Category: Law and Humanities

20

Shylock and Article 9 of the U.C.C. (with some thoughts on bankruptcy)

shylock.gifShakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice (1598) is often misidentified as an anti-Semitic play about a contract. This is not technically correct, as the transaction at the heart of the drama seems to be a secured loan. (Albeit an anti-Semitic one.) Furthermore, contrary to Shakespeare’s conclusion, I believe that the security agreement is most likely enforceable, at least under Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code, a point that I hope to make to my secured transactions class. Here is Shylock’s description of the loan agreement between himself and Antonio, a Venetian merchant:

SHYLOCK: This kindness will I show; go with me to a notary; seal me there your single bond, and – in merry sport – if you repay me not on such a day, in such a place, such sum or sums as are expressed in the condition, let the forfeit be nominated for an equal pound Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken In what part of your body pleaseth me. (I.3.141-149)

It seems fairly clear from the passage that there is a debt. Antonio promises to pay “such sum or sums as are expressed in the condition.” However, without a valid security interest Shylock has only a personal right of action against Antonio. Indeed, even if Antonio promises the pound of flesh, all that Shylock gets in the event of a failure to deliver the bloody bond is a right to money damages. Section 9-109, however, teaches us that Article 9 governs “a transaction, regardless of form, that creates a security interest in personal property . . . by contract.” Such seems to be the case here. Indeed, Shylock casts the transaction in the form of a bond, ie a promise to deliver the pound of flesh, with a condition, ie payment of the debt, that defeats the bond, a classic pre-Code security arrangement, and the “pound of . . . fair flesh” falls under 9-102(a)(44)’s definition of “goods” (“all things that are moveable when a security interest attaches”), bringing it within the personal property requirement of 9-109.

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Nazi Stolen Art Claims Pervade Record Auction

Welcome to the season of the major art auctions in New York. The New York Times (11/9/06) reported:

In a landmark sale, the biggest in auction history, nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of art changed hands last night at Christie’s sale of Impressionist and modern art. Soaring prices for blockbuster paintings by Klimt and Gauguin left thousands of spectators, who came to watch and to buy, gasping.

Not me. Instead I’m gasping at all the legal back stories involved in Wednesday night’s auction.

Picasso_angel_fernandez_de_soto.jpgThe most current one involved Christie’s lead item: Picasso’s “Portrait de Angel Fernandez de Soto” a.k.a. “The Absinthe Drinker.” On Monday, SDNY judge Jed Rakoff dismissed a suit brought against the auction house by an heir of a prominent Jewish Berlin banker who had owned the painting during WWII. The suit claimed title to the painting and sought its return or $60 million plus attorneys fees. Although Judge Rakoff ruled that the federal court had no jurisdiction over the matter, he hinted at his opinion on the merits stating, “I know that no one in the art world is just interested in money or in buying and selling paintings for profit. They’re guided by their belief in truth and beauty. But nevertheless, one might suspect that this is just a fight about money.” That suspicion was first raised by Christie’s who publicly questioned the motivation of the plaintiff in waiting 70 years to bring suit and then only days before this major auction. Christie’s attempted to take the high ground calling the plaintiff’s actions “a disservice to the restitution community.”

The painting has been owned by the foundation of Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber’s (of “Cats” fame) since 1995. According to the plaintiff, his ancestor consigned the painting to his Swiss art dealer who sold it in the last months of his life. Christie’s contends the painting was sold after his death, but argues that either way it was a legal sale. The plaintiff’s suit rests on his claim the sale of the painting was under duress by the Nazis; a so-called “forced sale.” In this case, it seems that the Nazis seized the banker’s assets thereby forcing him to sell the art in 1934 in a depressed Berlin art market. This set of facts departs slightly from successful forced-sale claims in which art was sold in “Jew auctions” where Jewish art dealers were prohibited from making sales other than through Nazi-organized art auctions.

The lawsuit was re-filed in New York State Supreme Court on Wednesday. Finally, just hours before the auction, Christie’s announced it was withdrawing the painting because “of eleventh-hour claims” that cast a “cloud of doubt” over title to the painting. The painting was estimated sale at $40 to $60 million. This means that if the painting were sold at say $50 million (all the other works sold exceeded their estimates), Christie’s lost $6 million, or its 12% commission (the lower commission charged for expensive works).

pAdele1.jpgAlso part of Wednesday’s auction were five Gustav Klimts that were the subject of a 2004 Supreme Court case, Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677. In that case, Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of one of the paintings, willed the paintings to the Austrian Museum upon her husband’s death. She died, the WWII ensued and the paintings were seized by the Nazis. After the war, her husband willed them to their nieces and nephews. The Supreme Court ruled that the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act could be applied retroactively to Altmann’s case, thus paving the way for Altman to sue the Austrian Government in US Courts. In April of this year, the Austrian National Gallery was compelled by a national arbitration board to return the five paintings to Maria Altmann, the niece of the original owner. On Wednesday night, the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer sold for $87.9 million, a Klimt record and almost double its estimate. The room reportedly exploded in applause.

