From Riggs v. Palmer to Shelley v. Kraemer: The Continuing Significance of the Law-Equity Distinction

Philosophical Foundations of the Law of Equity (Dennis Klimchuk, Irit Samet & Henry Smith eds., Oxford Univ. Press 2018 Forthcoming)

Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 18-29

29 Pages Posted: 24 May 2018 Last revised: 7 Nov 2018

See all articles by John C. P. Goldberg

John C. P. Goldberg

Harvard Law School

Benjamin C. Zipursky

Fordham University School of Law

Date Written: May 21, 2018

Abstract

This chapter begins with a sharp distinction between two kinds of judicial authority — the authority to apply law and to do equity. Plaintiffs who file suit on a claim of legal right assert an entitlement to recourse from the defendant, and to judicial assistance in obtaining it. By contrast, equitable claims request a court to exercise its discretion to block or modify the ordinary operation of the law, or to provide relief to which there is no legal entitlement. This distinction, we argue, sheds light on some of American law’s most famous and controversial decisions, including Riggs v. Palmer, Moore v. Regents, and Shelley v. Kraemer. Indeed, insofar as each reaches a defensible result, it is because it is an instance of a court doing equity rather than applying law. As our analysis of these and other decisions demonstrates, an appreciation of the law-equity distinction remains necessary for an adequate understanding of Anglo-American legal systems.

Keywords: Civil Recourse, Corrective Justice, Contract, Equity, Injunctive Relief, Judges, Moore v. Regents, Private Law, Riggs v. Palmer, Shelley v. Kraemer, State Action, Torts

Suggested Citation

Goldberg, John C. P. and Zipursky, Benjamin C., From Riggs v. Palmer to Shelley v. Kraemer: The Continuing Significance of the Law-Equity Distinction (May 21, 2018). Philosophical Foundations of the Law of Equity (Dennis Klimchuk, Irit Samet & Henry Smith eds., Oxford Univ. Press 2018 Forthcoming); Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 18-29. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3182593 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3182593

John C. P. Goldberg (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

Areeda 232
1545 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-2086 (Phone)

Benjamin C. Zipursky

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

140 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
United States

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