Darth Vader and the Contracts Clause

One of my few pedagogical innovations as a constitutional law professor is using Darth Vader’s “alteration” of his agreement with Lando Calrissian in the The Empire Strikes Back to illustrate the importance of the Contracts Clause, which forbids state laws that “impair the obligation of contracts.” A government that can renege on its contracts not only tramples the rights of the people, but ultimately harms itself, because many will become reluctant to work with it in the future.

Here is the dialogue from the relevant scenes. After the second scene, Lando turns against the Empire, which ultimately leads to its downfall. He helps Luke and Princess Leia escape Cloud City, thereby foiling Vader’s plan. Later, in The Return of the Jedi, it is Lando who leads the successful assault on the second Death Star. If the Imperial Constitution had had a judicially enforceable Contracts Clause, Lando could have vindicated his rights in court, and the rebellion would have been crushed:

Lando: Lord Vader, what about Leia and the Wookiee?

Darth Vader: They must never again leave this city.

Lando: [outraged] That was never a condition of our agreement, nor was giving Han [Solo] to this bounty hunter!

Darth Vader: Perhaps you think you’re being treated unfairly?

Lando: [after a pause; nervous tone] No.

Darth Vader: Good. You know it would be unfortunate if I had to leave a garrison here.

Lando: [to himself] This deal is getting worse all the time!


Darth Vader: Calrissian. Take the princess and the Wookie to my ship.

Lando: You said they’d be left at the city under my supervision!

Darth Vader: I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.

[emphasis added]

Interestingly, Goldwater Institute public interest lawyer Christina Sandefur informs me that she used the above quote from Vader in a recent brief in a Contracts Clause case.

Elsewhere, I have argued that much of the criticism of Emperor Palpatine’s management style is misplaced. But he and Vader blew it when it comes to the Contracts Clause.

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