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Jacobins at Justice: The (Failed) Class Action Revolution of 1978 and the Puzzle of American Procedural Political Economy

34 Pages Posted: 23 Jun 2017 Last revised: 26 Nov 2017

David Freeman Engstrom

Stanford Law School

Date Written: June 22, 2017

Abstract

In 1978, top DOJ officials in the Carter Administration floated a revolutionary proposal that would have remade the consumer class action and, with it, the relationship of litigation and administration within the American regulatory state. At the proposal’s core was a “public action” for widespread small-damages claims that would have replaced Rule 23 with a hybrid public-private enforcement model. Similar to the False Claims Act, this new mechanism would have granted private plaintiffs the power to bring lawsuits and recover a finder’s fee if successful, but it also gave DOJ substantial screening authority and control, including the ability to take over suits or dismiss them outright. Despite months of shuttle diplomacy among interest groups, a pair of bills in Congress, and full-scale committee hearings, this creative blend of private initiative and public oversight soon fizzled. Yet the story of the proposal’s rise and fall nonetheless provides a venue for wider reflection about American civil procedure and the political economy that produces it. Indeed, the failed revolution of 1978 reveals a contingent moment when the American litigation system was splintering into the pluralistic, chaotic one we now take for granted, including hard-charging state attorneys general, a federal administrative state with litigation authority independent of DOJ, and a sophisticated and politically potent plaintiffs’ bar. In retrospect, the proposal may have been the last best chance to counter the centrifugal tendencies of an American state that was progressively empowering ever more institutional actors within the litigation system. More importantly, lurking in the background of the story of 1978 is the bracing possibility that the Rules Enabling Act, for all its virtues in revising technocratic procedural rules, has systematically enervated efforts to address larger procedural design questions in an increasingly dense and interconnected regulatory world.

Keywords: class action, legal history, civil procedure

Suggested Citation

Engstrom, David Freeman, Jacobins at Justice: The (Failed) Class Action Revolution of 1978 and the Puzzle of American Procedural Political Economy (June 22, 2017). 165 University of Pennsylvania Law Review 1531 (2017); Stanford Public Law Working Paper. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2991382

David Engstrom (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States

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