Discovery as Regulation

79 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2020

Date Written: September 1, 2019


This article develops an approach to discovery that is grounded in regulatory theory and administrative subpoena power. The conventional judicial and scholarly view about discovery is that it promotes fair and accurate outcomes and nudges the parties towards settlement. While commonly held, however, this belief is increasingly outdated and suffers from limitations. Among them, it has generated endless controversy about the problem of discovery costs. Indeed, a growing chorus of scholars and courts have offered an avalanche of reforms, from cost shifting and bespoke discovery contracts to outright elimination. Recently, Judge Thomas Hardiman quipped that if he had absolute power he would abolish discovery for cases involving less than $500,000. These debates, however, are at a standstill and existing scholarship offers incomplete treatment of discovery theory that might move debates forward.

The core insight of the project is that in the private enforcement context — where Congress deliberately employs private litigants as the main method of statutory enforcement — there is a surprisingly strong case that our current discovery system should be understood in part as serving regulatory goals analogous to administrative subpoena power. That is, discovery here can be seen as an extension of the subpoena power that agencies like the SEC, FTC, and EPA possess and is the lynchpin of a system that depends on private litigants to enforce our most important statutes. By forcing parties to disclose large amounts of information, discovery deters harm and, most importantly, shapes industry-wide practices and the primary behavior of regulated entities. This approach has a vast array of implications for the scope of discovery as well as the debate over costs. Scholars and courts should thus grapple with the consequences of what I call “regulatory discovery” for the entire legal system.

Keywords: discovery, private enforcement, complex litigation, civil procedure, federal courts, regulation, administrative subpoena, subpoena

JEL Classification: K

Suggested Citation

Zambrano, Diego, Discovery as Regulation (September 1, 2019). Michigan Law Review, Vol. 118, 2020, Available at SSRN:

Diego Zambrano (Contact Author)

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States

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