Fairness in Numbers: A Comment on AT&T v. Concepcion, Wal-Mart v. Dukes, and Turner v. Rogers
Vol. 125 No. 1 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.