Washington Law Review


John F. Coyle


Over the past half-century, courts in the United States have developed canons of construction that they use exclusively to construe choice-of-law clauses. These canons are consistently applied by state and federal courts. They play an important role in determining the meaning of choice-of-law clauses and, by extension, the law that will be applied to resolve disputes that come before the courts. To date, however, these canons have attracted relatively little attention in the academic literature. This Article aspires to fill that gap. It develops the first taxonomy of these canons, which fall into one of two families. The first consists of the lexical canons. These canons assign meaning to words and phrases that commonly appear in choice-of-law clauses. The second consists of the canons relating to scope. These canons determine whether the law selected by the parties applies exclusively to contract claims or whether it also applies to related tort and statutory claims. The Article then draws upon interviews and e-mail exchanges with practicing attorneys in an attempt to determine empirically whether these canons generate outcomes that are consistent with the preferences of most contracting parties. It shows that some do and others do not. When a particular canon regularly produces outcomes that are inconsistent with majoritarian preferences, the Article argues that the courts should cast it aside. The Article concludes by addressing how to resolve conflicts among the canons when they arise.

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