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The Persistence of General Law

Caleb Nelson
Columbia Law Review
Vol. 106, No. 3 (Apr., 2006), pp. 503-568
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4099445
Page Count: 66
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The Persistence of General Law
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Abstract

Commentators often assume that with the demise of Swift v. Tyson, the American legal system has abandoned the very concept of "general" law. But while that concept no longer informs the relationship between state and federal courts, reports of its death are otherwise exaggerated. Indeed, the structure of our federal system effectively compels courts to continue drawing certain rules of decision from general American jurisprudence rather than from the local law of any individual state. This Article has three basic aims. First, it demonstrates the continuing relevance of rules of general law-rules whose content is not dictated entirely by any single decisionmaker (state or federal), but instead emerges from patterns followed in many different jurisdictions. Second, it uses a variety of seemingly unrelated circuit splits to show that courts lack a solid framework for analyzing the relationship between written federal law and background rules of general law. Third, it begins to develop such a framework. In the course of doing so, the Article sheds new light on a recurring problem in statutory interpretation: How can courts best identify what Frank Easterbrook calls the "domain" of a federal statute? The Article also establishes that when courts articulate rules of "federal common law" to fill vacuums created by written federal law, they assert less creative power than modern commentators typically suggest.

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