In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defined “equity” as the pro­cess that intervenes when law fails because of its generality. Equity is largely assumed to be the province of courts and framed primarily as the domain of judges: Should the court apply a general law when its appli­cation results in unforeseen or unfortunate consequences? But equity operates outside the courts also. Within legislatures and administrative agencies, equity operates to make general laws more specific, create excep­tions, and pass narrowing amendments or regulations. In fact, the lion’s share of equitable work has been done outside the courts for much of this nation’s history. This Article draws on these histories to expand the field within which equity is identified to include legislatures and agencies. By contrast to the court-centered functional account of “equity,” equity out­side the courts is a dynamic and discursive practice—not simply a pro­cess—that members of the public engage in as they lobby or petition for exceptions or amendments to general laws—either new or previously pro­posed or passed. Because these institutions aim to be “representative,” equity within legislatures and agencies has fulfilled a representative func­tion and has allowed marginalized and subordinated groups to shape law and shift power. Yet, seeking equity often pushes laws toward speci­ficity and away from the ideal of generality identified by Lon Fuller and others—thereby raising rule of law concerns. A less court-centered account of equity teaches that the generality principle might overlook equity’s representational function—integral when making law to govern plural jurisdictions.

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The first desideratum of a system for subjecting human conduct to the gov­ernance of rules is an obvious one: there must be rules. This may be stated as the requirement of generality.

— Lon Fuller, The Morality of Law (1964 ad). 1 Lon L. Fuller, The Morality of Law 46 (1964) [hereinafter Fuller, Morality of Law].

When therefore the law lays down a general rule, and thereafter a case arises which is an exception to the rule, it is then right, where the lawgiver’s pronounce­ment because of its absoluteness is defective and erroneous, to rectify the defect . . . . This is the essential nature of the equitable: it is a rectification of law where law is defective because of its generality.

— Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (4th century bc). 2 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics bk. V, at 315, 317 (T.E. Page, E. Capps & W.H.D. Rouse eds., H. Rackham trans., Harv. Univ. Press 2d ed. 1934) (4th century bc).

In 1963, the year of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the year the South erupted in violent white backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, 3 See Lawrence Glickman, How White Backlash Controls American Progress, Atlantic (May 21, 2020), https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/white-backlash-nothing-new/611914 [https://perma.cc/3CDE-K9N3]. Lon Fuller delivered the William L. Storrs Lectures at Yale Law School. 4 Fuller, Morality of Law, supra note 1, at v. He titled his lectures the Morality of Law and in them took issue with what he saw as the core failing of the legal realist movement—that is, the separation of law and morality. 5 See L. L. Fuller, American Legal Realism, 82 U. Pa. L. Rev. 429, 461–62 (1934) (“[T]he cleft between Is and Ought causes acute distress to the realist.”). As the centerpiece of his lec­tures, Fuller offered eight principles that, if followed, promised law would be less likely to perpetrate the worst of injustices: generality, publicity, pro­spectivity, clarity, consistency, reasonableness, durability, and congruence with state action. 6 Fuller, Morality of Law, supra note 1, at 38–39. Fuller took his first principle for granted, offering in support only that “the requirement of generality rests on the truism that to subject human conduct to the control of rules, there must be rules.” 7 Id. at 49. The generality requirement needed no support because generality formed the heart of the very definition of law. 8 Id. To be law, law must be general.

A specific law, to Fuller, was at risk of being declared not law at all. He offered two examples in his lectures: administrative agencies and “private bills” or “special legislation.” 9 Id. at 46–47 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Special, Local or Private Laws, in Index of State Constitutions 938, 938 (Richard A. Edwards ed., 2d ed. 1959)). He declared the former a failure in making law: “In recent history perhaps the most notable failure to achieve general rules has been that of certain of our regulatory agencies . . . .” 10 Id. at 46. The latter presented a more complicated case. 11 What constitutes “special legislation” often defies easy definition—as this Article demonstrates in greater detail in Part I. The paradigmatic example of “special legislation” is a private bill—or a law that is crafted to apply to only a single person, a small group, or a single corporation. See Christopher M. Davis, Cong. Rsch. Serv., R45287, Private Bills: Procedure in the House 1 (2019). A “private bill” is a formal designation. Legislatures, Congress among them, are able to pass “private bills” in addition to “public bills”—the for­mer become “private laws” following bicameralism and presentment. See id. Private bills did not violate the desideratum of generality because they treated similarly situated people differently; rather, they violated the generality requirement simply by not being general and, therefore, not establishing law at all. 12 See Fuller, Morality of Law, supra note 1, at 47 (distinguishing principles of fair­ness, which “belong[] to the external morality of the law,” from “the demand of the law’s internal morality that, at the very minimum, there must be rules of some kind, however fair or unfair they may be”).

