Sunday, August 30, 2020
Ethan J. Leib and Andrew Kent recently published an article entitled, Fiduciary Law and the Law of Public Office: Suggestions for a Research Agenda, Wills, Trusts, & Estates Law ejournal (2020). Provided below is the abstract to the Article.
A law of public office crystallized in Anglo-American law in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This body of law — defined and enforced through a mix of oaths, statutes, criminal and civil case law, impeachments, and legislative investigations — imposed core duties on public officeholders: Officials needed to serve the public good, not their own private interests; were barred from acting ultra vires; could often be required to account to the public for their conduct in office; and needed to act with impartiality, honesty, and diligence. Office-holding came to be viewed as conditional, with officers removable for misdeeds. This law of public office reflected something that looks similar to modern fiduciary duties of loyalty and care.
In this Essay, we extend the historical record describing this law of public office, and make several new claims — historical and theoretical. First, there are strong reasons to suspect that the law of public office and private fiduciary duties developed together and influenced each other. During the critical centuries we explore, the duties of officeholders such as trustees, executors, and corporate directors were developing alongside the duties of officials such as tax collectors and government commissioners. Parliament and other actors repeatedly used the language of trust, trusteeship, guardianship, and account to define the law of public offices. And public law concerns about abuse of power and the need for honesty, fidelity, and altruism in service of others may have seeped from public law into private fiduciary law. Influential political theory about the monarchy and lesser magistrates was also using trust and related legal language to set forth a fiduciary conception of public office-holding; the theoretical developments in political theory not only drew from legal concepts but may have helped shape them, as well.
One Essay cannot decisively establish whether the similarities in language, concept, and timing were mere coincidence or rather evidence of some conscious co-development in the law of public offices, political theory, and fiduciary law. Proving (or disproving) actual causal relationships will need to be the work of the future. We conclude with some potential implications for our research agenda, should further work continue to confirm our findings here. Fiduciary political theorists should be less anxious about drawing from private law models — and private law fiduciary theorists might need to be less insistent on the purity of the private sphere. As we show, during the critical periods when fiduciary law and the law of public office come into their own, the public-private distinction wasn’t yet creating the divide that exists today. Our research agenda invites more mutual learning — both historically and for law and institutions today.