Who Gets to Control Civil Rights Case Management? An Essay on Purposive Organizations and Litigation Agenda-Building

39 Pages Posted: 2 Dec 2015

Date Written: November 30, 2015


If all politics is local, then litigation is surely so, especially in high-stake United States Supreme Court litigation and drilling deeply, civil rights cases. Almost by definition, given how hard it is to bring a case before the Court, all Supreme Court cases are important, but if the cultural wars are waged in the polity, Appomattox is the Supreme Court. In this Essay, I trace several arcs bending towards this tribunal, particularly the rise of purposive civil rights organizations, defined as national focused groups that undertake litigation and legal reform for a given civil rights project, the leading example being the ACLU or the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Using the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) as a focused case study, I discuss the development and maintenance of litigation/legislative agendas, major litigation issues that arise — with substantive, tactical, and procedural valences — and other features of becoming authoritative repeat players on given and identifiable themes. While focusing on MALDEF’s organizational saga and political economy, I also discuss developing examples such as those in emerging areas of same-sex litigation and similar issues where national players are vying for control of important laws, policies, and cases. In particular, I analyze the discursive narratives that are essential to messaging and control of themes in the broader polity and examine the unique and high-stakes issues of a purposive United States Supreme Court practice and how organizational DNA and resources affect litigation strategies. Virtually all the moving parts of this balancing act have spawned volumes and will continue to do so. It is an introductory exploration, and my conclusions are less-conclusory than they are suggestive.

Keywords: civil rights, voting rights, education, immigration, SCOTUS litigation

Suggested Citation

Olivas, Michael A., Who Gets to Control Civil Rights Case Management? An Essay on Purposive Organizations and Litigation Agenda-Building (November 30, 2015). 2015 Mich. St. L. Rev. __ (Forthcoming), U of Houston Law Center No. 2015-A-23, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2697296

Michael A. Olivas (Contact Author)

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

4604 Calhoun Road
Houston, TX 77204-6060
United States
713-743-2078 (Phone)
713-743-2085 (Fax)

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