State Public-Law Litigation in an Age of Polarization
68 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2018
Date Written: March 8, 2018
Public-law litigation by state governments plays an increasingly prominent role in American governance. Although public lawsuits by state governments designed to challenge the validity or shape the content of national policy are not new, such suits have increased in number and salience over the last few decades — especially since the tobacco litigation of the late 1990s. Under the Obama and Trump Administrations, such suits have taken on a particularly partisan cast; “red” states have challenged the Affordable Care Act and President Obama’s immigration orders, for example, and “blue” states have challenged President Trump’s travel bans and attempts to roll back prior environmental policies. As a result, longstanding concerns about state litigation as a form of national policymaking that circumvents ordinary lawmaking processes have been joined by new concerns that state litigation reflects and aggravates partisan polarization.
This Article explores the relationship between state litigation and the polarization of American politics. As we explain, our federal system can mitigate the effects of partisan polarization by taking some divisive issues off the national agenda, leaving them to be solved in state jurisdictions where consensus may be more attainable — both because polarization appears to be dampened at the state level, and because political preferences are unevenly distributed geographically. State litigation can both help and hinder this dynamic. The available evidence suggests that state attorneys general (who handle the lion’s share of state litigation) are themselves fairly polarized, as are certain categories of state litigation. We map out the different ways states can use litigation to shape national policy, linking each to concerns about polarization. We thus distinguish between “vertical” conflicts, in which states sue to preserve their autonomy to go their own way on divisive issues, and “horizontal” conflicts, in which different groups of states vie for control of national policy. The latter, we think, will tend to aggravate polarization. But we concede — and illustrate — that it will often be difficult to separate out the vertical and horizontal aspects of particular disputes, and that in some horizontal disputes the polarization costs of state litigation may be worth paying.
We argue, moreover, that state litigation cannot be understood in a vacuum, but must be assessed as part of a broader phenomenon in American law: our reliance on entrepreneurial litigation to develop and enforce public norms. In this context, state attorneys general often play roles similar to “private attorneys general” such as class action lawyers or public interest organizations. And states, with their built-in systems of democratic accountability and internal checks and balances, compare well with other entrepreneurial enforcement vehicles in a number of respects. Nevertheless, state litigation efforts may not always account well for divergent preferences and interests within the broad publics that the states represent, and this deficiency becomes particularly important in politically polarized times. Although our account of state litigation is, on the whole, a positive one, we caution that state attorneys general face a significant risk of backlash by other political actors, and by courts, if state litigation is (or is perceived to be) a bitterly partisan affair.
Keywords: federalism, state attorneys general, public law litigation
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