Yet the complexity of “private bills” and the movement to prohibit them continued to haunt Fuller. When fashioning the published manu­script of his lectures in The Morality of Law, he appended a footnote that explored the complexity of private bills in greater depth. 13 Id. at 47 n.4. In this footnote, Fuller cited to the Index of State Constitutions, which documented  the  ubiquity  of  prohibitions  against  specific  legislation  at  the  state level. 14 Id. (citing Special, Local or Private Laws, in Index of State Constitutions 938, 939 (Richard A. Edwards ed., 2d ed. 1959)). Yet, rather than embracing these prohibitions as reinforcing the generality requirement, Fuller puzzled over them. These prohibitions, he observed, had “produced much difficulty for courts and legislatures.” 15 Id. To illustrate the difficulty, Fuller described one of the “apparently disingenuous” devices used by legislatures to circumvent the prohibition—that of passing a general rule that applied conditionally “to all cities in the state which according to the last census had a population of more than 165,000 and less than 166,000.” 16 Id. While “apparently disingenuous,” Fuller was quick to defend the circumvention: “Before condemning this apparent evasion we should recall that the one-member class or set is a familiar and essential concept of logic and set theory.” 17 Id. Specific laws, according to Fuller, could be used to abuse power—in the context of criminal law, in particular—but they were also necessary when regulating a diverse world. 18 See id. (citing the California Constitution of 1952, art. VI, § 25, which prohibits special criminal laws that modify state courts’ granting of divorces). It was the recognition of American pluralism and the need to accommodate it in the lawmaking process that brought Fuller in line with Aristotle: Law must aspire to generality. But specificity must intervene when law fails because of that generality, and general law is destined to fail in a plural society. Plural societies, as Lon Fuller observed, are teeming with “one-member class[es].” 19 Id.

Fuller defined his puzzle in terms of generality and specificity. But the dynamic he identified is better understood as what Aristotle defined as “equity”—that is, the process that pushes general laws toward specificity when those laws fail because of their generality. 20 See Aristotle, supra note 2, at 315, 317. It is this dynamic process, between general rules and equity, that this Article aims to identify and theorize. Notably, Fuller identified this puzzle by bringing to bear the empirical realities of lawmaking upon his abstract model. Initially, in delivering his lectures, Fuller dismissed private bills and administrative lawmaking out of hand. But by further reflecting on the reality of regulat­ing “one-member classes,” not only does Fuller begin to sketch a nascent model of the tensions inherent in equity, he begins to identify the central­ity of administrative rulemaking and private bills to equity outside the courts. In undertaking his ad hoc empiricism, Fuller inadvertently joined Pierre Bourdieu’s campaign to develop a “rigorous science of the law” that draws upon empiricism in order to better understand the fundamental nature of law and legal systems. 21 Pierre Bourdieu, The Force of Law: Toward a Sociology of the Juridical Field, 38 Hastings L.J. 814, 814–16 (1986) [hereinafter Bourdieu, Force of Law] (stressing the significance of studying the “social practices of the law,” the internal logic of which is governed by both “specific power relations” and “the internal logic of juridical functioning”). Bourdieu contrasted his “science of the law” against the discipline of “jurisprudence”—a discipline subscribed to by Fuller and, according to Pierre Bourdieu, a field unable to ever wholly bridge the seeming contradiction  that  law  is  simultaneously  fixed,  yet  also  malleable  by  society  over time. 22 See id. at 815–16. Because Fuller did not explore in depth those empirical realities, his principle of generality remains incomplete.

