"It's standing room only here. . . . It must be a matter of some interest to provoke this kind of attendance."
Senator Christopher Dodd, at the opening of the U.S. Senate Hearings on Securities Class Actions, June 17,1993
Whether and when to enable large numbers of individuals to bring claims collectively against a single or a few defendants has long been a subject of debate in the civil law. The language of the debate is the language of civil procedure: the formal rules that govern when and how plaintiffs may bring suits against defendants; how those defendants may contest the plaintiffs' claims; and how the adversaries may bring to bear the facts and law that are relevant to their dispute, so as to ultimately reach a resolution of the case. 1 But underlying disagreements about procedural rules rests the sometimes unspoken but widely shared understanding that procedural rules have important effects on litigation outcomes. Nowhere in the law is this truth more evident than in the battle over the class action rule, which empowers plaintiffs to bring cases that otherwise either would not be possible or would only be possible in a very different form. 2 At times, the protagonists in the class action debate have focused on "big questions," such as securing civil rights and protecting consumers, and at times they have focused on narrow technical issues, such as when the decision to permit a class action can be challenged. But the larger social and political conflicts of the day always echo in the rooms in which the proper uses of class actions are debated.
To understand the current controversy over class actions, and the important public policy issues that it implicates, it is useful to step back and consider the evolution of the class action procedure in the United States. The story of that evolution involves powerful committees charged with drafting procedural rules; the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal and state courts that have shaped class action practice through their rulings; Congress, which has enacted some statutes that facilitate class actions and others that restrict them; and lawyers, as practitioners and scholars, who have influenced all of the preceding through