Revisiting the Government as Plaintiff

Originally uploaded at SSRN.


This is a symposium essay dedicated to the late Richard Nagareda and written in response to Adam S. Zimmerman's piece, The Corrective Justice State.

As Professor Zimmerman recognizes, the debate over governments acting as plaintiffs and “regulating by deal” has shifted from initial questions over whether litigation produces the best public policy and whether executive officials are acting within the scope of their authority to how government actors should pursue and allocate settlements. Yet, as this first wave of controversy suggests, the slate upon which executive officials currently write is neither clean nor uncontroversial. Instead, this new debate is playing out in an unsettled landscape where those first-order questions about legitimacy remain unresolved.

When layered atop the existing controversy over the intermingling of government functions, executive officials’ relatively new allocative role may put their actions even further at odds with their traditional regulatory and proprietary functions, particularly when the action yielding the compensation is a public substitute for a private right of action. What principles should guide officials in this new role: traditional tort law, social welfare, or political equality principles such as one person one vote? More specifically, should executive officials look to tort law precepts to govern the allocation and retain concepts such as economic loss and the collateral source rule, or employ a governmental aid aspect, which would suggest a principal of equality that would not vary based on one’s income but would consider collateral sources of compensation?

Zimmerman suggests that officials have attempted to justify both their regulatory and allocative decisions with ill-suited corrective justice principles that translate poorly from the private to the public sphere. Despite reservations about whether regulation through litigation results in the best policies or offers democratic checks, he seems more willing to accept executive officials’ increased litigation role in the wake of Congressional failings and the difficulty of certifying a private class action. He thus tailors his reform proposals to target the government’s allocative function, suggesting ways to improve legitimacy and transparency in distributing recoveries, whatever the guiding principle might be.

Still, certain concerns and questions linger. First, Zimmerman narrows his focus to the second generation question of allocation, even though he raises and dismisses first-generation concerns over whether executive officials are properly acting within the scope of their authority and whether the regulatory solutions they generate through litigation are legitimate and optimal. Shoring up back-end allocation procedures, however, does not alleviate first-generation legitimacy questions or regulatory concerns. Second, Zimmerman opts not to iron out overarching systemic problems like legislative stalemates or mounting difficulty in certifying class actions, preferring instead (or perhaps more realistically) to work within the circumstances that prompt executive action. Yet, truly legitimizing process and adhering to corrective justice principles would require resolving systemic concerns about who should litigate and who should regulate. Finally, given concerns that judges already “rubber stamp” class-action settlements and that parties tend to find innovative ways to gerrymander votes and stakeholder input in areas like bankruptcy, one might question the effectiveness of Zimmerman’s proposals for enhancing due process when allocating state recovery to affected citizens.