Still another work in Wednesday’s auction was the subject of a legal dispute. “Berliner Strassenszene” by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was only recently was turned over to the heirs of Jewish shoe factory owner Alfred Hess by the Bruecke-Museum in Berlin, where it hung since 1980. In that dispute, Hess’ widow contended she was intimidated into bringing the painting back to Germany from safety in Switzerland.

The Beauty-Industrial Complex

There have been a lot of reviews lately of Alex Kuczynski’s Beauty Junkies: Inside our $15 Billion Obsession with Cosmetic Surgery. Kuczynski writes for the NYT’s Thursday Styles section, and has a journalist’s flair for finding the most bizarre instances of consumer trends (such as an $11,000 South African surgery/safari package). I found Rebecca Mead’s take particularly insightful:

“We have begun to think of our bodies as something like an accessory that can be modified when necessary, discarded when it is worn out, and upgraded when required, a leathery sack to transport us from one medical specialist to the next,” Kuczynski writes; and the analogy is apt . . . . The new idea offered by the contemporary culture of cosmetic surgery is that it is the vessel itself that we must value, rather than the soul or spirit that it contains.

Mead also focuses on an underreported aspect of Kuczynski’s analysis: how business pressures and laws governing health care and insurance are spurring the trend:

Kuczynski argues that the soaring incidence of cosmetic surgery—a nearly fivefold increase in the number of cosmetic procedures performed on Americans during the past decade—has been driven by market forces rather than by the measurable health needs of the nation. Surgeons exhausted by the medical-insurance morass are flocking to the field. “If you’re a doctor working in this kind of environment, do you want to spend an hour removing a freckle and get paid $12 in two months by some insurance company? Or do you want to spend fifteen minutes putting Botox into someone’s face and get $1,000 in cash five minutes later?” one attendee at a convention of plastic surgeons asks.

Indeed, many moves to “high end health care” are driven by frustration with insurance providers. Some argue that a move to “free up” the health care field from regulation might help restore a balance. But a book on plastic surgery far more critical than Kuczynski’s suggests there is a deeper “market based” method to the industry. . .

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2

The Law & Economics of Quaker Litigation

quakers.bmpI feel duty bound to write a post defending the honor of 17th century Quaker grandees. Their reputation has suffered enough. The Quakers had (still have?) a tradition of discouraging intra-Quaker litigation in the secular courts. In England, Quaker eschewal of litigation was founded in part on the religious inaccessibility of the courts. Courts required oaths, and Quakers, taking Christ’s admonition in the New Testament to “swear not” literally, refused to take oaths. Once the Quakers started founding settlements in America, however, this problem went away, as Pennsylvania law allowed for “affirmations” in place of oaths, an explicit religious accommodation that eventually found its way into the Constitution. Nevertheless, Quaker sermons and pamphlets continued to insist that Friends should resolve their disputes amicably before the Monthly Meetings of the Society rather than sue in the secular courts.

In his book Of “Good Laws” and “Good Men”: Law and Society in the Delaware Valley, 1680-1710, William Offutt compared the records of the Monthly Meetings with the local court records to determine the extent to which Quakers actually lived up to their own sermons. What he found was that despite the nominal threat of excommunication for filing suit against another Friend, Quakers were quite enthusiastic about suing one another. Looking at the records of the Monthly Meetings, in turn, he found that congregational leaders were more likely to “sue” other congregational leaders before the Monthly Meetings but that Quaker leaders were perfectly happy to sue ordinary Quakers before the secular courts. Offutt rather archly suggests that the reasons for this had to do with the (hypocritical) desire of Quaker elites to maintain their images with other Quaker elites. Economics, however, suggests a more charitable reading of the actions of Quaker leaders.

