Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Gimme a Chancery

As the legal fallout over Elon Musk's bid to purchase social network Twitter continues to unfurl, the Wall Street Journal recently explored the situation from an unusual perspective: what would Charles Dickens think of it all? In a story for the paper's humorous A-Hed section, Ellen Gamerman notes the parallels between Twitter v. Musk and Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the all-consuming inheritance dispute at the center of Dickens's 1852 novel Bleak House (available to the Duke community in a variety of formats). Although Gamerman is careful to note that the lumbering Chancery Court of the Dickens tale (described at one point in the tale as "being ground to bits in a slow mill") bears little resemblance to Delaware's Court of Chancery today, she quotes a few fans and even one Dickens descendant who express amusement at the prospect of a modern-day chancery case playing out, should the parties fail to settle the dispute before the November trial date.

Gamerman briefly mentions the history of chancery courts in the Anglo-American legal system, describing their decline by the late 1800s in most jurisdictions. For the unfamiliar, though, a bit more detail would be helpful, such as the explainer on the Delaware Court of Chancery's own website. Courts of equity have deep roots in medieval English law, from a time when the King authorized his Chancellors with the discretionary authority to hear petitions and redress citizens' grievances outside the limitations of a court of law. Courts of law and courts of equity became parallel systems which handled different types of suits, depending on the remedies being sought. By the mid-19th century, both the English and American legal systems began to abolish separate courts of equity, in favor of reforming the courts of law as a single point for civil actions. Some states, like Delaware, retained their separate chancery courts for specific types of actions.

More information about Delaware's Court of Chancery, including its history, can be found in Wolfe & Pittenger, Corporate and Commercial Practice in the Delaware Court of Chancery, 2d ed. 2021 (online in Lexis). This extensive treatise discusses the history and practice before the Delaware Court of Chancery, with footnotes to relevant primary law. For more general information on chancery courts and the law of equity, check out some of these resources:

  • Principles of Remedies Law, 4th ed. 2022 (online in West Academic Study Aids Library): Includes a helpful overview to the development of courts of equity in chapter 2.
  • Law of Remedies: Damages, Equity, Restitution, 3d ed. 2018 (KF9010 .D6 2018 & online in West Academic Study Aids Library): This West Hornbook covers modern equitable remedies more generally, but includes some discussion of the history of chancery courts in chapter 2.
  • Equity and Law: Fusion and Fission, eds. Goldberg, Smith, and Turner, 2019 (Christie Collection K247 .E64 2019 & online): chapters explore various aspects of the history of equitable remedies in the US and UK.

Finally, if you wish to follow along with the Twitter litigation, the Delaware Chancery Court’s e-filing system requires registration to access filings on its website. However, current members of the Duke Law community can access the materials from Twitter v. Musk, Docket No. 2022-0613, via Bloomberg Law's docket search or Lexis CourtLink. Be warned that while Delaware's modern Court of Chancery may have little in common with Dickens's version, the volume of docket entries – more than 1,500 since July – gives the notoriously long Bleak House some stiff competition. (Fortunately, 21st-century researchers can use the "search within" features to speed up their reading.)

For help with accessing any of these resources, be sure to Ask a Librarian.