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ALI Consumer Contracts Restatement--More Problems with the Legal Research

posted by Adam Levitin

More problems are emerging with the legal research underlying the American Law Institute's Consumer Contracts Restatement project.  The Consumer Contracts Restatement has been the subject of scholarly criticism for a while because of its novel quantitative empirical approach (case counting).  The Restatement stands on six empirical studies of consumer contracts.  While the current draft claims that these studies merely serve as confirmation for the Restatement's positions, which were supposedly arrived at through the traditional method of reading and distilling the law from the cases, all of the early drafts of the Restatement said nothing about this traditional method and only relied on the empirical studies, which now conveniently arrive at exactly the same positions.  

The first two scholarly works to examine the legal research underlying the Restatement were one by Professor Gregory Klass at Georgetown Law and another by yours truly with seven other ALI members.  These studies were basically looking for "false positives"--cases claimed to be relevant by the Restatement that aren't.  Both studies found an incredibly high rate of false positives--over 50% in some instances.  The Restatement had included in its case count, among other things, completely irrelevant cases, such as business-to-business cases, cases not involving common law contract disputes, duplicate cases, and vacated cases.  These types of errors were pretty shocking in what should be a document based on unimpeachable legal research.  A nice summary write-up of these studies by Professor Martha Ertman can be found over at JOTWELL (the Journal of Things We Like Lots).  

Now Professor William Widen at the University of Miami has done some digging on the Restatement's treatment of pay-now, terms-later contracts. Professor Widen's preliminary research has found that there's also a false negative problem--the Restatement has missed a number of state Supreme Court cases, many of which are contrary to its position.  Additionally, the Restatement seems to have missed a substantial number of state Supreme Court cases that make clear that providing "notice" in consumer contracts means actual knowledge, not merely notional notice.  In short, there is increasing evidence of serious problems with the legal research underlying the Restatement, both false positives and false negatives.  My sense is that with more time, research will adduce even more false negatives.  Given that the ALI likes to present itself as the gold standard of legal research, these problems should give ALI membership pause when considering approving the Restatement.  

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