By Andrew Ling
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s retirement announcement last month puts the focus on his replacement, but it also requires looking back at the justice’s record. Serving more than two decades on the Court, he has made important contributions to U.S. jurisprudence on arbitration, in both domestic and international contexts.
Breyer officially retired on Jan. 27, just ahead of the Court’s winter recess. It returns this week, with an opinion expected soon on the one arbitration case argued so far this year, Badgerow v. Walters, No. 20-1143 (see Russ Bleemer, “Supreme Court Hears Badgerow, and Leans to Allowing Federal Courts to Broadly Decide on Arbitration Awards and Challenges,” CPR Speaks (Nov. 2)), and four more arbitration arguments slated for next month. See Russ Bleemer, “The Supreme Court’s Six‐Pack Is Set to Refine Arbitration Practice,” 40 Alternatives 17 (February 2022) (available on open access at https://bit.ly/3GDEJEK).
In 1995, in his second year on the bench, Breyer drafted two frequently cited Federal Arbitration Act opinions. In the first, Allied-Bruce Terminix Companies, Inc. v. Dobson, 513 U.S. 265 (1995) (available at https://bit.ly/3uUcJu5), Breyer wrote that the FAA applies to all transactions involving interstate commerce, even if the parties did not contemplate an interstate commerce connection.
The holding endorsed a broad FAA reading—specifically on 9 U. S. C. § 2, which “makes enforceable a written arbitration provision in “a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce.”
In First Options of Chicago Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938 (1995) (available at http://bit.ly/2WEXGnF), Breyer set up the general principle that courts, not arbitrators, should decide whether a dispute is subject to arbitration, phrased as the “question of arbitrability.”
To submit questions of arbitrability to arbitration, there must be clear and unmistakable evidence indicating such intent from the parties. As Columbia Law Prof. George Bermann commented, First Options recognizes “the fundamental importance of consent to arbitrate,” and guarantees parties’ rights to an independent judicial determination. See George A. Bermann, “After First Options: Delegation Run Amok,” American Review of International Arbitration (Sep. 2021) (available at https://bit.ly/3oV54bb).
By contrast, when an issue does not raise a question of arbitrability, it should be presumptively decided by an arbitrator. In Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79 (2002) (available at https://bit.ly/2yiejeh), Justice Breyer wrote that a FINRA time-limit rule for submission to arbitration is a procedural issue that an arbitral tribunal should decide. This approach achieves a balance between respecting arbitrators’ authority and parties’ consent to arbitrate.
Justice Breyer is recognized as an international arbitration authority. As he argued in his 2015 book, “The Court and The World: American Law and the New Global Realities” (Penguin Random House), the Court must look at foreign and international laws in today’s increasingly interdependent world.
Breyer put his philosophy to use in the investment treaty case of BG Group PLC v. Argentina, 572 U.S. 25 (2014) (available at https://bit.ly/3LIfLb8). The matter dealt with an enforcement action of a foreign investment arbitral award. Breyer, writing for the 6-2 Court, held that a treaty precondition to arbitration is a procedural issue that usually leaves the arbitral tribunal to decide, and the court should defer to the tribunal’s decision on that matter.
But the view was expansive. Breyer cited multiple international authorities and wrote that a bilateral investment treaty should not be treated differently from a contract.
Washington, D.C.-based Paul Hastings partner Igor Timofeyev praised the opinion for bringing predictability to the enforcement of investment arbitral awards in the U.S. See Caroline Simson, “Justice Breyer Set Many Standards for Arbitration Community,” Law 360 (Jan. 27) (available at https://bit.ly/3oSQoJO).
Justice Breyer’s arbitration opinions also reflect his often-noted pragmatic streak. He drafted majority opinions on class arbitration, such as Green Tree Financial Corp. v. Bazzle, 539 U.S. 444 (2003) (available at https://bit.ly/33putSQ) (designating that the decision on the contract in the case about the applicability of class arbitration was for the arbitrators, not the court), and Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, 139 S. Ct. 1407 (2019) (available at https://bit.ly/3696Cb2) (finding that “Like silence, ambiguity does not provide a sufficient basis to conclude that parties to an arbitration agreement agreed to ‘sacrifice[ ] the principal advantage of arbitration,’” and reaffirming that “courts may not infer consent to participate in class arbitration absent an affirmative ‘contractual basis for concluding that the party agreed to do so.’”)
But Justice Breyer also sometimes found himself in the minority. In the seminal consumer arbitration case, AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 133 (2011) (available at https://bit.ly/3LEpkHV), the Court ruled that the Federal Arbitration Act preempted California arbitration law, which barred class arbitration. While Breyer drafted a dissenting opinion in the case, he upheld and applied Concepcion in his majority decision in DIRECTV Inc. v. Imburgia, 577 U.S. 47 (2015) (available at https://bit.ly/3gS8DKQ). He wrote,
No one denies that lower courts must follow this Court’s holding in Concepcion. The fact that Concepcion was a closely divided case, resulting in a decision from which four Justices dissented, has no bearing on that undisputed obligation. Lower court judges are certainly free to note their disagreement with a decision of this Court. But the “Supremacy Clause forbids state courts to dissociate themselves from federal law because of disagreement with its content or a refusal to recognize the superior authority of its source.” . . . The Federal Arbitration Act is a law of the United States, and Concepcion is an authoritative interpretation of that Act. Consequently, the judges of every State must follow it.
For Justice Breyer, “it’s the court’s job to help make government work for real people,” according to a former law clerk. See Richard Wolf, “After 20 Years, Breyer Is High Court’s Raging Pragmatist,” USA Today (Aug. 7, 2014) (available at https://bit.ly/3GTfu1m).
In Breyer’s view, by following judicial precedents, the Court contributes to social stability and allows people to plan their lives. He said, “The law might not be perfect but if you’re changing it all the time people won’t know what to do, and the more you change it the more people will ask to have it changed, and the more the court hears that, the more they’ll change it.” Andrew Chung, “U.S. Justice Breyer Touts Compromise, Democracy, Adherence to Precedent,” Reuters (May 28, 2021) (available at https://reut.rs/3Ju4Wr4).
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The author, a third-year law student at the University of Texas School of Law, in Austin, Texas, is a CPR 2022 Spring Intern.