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In Memoriam: Clifford Geertz

geertz.jpgI recently noticed an obituary for Clifford Geertz on PTDR. Law & the humanities have had an uneasy relationship for some time now, but one of the few humanists with an undisputed place in the canon was “anthropologist” Clifford Geertz. I use the scare quotes because Geertz appeared to me to be far more than a type of social scientist, but a scholar whose deep sense of the connections between belief and desire, knowledge and will, could reinvigorate whole fields.

For a taste of the possibilities, check out this review of Posner’s book Catastrophe in the NYRB:

Posner largely handles the problem of estimating danger via sheer postulation—weird and (one assumes, unintentionally) madcap burlesque. “Suppose the cost of extinction of the human race…can be very conservatively estimated at 600 trillion dollars [and there is] a 1 in 10 million annual probability of a strangelet disaster.”

Geertz could look at the fashions and fads of the modern academy with the same mixture of sympathy and detachment he brought to the customs of Berbers or Balinese villagers. This long essay on a “life of learning” can be inspirational to anyone who has chosen “science as a vocation.” After college, I was trapped in a very frustrating graduate program for a while, and I remember taking great comfort in the thought that someone like Geertz managed to transcend disciplinary boundaries while still finding a “home” in the academy.

Geertz offered us a vision of humanities informing law in the deepest sense, by showing us the inextricable intertwining of description and judgment (or, as lawyers often experience, fact and law). I particularly like this quote from Geertz’s essay, Deep Play in a Balinese Cockfight:

Any expressive form works (when it works) by disarranging semantic contexts in such a way that properties conventionally ascribed to certain things are unconventionally ascribed to others, which are then seen actually to possess them. To call the wind a cripple, as Stevens does, to fix tone and manipulate timbre, as Schoenberg does, or, closer to our case, to picture an art critic as a dissolute bear, as Hogarth does, is to cross conceptual wires; the established conjunctions between objects and their qualities are altered and phenomena—fall weather, melodic shape, or cultural journalism—are clothed in signifiers which normally point to other referents. Similarly, to connect—and connect, and connect—the collision of roosters with the divisiveness of status is to invite a transfer of perceptions from the former to the latter, a transfer which is at once a description and a judgment [emphasis added].

Some scholars have worked out the implications of thoughts like these with great power and precision–such as Balkin (and Levinson’s) work on Law and Music, or Bill Eskridge’s work on Gadamer and statutory interpretation, or some cyberscholars on metaphorical descriptions of cyberspace (like Cohen and Hunter). But I think there is still a rich vein of work to be inspired by Geertz’s classic elaborations of the idea that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”

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Xoxohth, Civility, and Prestige: Part I

xoxo.jpgXoxohth claims to be the “most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world.” According to its marketing materials, it controls 70% of the online “market” for “higher education and career discussion”, with around 6000 posts a day on various topics. One of its founders reports that the site receives 350,000 to 500,000 unique visitors every month, making it significantly more trafficked than any other law blog, with the exception of Volokh. (By comparison, we get 60-70K unique hits a month.)

But.

Among many legal scholars and administrators, there is a shared impression that discussion at XO is overrun by sexist, racist, anti-semitic, and just plain foolish talk. The well-known Leiter-XO engagement (see here) is just one example, but it isn’t alone. Based on correspondence, I have learned that multiple law school deans and assistant deans have dealt with the Board when trying to mediate online disputes involving their school’s students. XO has been threatened with legal action (at least twice) involving alleged defamation on the board, although the site is not, to my knowledge, involved in pending litigation. Some wish the entire XO discussion board was a hoax (although others think it may be providing a public service) and some, well, some are mad as hell:

If this is what other lawyers are going to be like, I want out. They make us all look like utter a[*******]. People should avoid law school because it sucks, not because of these jerks.

I’ve written a bit about the Board before, in the context of a US News citation dispute, and since then, I’ve been in contact with one of the Board’s administrators, Anthony Ciolli, a 3L at Penn Law. I think the board is pretty fascinating, primarily because its anonymity enables, and its format records, discussions among rising lawyers that are frank and heterodox (in legal culture) with respect to race, gender relations, and professional development. It isn’t the only forum for such discussions, but it may be the largest.

In subsequent posts, I will be exploring three basic questions about XO.

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3

Does Reading Literature Give You More Empathy?

literature1.jpgThe British Psychological Society reports the results of a new study on the effects of reading literature:

The more fiction a person reads, the more empathy they have and the better they perform on tests of social understanding and awareness. By contrast, reading more non-fiction, fact-based books shows the opposite association. That’s according to Raymond Mar and colleagues who say their finding could have implications for educating children and adults about understanding others.

