Reclaiming Fiduciary Law for the City

78 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2018

Date Written: February 3, 2018


Modern law sets “public” local government law apart from “private” business entities law. Although intuitive, this distinction ignores legal history and, even more troublingly, the contemporary practices of local governments. Due to distressed finances and a political atmosphere favoring privatization, present-day cities routinely engage in sophisticated market transactions typical of private business entities. Current law fails to adequately address this reality. Because cities are deemed public, courts do not analyze their transactions for compliance with the fiduciary duties private law imposes to ensure sound management. Major city transactions thus evade meaningful review.

This Article addresses this worrisome anomaly by demonstrating that the city’s supposed public nature need not interfere with the application of fiduciary duties to its market transactions. To the contrary, this Article shows that the fiduciary status of city officials is supported — indeed, necessitated — by U.S. law’s history, structure, and normative logic. This Article also devises the appropriate fiduciary duty of care — or sound management — that courts should apply to city officials. It advocates requiring local decision-makers to abide by certain processes of informed decision-making before selling major municipal assets. As primarily a procedural, nonsubstantive test, such a standard would not constrain the political discretion of local officials and could readily be applied by courts.

Keywords: fiduciary duties, local government, duty of care, public trust

JEL Classification: R51, R52, R53, R38, K22, K11

Suggested Citation

Schanzenbach, Max Matthew and Shoked, Nadav, Reclaiming Fiduciary Law for the City (February 3, 2018). Stanford Law Review, Vol. 70, February 2018, Available at SSRN:

Max Matthew Schanzenbach (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

Nadav Shoked

Northwestern University School of Law ( email )

750 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
312-503-1321 (Phone)

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics