Private Enforcement of Constitutional Guarantees in the Ku Klux Act of 1871, Constitutional Studies, 2016. 


Motivating Litigants to Enforce Public Goods: Evidence from Employment, Housing, and Voting Discrimination Policy

The use of private litigation was a primary enforcement tool in civil rights statutes of the 1960s. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allowed for individuals to sue employers who discriminated against them, and since 1964, hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs have made use of the opportunity. Yet, other private enforcement statutes have failed to mobilize a significant number of litigants. This paper describes the essential role that civil rights interest groups played in mobilizing plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases, and describes the reasons why interest groups declined to support more litigation in housing discrimination and voting dilution statutes. I argue that interest groups recognized the inherent weakness of private lawsuits as an enforcement tool for securing housing and voting rights, and therefore used their resources to support interest group led litigation, in the case of voting, and construction of new housing, primarily, in the case of housing. I also reinforce the importance of interest groups to private litigation, and argue that mobilization should be more central to narratives about interest group planned litigation. (Forthcoming in The Rights Revolution Revisited, Lynda G. Dodd, ed.)

Working Papers

Private Enforcement Project

Organized Interests in Private Enforcement: Access and Success in Clean Water Lawsuits

The use of litigation to enforce federal laws has been subject to increasing focus by political scientists, but that research has been narrowly focused on private enforcement of employment discrimination. Additionally, while scholars have understood private enforcement as a type of state power, little attention has been given to the activities of the plaintiffs and interest groups who bring actions in courts to enforce the law. In order to give attention to how plaintiffs and interest groups interact with institutional contexts to create their own capacity to enforce the law, I reexamine the role of interest groups in creating and atmosphere conducive to private litigation in employment discrimination. Next, I examine how environmental interest groups’ use of litigation has differed from civil rights interest groups. Finally, this exploration of environmental interest group activity generates several hypotheses about the motivation of environmental citizen suits, which I test using two measures of private suits against polluters. I find that interest group activity makes up a substantial amount of environmental citizen suits, and interest groups use lawsuits in a partisan manner. (Under Review)

Appointing Private Enforcers: Can the Government Create Litigation?

Recent literature has attributed growth in litigation to Congress’s increasing delegation of policy enforcement to private individuals through private rights of action. Unexplored, however, are non-legislative factors that affect the implementation of enforcement through litigation. Once empowered by statute, what factors will encourage and discourage the filing of private lawsuits? Using evidence from 11 federal policies across more than two decades, I find that, contrary to previous arguments, presidents and executive agencies have a significant impact on the number of cases initiated in federal courts. Additionally, I find that interest group organization and judicial ideology can effect the number of cases initiated. This increases our understanding of grants of private litigation rights as a policy enforcement tool and provides empirical evidence that political actors can exacerbate or alleviate the unequal power dynamics that many scholars have argued can limit the ability of individuals to bring legal claims.

Interest Group Concentration, Courts, and Employment Discrimination: The Decision to Litigate

How do political actors and environments affect the decisions of plaintiffs to litigate? How can plaintiffs be incentivized to litigate for the public good when the cost is high? I attempt to answer these questions using a case study of employment discrimination litigation under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I argue that civil rights interest groups, especially the NAACP and LDF mobilized litigants and helped to create a political and legal environment in which civil rights plaintiffs could be successful in the several years after the laws passage. Then, in an analysis of civil rights cases from 1980 to 2007, I show that interest groups and courts have a continuing effect on the number of cases filed in federal district courts. This suggests that even after 50 years, the political, organizational, and partisan environment can have important effects on the decision of civil rights plaintiffs to bring lawsuits.

Other Projects

The Effect of Media Framing on Public Support for the Supreme Court

Can editorial decisions of news organizations that report on the Supreme Court affect public opinion about the Court? Using an experimental design, I test the effect of two common media frames on public approval of the Supreme Court and its decisions. I show that the inclusion of partisan cues in news coverage of a hypothetical Supreme Court decision leads to greater levels of polarization in approval of the Court’s decision and also affects the public’s approval of the Court’s performance overall, with liberals 13% more likely to lower their support for the Supreme Court when receiving a counter-partisan signal, and conservatives 18% more likely to increase their support for the Court following a co-partisan signal. Meanwhile a procedural cue indicating conflict on the Court has limited effects on public opinion. This shows that decisions by new organizations and differential exposure may affect public approval the Supreme Court. 

The Effect of Retrenchment Threat on Lawsuit Claiming (with Sarah Staszak)

Various studies have documented the ways that Congress can reign in the federal judiciary when it strays too far from Congressional preferences. Typically, these studies are focused on decisions that change doctrine, primarily in the Supreme Court. This research, however, misses one of the most effective tools that Congress has to appropriate a core judicial functions—the denial of access to courts altogether. Using an original dataset of Congressional proposals to limit medical malpractice lawsuits (1981-present), we argue that these proposals—even in the absence of successfully passed legislation—reduce litigation in the policy areas targeted by Congress. We explore the mechanisms that lead to decreasing litigation, considering judge-centered and lawyer-centered explanations. This suggests that Congress has significant power to shape legal policy, even without garnering sufficient votes for statutory changes to judicial power.

Policy, Institutions, and Judicial Legitimacy: The Role of Issue Preferences in Structuring Attitudes Toward Courts (with Alexander Bolton)

Critics and defenders of judicial elections have drawn attention to the issue of the effects of selection institutions on the publics’ evaluations of the judiciary. In this paper, we argue that individuals’ perceptions of courts are less affected by selection institutions and other procedural concerns and more by policy preferences. Using a variety of experimental and survey evidence, we demonstrate that while individuals’ views of judges and courts are somewhat influenced by selection methods, individual policy concerns play a much larger role. In particular, when individuals perceive a mismatch between their preferences and legal policy outcomes, they express significantly lower levels of support for and trust in courts. Furthermore, we demonstrate that these policy concerns also impact support for selection institutions. In particular, individuals who are dissatisfied with outcomes and judges are more likely to support elections over merit selection/retention plans. In sum, these results suggest that individuals’ support for courts and selection institutions are premised as much, if not more, on instrumental policy goals than on concerns for procedural justice and judicial independence.

In Progress

“The Determinants of Congressional Retrenchment of Court Rules” (with Sarah Staszak, Princeton University).
 “Policy Outcomes after Congressional Responses to Supreme Court Decisions” (with Logan Strother, Syracuse University).
“Presidential Constraints on Supreme Court Review of Federal Statutes” (with Sharece Thrower, Vanderbilt University).