From Langdell to Law and Economics: Two Conceptions of Stare Decisis in Contract Law and Theory

Jody S. Kraus, Columbia Law School


In his classic monograph, The Death of Contract, Grant Gilmore argued that Christopher Columbus Langdell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Samuel Williston trumped up the legal credentials for their classical bargain theory of contract law. Gilmore's analysis has been subjected to extensive criticism, but its specific, sustained, and fundamental charge that the bargain theory was based on a fraudulent misrepresentation of precedential authority has never been questioned. In this Essay, I argue that Gilmore's case against the classical theorists rests on the suppressed premise that the precedential authority of cases resides in the express judicial reasoning used to decide them. In contrast, I argue that the classical theorists implicitly presuppose that the precedential authority of cases consists in the best theory that explains their outcomes, even if that theory is inconsistent with the case's express judicial reasoning. The classical view of precedential authority completely defuses Gilmore's charge of fraud. In Gilmore's view, merely demonstrating the inconsistency between the proposition for which the classical theorists cited a case and the express reasoning in that case suffices as proof of misrepresentation. But in the classical theorists' view, the express reasoning in a case is simply a theory of its precedential authority, which, like any theory, can be wrong. Thus, the classical theorists simply reject Gilmore's claim that a case cannot properly be cited for a proposition inconsistent with its express reasoning. The real dispute, then, between Gilmore and the classical theorists is over the nature of precedential authority and not the content of contract law.

Having reframed the classic death-of-contract debate, I then trace these competing conceptions of precedential authority through the major schools of contemporary contract theory. I argue that a contract theory's embrace of one view instead of the other can be explained by the relative priority it accords to each of the two components in a conception of adjudicative legitimacy. A conception of adjudicative legitimacy consists in a theory of what it means for a decision to be based on law and a theory of what is required for law to be justified. I explain why theories according priority to the former tend to subscribe to the precedents-as-outcomes view, while theories according priority to the latter tend to favor the express reasoning view. The Essay concludes by arguing that the economic analysis of contract law subscribes to the precedents-as-outcomes view and therefore is the contemporary jurisprudential successor to the late nineteenth-century classical theorists.