Aristotle suggests that equity is predominantly the province of judges and lawmakers. 23 See Aristotle, supra note 2, at 315, 317. He, as well as Fuller, paid far less attention to the role of the one-member classes in shaping the characteristics of law and in defin­ing equity. A more empirically grounded study of the history of American lawmaking, especially into the realities of legislatures within the United States, reveals a more complex model of lawmaking and equity than the simple, top-down model proffered by Fuller and others. Now primarily seen as an interpretive problem for courts to muddle through as they apply general law to a specific set of facts, 24 See, e.g., William N. Eskridge, Jr., Nino’s Nightmare: Legal Process Theory as a Jurisprudence of Toggling Between Facts and Norms, 57 St. Louis L.J. 865, 906 (2013) (“[L]egal officials engage in a hermeneutical enterprise that entails retrieving past deci­sions, evaluating them in light of current circumstances and the facts of the case, and figuring out the best way to go forward within the confines of legal conventions.”); John F. Manning, The New Purposivism, 2011 Sup. Ct. Rev. 113, 181–82 (arguing that the Supreme Court has adopted a “new purposivist” approach to statutory interpretation that “respect[s] the level of generality at which Congress speaks”). the question of what to do when law fails because of its generality used to be the province of legislatures—that is, something for the legislative process to solve. If a general law would cause unfortunate or unforeseen consequences, the aggrieved could file a petition in their state legislature or Congress seeking an exception or amendment. 25 See infra Part II. Given the evolution of our lawmaking institutions, today this work is largely done by the courts and administrative state. 26 Maggie McKinley, Petitioning and the Making of the Administrative State, 127 Yale L.J. 1538, 1579–600 (2018) [hereinafter McKinley, Petitioning] (documenting “the siphon­ing of petition volume from the congressional petition process and into the modern state—revealing the roots of the modern state in the petition process”). Belying this history, modern models and theories of equity focus almost entirely on the role of courts—for example, in discussing the fusion of law and equity, 27 See, e.g., Samuel Bray, Form and Substance in the Fusion of Law and Equity, in Philosophical Foundations of the Law of Equity 231, 233 (Dennis Klimchuk, Irit Samet & Henry E. Smith eds., 2019) (providing a historical account of the fusion of law and equity that focuses predominantly on courts); P.G. Turner, Fusion and Theories of Equity in Common Law Systems, in Equity and Law: Fusion and Fission 1, 1–3 (John C.P. Goldberg, Henry E. Smith & P.G. Turner eds., 2019) (compiling an edited volume on the fusion and fission of law and equity that focuses predominantly on courts). the role of equitable remedies, 28 While works in the equity literature have focused on different topics within the scope of judicial remedies, none have addressed equitable remedies outside the courts. See, e.g., Samuel L. Bray, Multiple Chancellors: Reforming the National Injunction, 131 Harv. L. Rev. 417, 418–19 (2017) (nationwide injunctions by federal district courts); Samuel L. Bray, The Supreme Court and the New Equity, 68 Vand. L. Rev. 997, 999–1001 (2015) (Supreme Court jurisprudence); Samuel L. Bray, The System of Equitable Remedies, 63 UCLA L. Rev. 530, 532–36 (2016) [hereinafter Bray, Equitable Remedies] (judicial reme­dies more broadly); Daniel J. Bussel, Doing Equity in Bankruptcy, 34 Emory Bankr. Dev. J. 13, 14–15 (2017) (federal bankruptcy courts); Layne S. Keele, Enhanced Ongoing Royalties: The Inequitable Equitable Remedy, 119 W. Va. L. Rev. 469, 470–71 (2016) (court-awarded royalties); Caprice L. Roberts, Remedies, Equity & Erie, 52 Akron L. Rev. 493, 494–95 (2018) (judicial remedies more broadly); Zayn Siddique, Nationwide Injunctions, 117 Colum. L. Rev. 2095, 2100–01 (2017) (nationwide injunctions in the public and private law contexts). and statutory interpretation’s ongoing battle between textualism and purposivism 29 Compare John F. Manning, Textualism and the Equity of the Statute, 101 Colum. L. Rev. 1, 8–9, 35–36 (2001) [hereinafter Manning, Textualism] (concluding that the English common law doctrine of “equity of the statute,” which was a method of statutory interpretation that rectified specific unforeseen harms of general laws, does not accord with American constitutional structure and “never gained a secure foothold in the federal courts”), with William N. Eskridge, Jr., All About Words: Early Understandings of the “Judicial Power” in Statutory Interpretation, 1776–1806, 101 Colum. L. Rev. 990, 995–98 (2001) [hereinafter Eskridge, All About Words] (refining understanding of the “equity of the statute” doctrine and analyzing the Marshall Court’s transition from equity-based doc­trines “toward sophisticated analysis of statutory provisions as part of a coherent body of law”). —with some scat­tered mention of the equitable work done by administrative agencies. 30 See Alfred C. Aman, Jr., Administrative Equity: An Analysis of Exceptions to Administrative Rules, 1982 Duke L.J. 277, 280 (“Administrative equity serves as a bridge between collectively determined rules and the reality of the particular case. It refers to the substantive principles and norms that may justify individual exceptions to rules of general applicability.”); Henry E. Smith, Equity and Administrative Behaviour, in Equity and Administration 326, 328–29 (P.G. Turner ed., 2016) [hereinafter Smith, Administrative Behaviour] (arguing that equity has played an important role in administrative law as a counter to the opportunism of regulated entities); Henry E. Smith, Property, Equity, and the Rule of Law, in Private Law and the Rule of Law 224, 236 (Lisa M. Austin & Dennis Klimchuk eds., 2014) [hereinafter Smith, Property] (referring to the history of administra­tive law as “the new equity”). But these models overlook the important—and distinctive—equitable work done within legislatures throughout American history.

