The Rise and Fall of Unconscionability as the 'Law of the Poor'
Georgetown University Law Center
June 21, 2014
Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 102, No. 5, 2014
What happened to unconscionability? Here’s one version of the story: The doctrine of unconscionability experienced a brief resurgence in the mid-1960s at the hands of naive, left-liberal, activist judges, who used it to rewrite private consumer contracts according to their own sense of justice. These folks meant well, no doubt, much like present-day consumer protection crusaders who seek to ensure the “fairness” of financial products and services. But courts’ refusal to enforce terms they deemed "unconscionable” served only to increase the cost of doing business with low-income households. Judges ended up hurting the very people they were trying to help. In the face of incisive criticism, judicial enthusiasm for the doctrine of unconscionability quickly faded. A new consensus emerged in favor of legislation requiring better disclosure of consumer contract terms ex ante, rather than ex post judicial review.
This Article presents a different narrative, one that is informed by extensive research in previously untapped archival sources. In this story, the wise legislature does not overrule the misguided courts. On the contrary, it reveals that lawmakers laid the groundwork for the judicial revival of unconscionability, and then rewrote statutory rules to codify the ensuing court decisions. In the District of Columbia, home to the famous Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Co. litigation, the legislature revived unconscionability through the enactment of the Uniform Commercial Code (U.C.C.), which reintroduced the once-archaic doctrine into the legal vernacular. Just as the U.C.C. drafters intended, unconscionability review allowed courts to do openly what they had been doing covertly for years — refuse to enforce harsh, one-sided bargains as written. In 1965, the D.C. Circuit seized the opportunity unconscionability offered to prevent the loss of a poor woman’s furniture. But the Williams litigation also did something more. It drew public attention to the controversy before the court and alerted D.C. lawmakers to a recurring problem in need of a legislative fix. In response, local leaders set to work drafting consumer credit reform legislation. Lawmakers eventually adopted a firm set of rules to govern “installment” sales contracts in the District of Columbia, including a ban on the objectionable contract term at issue in Williams.
In this narrative, judges and legislators did not advance competing regulatory visions. They agreed on the need for substantive limits on installment sales to poor borrowers. Moreover, contrary to what some scholars might predict, litigation did not divert scarce resources down a dead-end path. Rather, it catalyzed the process of legislative change, raising public consciousness of problems in the low-income marketplace and fueling the drive for substantive reforms on the local level.
Appendix A provides the full text of the Walker Thomas Furniture Company contract.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 59
Keywords: Legal history, U.S. history, UCC, unconscionability, poverty, low-income, consumer credit
Date posted: June 23, 2014