney and City of Seaford may be perceived differently by directors in a purple, let alone red, state.

The Trend for Differentiation Among Non-Delaware Business Courts

Given that difference in perspectives, I’m somewhat surprised that it took so long for an article like Barr’s to appear.  As he mentions, several “red” states have recently set up their own business courts.  This isn’t new:  a majority of states now have specialized fora for corporate disputes.  But when I started writing about Delaware’s competition over a decade ago, most states were trying to imitate Chancery.  Now, they’re seeking to differentiate themselves.

Take Nevada, which recently changed its corporate code to preclude the application of an “inherent fairness” standard, similar to Delaware’s “entire fairness” standard of review.  Certainly the Delaware plaintiff’s bar considers this a challenge:  a plaintiff is currently suing to prevent TripAdvisor from leaving Delaware for Nevada.  Keith Bishop thinks the plaintiff’s concerns about Nevada being a “no liability” regime are overstated.  Still, the fallout suggests that Nevada is consciously seeking to compete by creating a different litigation environment.

Texas provides another example.  The new business court imitates the Court of Chancery in certain respects.  For instance, the new court’s judges, unlike their counterparts in the Texas judiciary, will be appointed rather than elected.   But Texas did not adopt a political balance requirement.  And the Texas political and litigation environment is markedly different.  Tort reform groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform advocated for the new court; several Texan legal associations (plaintiff- and defense-side) unsuccessfully opposed it.  Earlier tort reforms will influence the new court’s decisions, including rules that limit fees in class actions to four times lodestar.  (Notably, Texas’ accompanying rules on non-monetary fees eliminated “merger tax” lawsuits in the Lone Star State before Delaware did.)  Corporations may well perceive that the Texas legislature and the Delaware General Assembly view the cost/benefit balance of representative shareholder litigation differently.

Here, I part ways with Professor Bainbridge, who thinks it unlikely that Caremark, or most anything else, can pose a competitive challenge to Delaware because the First State can simply adopt any successful reform.  That has long been the conventional wisdom, but competition is dynamic.  To the extent that states like Utah and Georgia intend to challenge Delaware, I expect that they will follow Texas and Nevada in adopting reforms that Delaware will find hard to replicate due to its own entrenched constituencies.  (Professor Bainbridge has himself commented on this.)  Statutorily eliminating entire fairness review or adopting fixed limits on attorneys’ fees would be revolutionary in Delaware and inspire spirited opposition from the bar.

Does this mean an end to Delaware’ dominance of corporate law?  Given Delaware’s successful century, it would take a brave person to bet against the First State.  But I agree with Professor Jay Verret:  Barr’s article was a “wake up call.”  Barr’s doctrinal analysis deserves skepticism for the reasons expressed by Vice Chancellor Laster.  But I doubt Barr will be the last to highlight Delaware’s blue-state political status.  As other jurisdictions seek to entice corporations away from the First State, politics is an obvious and easily understandable point of differentiation.

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What is to prevent states like Texas from facing similar First Amendment challenges to their political neutrality judicial appointment statutes? Delaware likely settled because it believed the Supreme Court would be unsympathetic to its defense against such a challenge; in a few years, Texas may discover the same situation.

City of Seaford is a municipal preemption case, not an abortion case. Abortion is the cosmetic dispute; the issue, fundamentally, is a municipality contravening state law. Dicta about abortion is less important than the context of the litigation itself, which involved a state constitutional power struggle. One could find similar examples throughout the history of the Court of Chancery. For example, the Sheriff Christopher case of a decade ago was a similar example of such a struggle, and had no measurable reputational impact on Delaware’s Court of Chancery. The superficial topic of the litigation is hardly a dispositive basis to move an entire corporation to a rival jurisdiction- facing endless barrages of shareholder litigation in the process- to arrive in a red state where the jurisprudence is less sophisticated, less reliable, and nakedly swayed by conservative partisan values.

Posted by: Casual Reader | Dec 25, 2023 3:14:13 AM

To answer your first question, I do not believe that the new Texas Business Court has a political balance requirement. As for the second issue, time will tell. I don't think that nailing corporations to Delaware via stockholder lawsuit is an attractive long-term strategy, but I could be wrong. But that tactic only works for existing corporations, anyway. New courts may seek to differentiate themselves by attracting new firms, including the Fortune 500 companies of tomorrow.

Posted by: A. Rickey | Dec 27, 2023 11:50:14 AM

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