This Article offers equity outside the courts as a dynamic and discur­sive process and one that has long been integral to American lawmaking. Historically, equity within legislatures was a bot­tom-up process, driven largely by Fuller’s one-member classes. Individuals and minorities insisted on their right to be heard by lawmakers, brought their own moral judg­ments to bear on the unfortunate and unforeseen consequences of gen­eral laws, and petitioned their legislatures for excep­tions and amendments to those earlier codified general laws. Fuller argued that generality kept law and morality conjoined. 31 Using the example of an employer setting rules for his employee, Fuller describes how the inner morality of general laws limits the employer’s conduct as well. See Fuller, Morality of Law, supra note 1, at 47–48 (“If in distributing praise and censure, [the employer] habitually disregards his own rules, he may find his system of law disintegrating, and without any open revolt, it may cease to produce for him what he sought to obtain through it.”). But the opposite may also prove true. Specific laws are often a result of empowered individuals and minorities practicing equity—that is, insisting that lawmakers take note of varied cir­cumstances and varied visions of justice while reforming general laws through exceptions and amendments. Rather than accepting Fuller’s proposition that generality is the primary principle holding together law and morality, this Article argues that specific law can some­times be the result of previously dominated groups successfully wielding power to shape law and legal institutions. Thus, law more likely embodies justice when law­making institutions strike the proper balance of generality and specificity.

Given the centrality of equity to the legislative process, this Article also fashions two historical case studies to better understand the dynamics of equity empirically. These case studies bring together, for the first time, two distinct historiographies to study the process of equity as it operated within national and subnational legislatures, articulate the dynamics of this distinctive form of equity, and build a more nuanced and accurate model of equity as it has operated within the United States. One historical strain documents the state-level revolt against private bills and local lawmaking in the early to mid-nineteenth century cited by Fuller, 32 See infra section II.B.1. and the other charts the celebration of private bills and the petition process generally at the national level well into the twentieth century. 33 See infra section II.B.2. These two distinctive and conflicting responses to equity outside of the courts offer interesting lessons for equity more broadly.

A deeper appreciation of these histories—national, state, and local—has much to offer our understanding of law and equity. In particular, they teach that equity is not simply a dynamic borne into courts from the structure of law and the necessity of interpretation 34 See, e.g., Antonin Scalia, The Rule of Law as a Law of Rules, 56 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1175, 1176–77 (1989) (citing to Aristotle’s definition of equity and exploring deviations from the “general rule of law” as solely the province of courts). but also that practices of seeking equity in the United States originated outside the courts and largely remained within legislatures for the first five decades following this country’s birth. Moreover, equity outside the courts often takes on a more dis­cursive and bottom-up form than does our traditional court-focused model of equity as it is driven largely by public advocacy and engagement.

