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Case Law

15 January, 2016 - 09:32

Law made by judges is called case law. Because contract law was made up in the common-law courtroom by individual judges as they applied rules to resolve disputes before them, it grew over time to formidable proportions. By the early twentieth century, tens of thousands of contract disputes had been submitted to the courts for resolution, and the published opinions, if collected in one place, would have filled dozens of bookshelves. Clearly this mass of material was too unwieldy for efficient use. A similar problem also had developed in the other leading branches of the common law.

Disturbed by the profusion of cases and the resulting uncertainty of the law, a group of prominent American judges, lawyers, and law teachers founded the American Law Institute (ALI) in 1923 to attempt to clarify, simplify, and improve the law. One of the ALI’s first projects, and ultimately one of its most successful, was the drafting of the Restatement of the Law of Contracts, completed in 1932. A revision—the Restatement (Second) of Contracts—was undertaken in 1964 and completed in 1979. Hereafter, references to “the Restatement” pertain to the Restatement (Second) of Contracts.

The Restatements—others exist in the fields of torts, agency, conflicts of laws, judgments, property, restitution, security, and trusts—are detailed analyses of the decided cases in each field. These analyses are made with an eye to discerning the various principles that have emerged from the courts, and to the maximum extent possible, the Restatements declare the law as the courts have determined it to be. The Restatements, guided by a reporter (the director of the project) and a staff of legal scholars, go through several so-called tentative drafts—sometimes as many as fifteen or twenty—and are screened by various committees within the ALI before they are eventually published as final documents.

The Restatement (Second) of Contracts won prompt respect in the courts and has been cited in innumerable cases. The Restatements are not authoritative, in the sense that they are not actual judicial precedents; but they are nevertheless weighty interpretive texts, and judges frequently look to them for guidance. They are as close to “black letter” rules of law as exist anywhere in the American common-law legal system.

Common law, case law (the terms are synonymous), governs contracts for the sale of real estate and services. “Services” refer to acts or deeds (like plumbing, drafting documents, driving a car) as opposed to the sale of property.