Monday, November 7, 2011

Is Delaware’s Court Arbitration System for Business Disputes Unconstitutional?

Delaware, the state with laws designed for businesses, has a statute authorizing the Delaware Chancery Court judges – sitting Court judges – to conduct confidential arbitrations of business disputes.

The law, Arbitration Proceedings for Business Disputes provides that the “Court of Chancery shall have the power to arbitrate business disputes when the parties request a member of the Court of Chancery, or such other person as may be authorized under rules of the Court, to arbitrate a dispute.” (77 Del. Laws, c. 8 §1).

The Delaware Supreme Court has adopted rules governing the arbitration program. The rules provide that arbitrators are sitting Court judges or masters. Further, and the subject of controversy and now litigation, the Rules provide that all proceedings of the arbitration are confidential unless the proceedings are appealed.

There are at least two things wrong with this picture. First, why are these Court proceedings (even if labeled arbitration) confidential? Is this not private law? And second, why is an arbitration award appealable? Is this not evidence that the so-called arbitration proceeding is simply litigation in the Chancery Court – before Chancery Court judges and using the Court’s case management system by another name – to allow parties to cloak their dispute with the one of the benefits of private arbitration – confidentiality?

Recently the Delaware Coalition for Open Government as sued the five judges on the Delaware Chancery Court for operating a private arbitration system. The only difference between civil litigation - which is public - and the arbitration is that the "procedures and rulings occur behind closed doors instead of in open court," according to the complaint filed in Delaware's federal district court. The Coalition argues that the arbitration proceedings violate the right of access to judicial proceedings and records in civil and criminal cases guaranteed by 1st Amendment to the Constitution as applied to the states in the 14th Amendment.

The case is Delaware Coalition for Open Government Inc v The Honorable Leo E Strine Jr et al, U.S. District Court, District of Delaware, No. 11-1015.

This case is more fully discussed in the always interesting ADR Prof Blog by Professor Art Hinshaw. Professor Hindshaw points out that many courts manage arbitration programs; most typically occur in open court without confidentiality protection and the loser can appeal or ask the trial court for a trial de-novo.

"If the parties really want to go to arbitration, why not go to the private market?"

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