These sharply diverging histories also illustrate the inadvertent consequences that arise when practices of seeking equity are foreclosed within legislatures—here, through the mandating of general laws and the prohi­bition of private bills. Foreclosing practices of seeking equity within legislatures—which may have offered a more level playing field for dominated groups—often disadvantages the most politically vulnerable in a popula­tion and forces them to seek equitable redress elsewhere. These other fields may have greater barriers to entry than legislatures, including the requirement of professional expertise or other forms of social capital. The first case study documents a state-level movement against equity by state and local lawmakers in the mid-nineteenth century aimed at ending gov­ernment capture and “democratizing” the lawmaking process—particularly, by opening access to corporate charters. 35 See infra section II.B.1. The state-level movement accomplished these aims by forcing state legislatures toward general laws. 36 See infra notes 239–244 and accompanying text. A byproduct of this forced generality was the closure of equitable channels into legislatures—a particular disadvantage for individuals and minorities who could not wield electoral power because they either were unenfran­chised or could never command majority rule. 37 See Laura F. Edwards, James and His Striped Velvet Pantaloons: Textiles, Commerce, and the Law in the New Republic, 107 J. Am. Hist. 336, 337–38 (2020) (discuss­ing that “people of marginal status,” despite being unenfranchised and without “the full array of rights,” were able to use their ownership of textiles to affirm recognition of certain property rights outside the legislature). But this case study also illustrates the persistent and hydraulic nature of equity: Many of these individuals and minorities continued to seek equitable redress through administrative processes and the courts. The second case study documents equity outside the courts at the federal level where, by contrast, equitable practices continued in earnest within Congress well into the twentieth cen­tury—potentially a result of federal law regulating an even broader and more diverse national landscape, foreclosing the possibility of a blanket prohibition against specific lawmaking. 38 See infra section II.B.2. Although members of Congress referred to the institution as “a court of equity” well into the late nine­teenth century, Congress quickly became overwhelmed by the workload required to satisfy demands for equity by the public; it began to siphon equitable practices into innovative forms of commissions, boards, and agencies—an apparatus to which we now refer as the administrative state—and into the federal courts. 39 McKinley, Petitioning, supra note 26, at 1601–03. Both histories chart the path of equity over time, from a practice predominantly focused on legislatures to one that focused on the courts and administrative agencies. These histories reveal the fundamental connection between the two areas of lawmaking puzzled over by Fuller during his lectures—administrative lawmaking and private bills—and the integral role each played in fostering equity. In revealing these connections, these histories teach that prevailing theories about the rule of law might be too simplistic in prioritizing generality and could overlook the complicated but integral role of equity—especially when making law to govern large, heterogeneous, and plural jurisdictions.

Modern lawmaking institutions maintain, like Fuller does, a blind fidelity to generality as ideal within the lawmaking process. These institutions struggle to strike the proper balance between maintaining the ideal of generality and allowing equity to work specificity into law. Understand­ing equity as a process that originated within American legislatures offers lessons for better resolving these struggles. First, they show how current approaches to generality and specificity—that is, unquestioned praise for general laws and suspicion of specific laws—may be misguided. 40 See infra Part III. The ideal of generality may be a historically contingent solution to particular crises of governance and not a principle that promises that laws remain just. Specific law might fulfill an equally important role in the lawmaking process and could result from dominated groups engaging in practices of seeking equity and successfully shifting existing power relationships. Second, this Article recommends that legislatures address concerns over corruption and special interest capture head-on, rather than assuming that specific laws are somehow intrinsically flawed, wholly unnecessary, or even readily identifiable. 41 See infra section IV.A. Finally, these histories reveal the hydraulics of equity—that is, to the extent that one institution is closed to practices of equity, the public will force equity elsewhere. As a consequence, this means that mandating general laws could result in the courts and the administra­tive state playing a greater role in the lawmaking process through equita­ble interpretation and administrative lawmaking. 42 See infra sections IV.B–.C. Similarly, prohibiting equitable interpretation by courts and mandating textualism will press legislatures and administrative agencies away from a principle of generality and toward more specific lawmaking. Identifying this hydraulic process could provide important lessons for modern advocates for general laws, textual interpretation, and the abolition of administrative lawmaking: These positions are, in essence, aiming to ban equity from our lawmaking process entirely. Not only might banning equity from our lawmaking process be unwise, it may also be antithetical to the way that American lawmaking has always functioned, with law and equity in constant conversation.

This Article proceeds in four parts. Part I introduces the concept of equity within legislatures and articulates it as a concept beyond the meaning ascribed to it historically: legislatures overriding court judgments in the name of equity. Part I next addresses generality and specificity in law­making with a review of the theoretical literature to date and then explores the implications for theorization of generality and specificity of legislative equity. Part II describes case studies that present the two strains of historiography that have developed around the “private bill system” and local lawmakers at the subnational level and the “petition process” at the national level. Part III surveys modern struggles within courts, legislatures, and administrative agencies to address rule of law concerns raised by specificity. Part IV explores the historical case studies to better theorize equity outside the courts and offer lessons to better resolve modern struggles over generality and specificity, before concluding.