Finding out how much people read is always difficult because it’s socially desirable for people to report that they read a lot. Mar and colleagues avoided this by asking 94 participants to identify the names of fiction and non-fiction authors embedded in a long list of names that also included non-authors. Prior research has shown this test correlates well with how much people actually read. Among the authors listed were Matt Ridley, Naomi Wolf (non-fiction), Toni Morrison and PD James (fiction).

The more authors of fiction that a participant recognised, the higher they tended to score on measures of social awareness and tests of empathy – for example being able to recognise a person’s emotions from a picture showing their eyes only, or being able to take another person’s perspective. Recognising more non-fiction authors showed the opposite association.

The researchers surmised that reading fiction could improve people’s social awareness via at least two routes – by exposing them to concrete social knowledge concerning the way people behave, and by allowing them to practise inferring people’s intentions and monitoring people’s relationships. Non-fiction readers, by contrast, “fail to simulate such experiences, and may accrue a social deficit in social skills as a result of removing themselves from the actual social world”.

However, a weakness of the study is that the direction of causation has not been established – it might simply be that more empathic people prefer reading novels.

The study is by R.A. Mar, K. Oatley, J. Hirsh, J. dela Paz, & J.B. Peterson, Bookworms Versus Nerds: Exposure to Fiction Versus Non-fiction, Divergent Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of Fictional Social Worlds, 40 Journal of Research in Personality 694-712 (2006). It is available here, but for a fee.

Hat tip: Ilya Somin.

Net Neutrality: Law, Money, and Culture

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Bill Moyers enters the fray in the raging legal debate over net neutrality tonight, with a documentary on PBS. The Wu/Yoo debate on the topic gets the central issues on the table: should we permit dominant ISP’s (like Verizon and Comcast) to discriminate among the “bits” on their networks, giving more rapid service to preferred sites? I’ve offered some tentative thoughts on the matter, and these continue in that vein.

The net neutrality battle may offer us a classic efficiency-equity tradeoff. Imagine a world where everything on the internet came to you four times faster, but dominant ISP’s could cut deals with certain sites that made their content come 10 times faster. On many classic economic accounts, that would be Pareto-optimal–everyone’s better off. As some very smart people (like Philip Weiser) have claimed, that differential pricing could finally lead to revenue levels that would remedy the US’s unacceptably slow pace of getting people connected to broadband (and faster) networks.

But on the other hand, what about the competitive disadvantage of those unable to cut the deals? Compare this article reprinted in the Boston Pilot (the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s official paper) touting net neutrality and this piece from Brookings-AEI disparaging it as a form of “price control.” The economists just tend to miss the cultural importance of media consolidation. That’s what convinced me that the stakes are ultimately a “battle for mindshare” (to use Hannibal Travis’s evocative metaphor), and can’t be cast in simple economic terms.

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Law & Literature Resources

book1.bmpThe topic of this week’s research canons series at PrawfsBlawg is law and literature, a field I find of great interest (I have written a few papers about law and literature). If you’re interested in law and literature, you might find my website for the Law & Humanities Institute to contain some useful information.

There are several web pages that may be of interest:

1. General Resources (websites, syllabi, etc.)

2. A List of Literary Works About the Law

3. A Chronological Bibliography of Works About Law & Literature (1982-present)

4. A Bibliography of Law & Literature Scholarship About Particular Writers

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Law Movie Canon

Since PrawfsBlawg is experimenting with “research canons,” I thought I’d take this opportunity to create a “law movie canon” post. So here’s a list of my five favorite law movies. I’m basing this list on the following totally objective standard: Do I really like the movie? I actually happen to be an expert in things I like, and I therefore believe I am uniquely situated to create this list.

So here’s my list, in no particular order:

1. Anatomy of a Murder

This is a wonderful film about a murder trial, filled with brilliant trial scenes and tons of great issues ranging from attorney ethics to truth-seeking at trial.

2. Breaker Morant

A fantastic film about the trial of three soldiers who follow an order to kill a group of prisoners of war in violation of the rules of warfare. A deep exploration of the nature of law and justice during wartime.

3. My Cousin Vinny

Perhaps the best legal comedy movie ever made. Absolutely hilarious.

4. To Kill A Mockingbird

A superb film adapted from a great book.

5. Twelve Angry Men

A terrific exploration of the themes of judging and the role of perception and experience in the legal decision-making process and a great demonstration of the value of persistent questioning and analysis.

Of course, there are many more law movies I’ve liked, but these are a class apart. What are your favorite law movies?

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