Access to Justice; Criminal Law; Litigation; Defendants; Civil Rights; Civil Liability; Contracts; Department of Justice; DOJ; Professional Responsibility; Ethics; Executive Branch; Affirmative Litigation; Affirmative Enforcement; Private Attorneys General


The focus of this brief Article will be on a conundrum, particularly in the area of civil rights enforcement: the federal government—in particular the DOJ—can be one of the most efficient and powerful vindicators of civil rights, while at the same time one of the most effective advocates for imposing barriers to affirmative civil rights enforcement. At the same time that the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division (CRD) is entering federal court to “vindicat[e] rights and remedy[] inequities,” attorneys in the Civil Division (either from Main Justice or in any number of U.S. Attorney’s offices) are appearing in court to prevent the same. No doubt the same observation applies to certain state governments that have active affirmative civil rights enforcement bodies while also maintaining well-resourced defensive litigation bureaus. For my purposes, this observation has important consequences. It might bear on the professional obligations of the government attorney who appears in a defensive posture, a topic that Bruce Green and others have addressed in many thoughtful articles. I will address some potential ethical implications toward the end of this Article, but it is not my principal focus because I am not convinced that that is where the solution lies. Instead, I want to concentrate on what the observation means for executive branch law enforcement priorities, how the dynamic impacts broad access-to-justice concerns, and the implications for institutional design. I am going to try to do so in four parts. First, this Article contrasts agenda setting in defensive bureaus with agenda setting in the affirmative posture. Part I compares the defensive positions taken in two extremely similar cases—Ashcroft v. Iqbal and Ziglar v. Abbasi—that were litigated by the DOJ across two different presidential administrations. This is to help illustrate (admittedly by anecdote) that, even while affirmative enforcement priorities can change significantly from one administration to the other, defensive litigating positions can remain remarkably stable. Parts II and III turn to showing what consequences this has in the context of civil rights enforcement. Part II starts with the DOJ’s affirmative bureaus themselves, with a focus on the CRD. The goal is to show that the defensive bureaus impact the work of the CRD in at least two ways: (1) by channeling enforcement priorities into areas that will not conflict with defensive litigating positions and (2) by making affirmative enforcement priorities more difficult to secure through the spread of transsubstantive doctrine that suppresses rights enforcement, even in the areas in which there are no conflicts with defensive positions. Part III moves beyond the direct impact on CRD because defensive litigation positions taken by the DOJ can also suppress affirmative rights enforcement by “private attorneys general,” enforcement that nonetheless is consistent with the affirmative priorities of Main Justice. Finally, Part IV offers some thoughts on what lessons we might draw from these observations. For the most part, I devote my attention to how institutional design might ameliorate the tensions I identify in this Article.


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