by Imre S. Szalai, Judge John D. Wessel Distinguished Professor of Social Justice, Loyola University New Orleans College of Law
During Judge Neil M. Gorsuch’s Senate confirmation hearings, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) asked Judge Gorsuch about his reaction to the eye-opening New York Times series on forced arbitration. (The Times series – Beware the Fine Print, can be found here, here, and here.) Judge Gorsuch replied, “[The series] made me think about a little bit of history.” Unfortunately, Judge Gorsuch’s understanding of history is flawed.
Gorsuch described the main federal statute governing arbitration, the Federal Arbitration Act, as follows: “What it [the statute] did was to favor arbitration. Congress expressed a preference that people should arbitrate their disputes. It made a judgment, policy judgment, in favor of arbitration because it’s quicker, cheaper, and easier for people.”
Judge Gorsuch’s statements demonstrate a lack of understanding of the history of arbitration law in America. When enacting the Federal Arbitration Act during the 1920s, Congress never expressed a preference in favor of arbitration. I challenge Judge Gorsuch to explain the basis for his perception of such a Congressional preference. He will not find such a Congressional preference in the history or text of the statute. Congress never expressed a preference for people to arbitrate their disputes instead of litigating their disputes in court; Congress never expressed a preference in favor of arbitration. Instead of expressing a preference in favor of arbitration, Congress simply recognized in the Federal Arbitration Act that if merchants willingly agreed to arbitrate, a court would recognize and enforce their mutual promise to arbitrate. In other words, the Federal Arbitration Act reflects a policy-neutral view regarding arbitration. If parties agree to arbitrate, they will arbitrate. But if parties choose to litigate, they will litigate. In enacting the FAA, Congress made no value judgment in favor of arbitration over litigation, or that one system of dispute resolution is superior to another system. In enacting the Federal Arbitration Act, Congress was simply recognizing the right and freedom of parties to choose for themselves whatever system of dispute resolution they desired.