class actions, damages, restitution, parens patriae, attorneys general, state suits
State attorneys general represent their citizens in aggregate litigation that bears a striking resemblance to the much-maligned damages class action. Yet, while class actions are subject to a raft of procedural rules designed to protect absent class members, equivalent suits in the public sphere are largely free from constraint. The procedural disconnect between the two categories of aggregate litigation reflects a widespread assumption that attorneys general will adequately represent the interests of the state’s citizens, obviating any need for case-specific mechanisms for assuring the loyalty of lawyer to client.
This Article challenges the presumption of adequate public representation. By conflating consent of the governed with consent of the client, the conventional wisdom ignores the important differences between political and adjudicative representation. Class-action scholars have produced mountains of commentary detailing the agency costs of aggregate litigation, including substantial conflicts between the interests of class counsel and the members of the plaintiff class. The author shows that the same risks are present in state suits. Attorneys general may not be driven by the pursuit of attorney’s fees, but their status as political representatives means that they must negotiate between the interests of the public at large and those of the individuals they purport to represent in an adjudicative capacity. The potential for conflicted representation would not be troubling if citizens could easily monitor and control the work of the attorney general, but, as in the class context, they cannot. If anything, the costs of monitoring and control are higher in the public sphere because the only way to “fire” the attorney general is to vote her out of office—hardly a viable solution when the attorney general’s political responsiveness is the source of the conflict. Thus, far from solving the problems that scholars have emphasized in the class-action context, the fact that the attorney general is an elected or appointed official should provide cause for heightened concern. That concern assumes a constitutional character when state litigation stands as a bar to subsequent private claims for damages or other monetary relief. In order to protect the due-process rights of the individuals whose interests are at stake in public aggregate litigation, courts must either ramp up the procedural requirements for state suits, or—better—hold that public suits cannot bind private claimants.
Margaret H. Lemos, Aggregate Litigation Goes Public: Representative Suits by State Attorneys General, 126 Harvard Law Review 486-549 (2012)