April 9, 2003
We write to express the opposition of the civil rights community to S. 274, the Class Action Fairness Act of 2003, a bill that would substantially alter the constitutional distribution of judicial power. If passed, this bill would: remove most state-law class actions into federal court; clog the federal courts with state law cases and make it more difficult to have federal civil rights cases heard; deter people from bringing class actions; and impose barriers and burdens on settlement of class actions.
Class actions are essential to the enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws. They are often the only means by which individuals can challenge and obtain relief from systemic discrimination. Indeed, federal class actions were designed to accommodate, and have served as a primary vehicle for, civil rights litigation seeking broad equitable relief.
There are several reasons why the civil rights community is troubled by this particular legislation:
- This bill will overburden and create further unnecessary delay in our federal courts. This bill will amend federal law to extend federal jurisdiction to most state class actions, overloading federal courts and delaying the resolution of all cases in federal court, including a majority of civil rights claims. These provisions will be particularly damaging in cases where civil rights plaintiffs are seeking immediate injunctive relief to prohibit discriminatory practices of a defendant.
- The bill will prove burdensome and will turn the current federal judiciary into an ineffectual and cumbersome mechanism by which plaintiffs may seek access to justice. We strongly believe that S. 274 is an unnecessary attempt to impose federal judicial regulation on matters of law clearly committed to the states under our Constitution. Indeed, the determination of state law tort, contract and consumer cases is, unequivocally, not the responsibility of the federal judiciary under the Constitution. The imposition of such substantial new responsibilities on the federal courts will further impair the ability of those courts to carry out the essential functions they are intended to serve under the Constitution ? the determination of matters involving federal interests, rights and responsibilities. In short, true access to the federal courts and to the class action device to secure justice in matters where federal issues are at stake would be severely curtailed by enactment of this legislation.
- The bill will discourage people from bringing class actions by prohibiting settlements that provide named plaintiffs full relief for their claims. Now, for example, a named plaintiff who sues an employer can receive a full award of back pay, and in a proper case, obtain an order placing him or her in the job denied because of discrimination, while also affording all members of the class the opportunity to share in available relief. However, under the guise of protecting class members, the proposed bill prohibits courts from approving settlements that allow a greater share of relief to a class representative than all members of the class. If the price of trying to protect others is the loss of the full measure of individual relief and entitlement only to the same relief as those who never took any action to challenge the employer, individuals will be deterred from becoming a class representative. Thus, this provision would hinder, rather than reform, civil rights class actions.
- The bill will impose new, burdensome and unnecessary requirements on litigants and the federal courts. It seeks to impose inordinately difficult and costly notice requirements, which will drastically complicate and delay the settlement of class actions. Specifically, the proposed bill would require notice to federal and state officials based on the residence of all class members and would require a 120-day waiting period. These additional, substantial and costly notice requirements and built-in delays are not a matter of due process, but are overly burdensome and improperly assume that federal and state officials have both proper interest in, and a capacity to respond to, each and every class action.
For the reasons stated above, the proposed Class Action Fairness Act of 2003 would discourage civil rights class actions, impose substantial barriers to settling class actions and render federal courts unable to provide swift and effective administration of justice. The bill also compromises delicate federal/state relations by questioning the competency of the state judiciary and overburdening our already overworked federal courts. In short, we believe the impact this legislation would be profound, and would result in new and substantial limitations on access to the courts for victims of discrimination. We, therefore, urge you to reject this harmful legislation. Thank you.
Alliance for Justice
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
National Asian Pacific Legal Consortium
National Partnership for Women and Families
National Workrights Institute
National Women’s Law Center
People for the American Way