Interpretation of Consent Decrees and Microsoft v. United States I: Making Law in the Shadow of Negotiation

Lloyd C. Anderson



People negotiate agreements "in the shadow of the law," whether in the private ordering of affairs such as drafting contracts or in the public forum of settling lawsuits.[1] A reverse phenomenon, however, has gone largely unnoticed: judges occasionally declare law in the shadow of negotiated settlements. In interpreting the terms of a consent decree[2] when the parties themselves cannot agree on what obligations such terms impose, the judge may determine that both the words and the parties' own intentions are so ambiguous that the words must be interpreted in light of the substantive law that gave rise to the plaintiffs' claim. This writer has previously contended that the meaning of an ambiguous term should be determined, in part, "by reference to the constitutional or statutory rights sought to be vindicated in the litigation." Even if the law is somewhat uncertain, part of the judge's interpretive effort should be to determine which interpretation "will best serve the policies of the relevant law."[3] It appears that the federal courts, at least, have adopted this position.[4]

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