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Friday, April 01, 2016

Litigant Autonomy After Scalia--and Thanks!

           In two previous posts, I reviewed new GMU Law namesake Justice Scalia’s approach to litigant autonomy—or at least, what I think his writings and cases suggest about that approach. Briefly, Scalia seemed to think litigant claim-control rights are substantive entitlements conferred by the law that creates in personam-style rights of action. I also criticized this view.

            One response is, “who cares” whether or not claim-control entitlements are conferred by the law that creates rights of action. Due process requires affording litigants protection for their claim-control interests. So, even if claim control entitlements don't vest through the law that creates a right of action, protection for claim-control flows from basic due process guarantees.

            My interest in how we derive autonomy rights stems from the fact I’m pretty much convinced by Sergio Campos’s thin account of the protection that ought to be afforded litigant autonomy as a matter of due process. If you buy Sergio’s due process argument, as I tend to do, and are a skeptic about the claim that autonomy is a positively conferred substantive right, it means that there's more space for work theorizing why we protect litigant autonomy to the degree that we do.

            There’s already interesting work out there pursuing that project. I highly recommend Ryan Williams' piece on litigant autonomy, Due Process, Class Action Opt Outs, and the Right Not to Sue, available here. He makes an important move by reframing opt out as a protection afforded claim-owners’ interests in controlling whether to assert a claim in the first place.

            In this paper, I rotate our view of litigant autonomy in a slightly different direction. The power to control a claim is not just the power to control whether to assert it—but where to assert it. It’s the power to put legal issues and remedial interests on a court’s dispute resolution agenda.  

            In the article, I make two claims about agenda-setting power conferred by claim-control—the first, which I will quickly summarize below the line for those who might be interested, is that the shift opens the door to appreciating that litigant autonomy actually does some important work in our system of judicial federalism.

            Although federal-state jurisdictional concurrency is characterized in a number of different ways, I take the conventional view: concurrency uses judicial competition to break down or check concentration of the business of dispute resolution in the federal system.

            Concurrency does this in part through what might be called agenda-setting rules—rules that specify who gets to pick between competing forums. Subject to some exceptions, our system generally employs a plaintiffs-pick-the-forum rule, reflected in, say, the well-pleaded complaint rule and voluntary/involuntary rule in diversity jurisdiction. Together, both empower plaintiffs to control which courts, state or federal, get to decide their case by exploiting aspects of claim-control--their control the theory of the case and the party structure.

            Scholars puzzle over the plaintiff-picks-the-forum rule. Considered in isolation, it plausibly furthers the anti-concentration goal of concurrency-- largely because plaintiffs have historically tended, for a variety of reasons, to prefer state over federal court.

            But, the plaintiff-picks rule really gains its force as a check on federal consolidation when it is layered on top of the principle that individual plaintiffs control their own claims—or in other words, when plaintiff-picks is hitched to a regime of litigant autonomy.   Litigant autonomy decentralizes the power to set the judicial agenda among a network of claim owners. Because litigants, in turn, naturally tend to have different forum preferences, that decentralization tends to fragment litigation across federal and state forums.

            Not perfectly, of course. And not evenly. But it does so nonetheless. That’s, indeed, exactly what we see when we take the class device away, as we have, for the most part, in mass torts. The federal class action consolidates remedial interests in federal court in part because it overrides class members’ autonomy and with it their exploit the theory of the case and party structure to control where their claims end up. Take the class action away, give class members control over their own claims, and some chunks of mass litigation inevitably radiate out of federal courts reach into state court as litigants exploit their claim-control to park there claims there. True before CAFA. True after.

            This fact, I argue, points out the plausibility of treating the traditional claim-control entitlement as traditional component of the system of concurrency—one that furthers that system’s anti-concentration goals.

            That’s my first claim—litigant autonomy does some work in our system of judicial federalism. My second claim is that appreciating litigant autonomy’s role in the system of concurrency has some interesting formal implications for federal class action doctrine—one that allows us to draw on intertwined separation of powers and federalism principles to make a case for narrow constructions of Rule 23. (The argument also reinforces the claim made by others that the Court ought to be deferential to the rulemaking bureaucracy—treating it, effectively, as a stand-in for Congress or, put another way, as a system of internal separation of powers--a point I’m exploring in a current working paper).

            My argument, incidentally, echoes older, and lost, approach to litigant autonomy that appears in mid-century cases (see the oft-neglected concluding part of State Farm Fire & Casualty v. Tashire, where the Court construes statutory interpleader's application to mass torts narrowly in order to protect litigants’ “substantial right” to choose a state forum, for example). Rather than summarize this second claim, I’ll let you read the article yourself, if you are interested.

            Thanks to Howard and Prawfs for the invite to blog over the last month!

Posted by Mark Moller on April 1, 2016 at 01:48 PM in Article Spotlight, Civil Procedure | Permalink

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