Monday’s high court decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes has predictably drawn a strong reaction from legal academia, much of it critical of the Court. Of particular interest are the comments of Richard Primus (Michigan) at the New York Times’s “Room for Debate” and Alexandra Lahav (Connecticut) at Mass Tort Litigation Blog. According to Primus and Lahav, the decision is the latest sign that the current Supreme Court leans toward a principle of “individualism” in applying the rules of civil litigation. Lahav in particular appears to view this as a shame, since “a more collectivist view” would carry with it more “potential for social reform.”
What does a term like “individualism” mean in the context of litigation procedure? One of its implications is that legal rights to redress on the one hand, and legal responsibility or culpability on the other, are ordinarily things that appertain to individual litigants, and ought not (absent clear authorization by statute or Constitution) be submerged into group claims on the one hand or group guilt on the other. In particular, we should be wary of proposals to deprive litigants of the choice to obtain individualized consideration of their claims or defenses on the grounds that society can accomplish more if it processes litigation in batches while accepting, say, statistical as distinct from personalized proofs.
Lahav and other scholars such as Samuel Issacharoff offer as examples numerous cases in which the Court has insisted on individualized process, often thereby frustrating the advocates of social reform in one or another area. The Court’s scruples on this matter have run into much adverse comment in the academic literature, and that’s hardly a surprise; as I argue in my book Schools for Misrule, today’s legal academy is far more keen on things like group rights and social engineering (as some of us might call it) than is the wider society.
Let me offer a few observations in defense or at least explanation of the Court’s approach:
1) The individualist leaning is by no means confined to the “conservative” justices; all nine members of the current Court partake of it to varying extents, and it is one major reason why the Court’s liberal justices joined in to make the Wal-Mart decision unanimous on one of its most practically significant issues, relating to the handling of claims for back pay.
2) Like so many other aspects of the Court’s work, this one does not fit well into simplistic accounts from some quarters about the Court’s supposed “pro-business” stance. In many circumstances business defendants actually prefer some degree of collectivization of claims, because their main practical concern is to put an end to litigation, and group resolution can do that. In the Court’s landmark 1997 Amchem Products v. Windsor decision, six of eight voting justices (Breyer and Stevens dissenting in part) struck down a giant batch settlement of asbestos litigation that had been ardently pursued by many of the nation’s biggest businesses, as well as many plaintiff advocates, on the grounds that it improperly denied claimants their right to individualized justice.
3) If the question is one of faithfulness to the constitutional vision of law held by the Founders, there really isn’t much of a question: like other Anglo-Americans of Blackstone’s era those Founders saw the courts as dispensers of individualized justice if they were to be anything at all. Much else in American law has changed beyond recognition in the intervening two-plus centuries. Fortunately, as the result in Wal-Mart v. Dukes suggests, that hasn’t.
For more commentary on the Wal-Mart case, check out (e.g.) editorials at the Washington Post, New York Daily News and Omaha World Herald (favoring the court’s view), and the New York Times and USA Today (opposing), as well as my contributions in the Philadelphia Inquirer and at Overlawyered.