The Public and Private Goods Produced By Litigation

Eugene Volokh (among many others) recently posted the opinions in Klein v. Amtrak, the now famous EDPA unpublication case involving a settlement that led to the vacating of eight defense-unfriendly district court opinions.  Although commentators across the web seemed surprised, in my experience the practice of asking a judge to vacate an opinion that produced a settlement is fairly common – this particular instance is only a small variant on the ordinary case.  But Klein provides the opportunity to reflect on some of the unexpected benefits that we get from our ridiculous court system.

The obvious one is that judicial opinions are the public good that the parties prompt society to buy.  The price we would pay for any kind of litigation reform would be fewer public decisions, and thus more uncertainty of the kind that unpublication like Klein promotes. The Third Circuit in particular was known for years for having very thin law  – indeed, the late Chief Judge Eddie Becker of the Circuit famously led a one-man crusade against the dearth of law by writing copious dicta.  The certainty that we get from having opinions strongly suggests that we should resist private attempts to keep the law secret – and should be similarly skeptical of the courts’ unwillingness to free PACER. Here, it appears merely that Judge Stengel asked WL and LEXIS to remove his opinions from his databases.  Thus, like 80% of all substantive orders, they are on the docket, but aren’t available to the general public.

There’s an additional private benefit that accompanies litigation which is less illuminated by Klein: the parties get to communicate with one another.  Given a regulatory regime that prohibits competitor contact, litigation can be the best way for companies to talk to one another (through discovery and signalling about which positions to take).  That litigation-mediated-communication is one reason why some companies might prefer to continue to fight in the public system, rather than in commercial arbitration, where their ability to get discovery may be limited.  Again, this isn’t to say that all lawsuits are worth the time and expense that the public invests in settling them, but it does suggest that litigation reform needs to account for these substantial litigation spillovers.

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1 Response

  1. JP says:

    I think your main premise is wrong. I don’t believe there is any evidence that litigation reform would result in fewer public decisions. I assume your logic is simply that fewer cases = fewer published opinions, but I don’t see any reason why that would be the case. Litigation reform ideally would target the broad swath of cases that ultimately settle for nuisance value (i.e., cost-of-defense). Those cases typically don’t result in many published opinions. And many of the opinions that do result are procedural decisions about discovery, which is the plaintiffs’ primary offensive weapon in such cases. Procedural opinions have little public benefit.
    Indeed, I think it is at least as likely that a judiciary less burdened with frivolous cases and with less need to act as the discovery referee would able to publish more opinions on substantive law.

    Finally, I don’t understand your point about the private benefit. If communication between companies is good, but prohibited by regulation, doesn’t that just mean the regulatory regime is bad? Or if communication between companies is bad, but enabled through litigation (very expensively, to the parties and the public) isn’t this a bad feature of litigation?