Can eighteenth-century constitutional commitments that “courts shall be open” for private rights enforcement be coupled with twentieth-century aspirations that democratic orders provide “equal justice under law”? That question sits at the intersection of three cases, AT&T v. Concepcion, Wal-Mart v. Dukes, and Turner v. Rogers, decided in the 2010 Supreme Court Term. In each decision, Justices evaluated the fairness of particular procedures (class arbitrations, class actions, or civil contempt processes) when making choices about the meaning of governing legal regimes – the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) and state unconscionability doctrine in AT&T; Rule 23 and Title VII in Wal-Mart; and the Due Process Clause and child support obligations in Turner.
AT&T and Wal-Mart presented related questions about how the form of dispute resolution (individual or aggregate) and the place of dispute resolution (public or private, state or federal) affect the level of public regulation of consumer and employment transactions predicated on boilerplate, rather than negotiated, terms. The issue in Turner was whether state-funded lawyers were required before a person could, at the behest of the child’s custodian, be incarcerated for contempt for failure to pay child support. The specific case involved two individuals, but their circumstances illustrated the challenges faced by millions of other lawyer-less litigants in state and federal courts.
Each case exemplifies the challenges that new rights, produced by twentieth-century social movements, pose for courts. When claimants such as consumers, employees, and household members presented themselves as entitled to equal treatment, jurists responded by interrogating their own procedural parameters. Relying on the Due Process Clause, courts developed distinct lines of analyses that – depending on the context – imposed criteria on decisionmaking procedures, mandated subsidies to address resource asymmetries between adversaries, shaped processes to reduce intra-litigant disparities, and facilitated access to courts. Requisite to those efforts was a practice that is intertwined with fairness – the public quality of adjudication that endows an audience with the authority to watch, critique, and respond through democratic channels to the legal norms announced. A “fair and public hearing” became a touchstone of what democratic orders required their courts to provide.
But, as this trio of cases demonstrates, whether seeking to implement those egalitarian aspirations or simply to function, courts have to grapple with economically disparate claimants and a vast volume of eligible rights holders. If eighteenth-century constitutional entitlements to open courts are to remain relevant to ordinary litigants, the question is not whether to aggregate, subsidize, and reconfigure process but how to do so “fairly,” in terms of what groups, which claims, by means of which procedures, and offering what remedies. But without public disclosures and oversight of dispute resolution – in and out of court, single file and aggregated – one has no way to know whether fairness is either a goal or a result.