Public Law Litigation in Eighteenth Century America:  Diffuse Law Enforcement in a Partisan World

By James E. Pfander
November 1, 2023

For some time, the U.S. Supreme Court has used the standing doctrine to limit federal courts’ authority to entertain private suits aimed at enforcing public norms.  In its most recent iteration, TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez, the Court invalidated a federal consumer protection statute on the theory that it wrongly empowered suit by individuals who lacked the requisite injury in fact.  Shutting down private litigation was said to advance separation of powers values and to protect the enforcement discretion of a unitary executive branch.  The Court characterized private enforcement as a novel feature of the 1970s, a time the Court viewed with evident suspicion as one that inaugurated interest group litigation.

In truth, the tradition of interest group enforcement of public norms extends to the earliest days of the republic.  During the 1790s, Quakers and other antislavery activists secured federal legislation prohibiting American involvement in the international trade in enslaved people.  Like other legislation of that period, the 1794 statute empowered both the federal government and private informers to enforce the law.  The ensuing litigation, brought by private informers associated with such groups as the Providence Society for Abolishing the Slave-Trade, led to the forfeiture and sale of the offending vessels in the admiralty courts of Rhode Island and elsewhere.  Drawing on federal archives, this Essay recounts a history in which all three branches of the federal government—Congress, courts, and executive branch officials—viewed private litigation through what were called “popular” actions as an uncontroversial tool for enforcing public norms.  One finds no objections based on Articles II or III of the Constitution.