The History of the Modern Class Action, Part II: Litigation and Legitimacy, 1981-1994
By David Marcus
The first era of the modern class action began in 1966, with revisions to Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. It ended in 1980. Significant turmoil roiled these years. Policymakers grappled with the powerful device as advocates argued over its purpose, and judges struggled to create rules for the novel litigation the remade Rule 23 generated.
This Article tells the story of the class action’s second era, which stretched from 1981 to 1994. At first blush, these were quiet years. Doctrine barely changed, and until the early 1990s, policymakers all but ignored the device.
Below this surface tranquility lurked important developments in what the class action, newly embroiled in fundamental debates over litigation and legitimacy, was understood to implicate. Critics castigated the civil rights class action as an emblem of the “imperial judiciary’s” rise and of courts’ inability to separate law from politics. To industries targeted by plaintiffs’ lawyers, the securities fraud class action exemplified the “litigation explosion” and challenged judicial competence to screen for meritorious lawsuits. The emergence of the mass tort class action as an alternative to legislative and administrative processes made a determination of litigation’s legitimate role particularly urgent.
These second-era episodes deepened partisan divides over the class action and prompted new claims about what sort of private litigation could legitimately proceed. The three episodes drew new and influential participants into fights over the class action, and they eventually reengaged policymakers with class action regulation. Such developments made an era of significant reform all but inevitable.