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

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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 in the American regulatory state. At the proposal’s core was a “public action” for widespread small‐damages claims that sought to replace 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 on behalf of the United States and recover a finder’s fee if successful, but it also gave the DOJ substantial screening authority and control over such actions, 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 the 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. Just as important, 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.

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