Academic journal article The Yale Law Journal

The Federalism Challenges of Impact Litigation by State and Local Government Actors

Academic journal article The Yale Law Journal

The Federalism Challenges of Impact Litigation by State and Local Government Actors

Article excerpt

In the October Term 200l, the Ohio Attorney General's Office filed thirty-six briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court, (1) thereby participating in more than a third of that Term's cases. Of those, thirty-four were amicus briefs. (2) While striking, this high level of involvement by a state attorney general's office in constitutional litigation to which the state is not a party is no longer an aberration. Rather, it is part of a growing trend among state and local government actors of taking a more active role in constitutional and Supreme Court litigation. (3) This Comment examines the important implications for federalism of the increased prominence of these government attorneys in constitutional litigation. More specifically, it illustrates a tension between the adoption of an affirmative litigation model by state and local government actors and the democracy-enhancing values fostered by federalism. The Comment concludes by proposing some possible corrective measures.

The argument proceeds in four Parts. Part I examines the recent rise to prominence of a set of state and local government litigators--namely, state attorneys general, state solicitors general, and city attorneys. Part II establishes a federalism framework through which to evaluate the trend identified in Part I, grouping the values advanced by federalism loosely into the diversity theory and the self-governance theory. Under the diversity theory, the existence of different state practices has two distinct virtues: it both fosters "state laboratories" for the testing of innovative policy proposals and allows for the tailoring of policies to citizens' varying tastes and situations. Under the self-governance theory, the importance of state and local government is preserved in order to encourage democratic participation in governance by the citizenry.

Part III demonstrates the tension between some forms of affirmative litigation undertaken by state and local attorneys and the values promoted by federalism under these two theories. This examination will proceed through two case studies. The first discusses the amicus brief filed by the Attorney General of Texas, joined by twenty-nine other state attorneys general, in District of Columbia v. Heller, (4) the case reviewing the District of Columbia's handgun ban. The second reviews the California Attorney General and San Francisco City Attorney's recently filed suit to invalidate Proposition 8, (5) the ballot initiative that amended the state constitution of California to prohibit gay and lesbian marriage. Each of these examples involves state action that this Comment will argue conflicts with the purposes of federalism outlined in Part II: Texas's amicus brief in Heller represents a use of state power to impose uniformity on state laws that is in tension with the diversity theory, while the San Francisco City Attorney's suit to invalidate a state ballot initiative is at odds with the justifications for federalism put forth by the self-governance theory.

Part IV briefly proposes some potential reforms. Rather than patterning their offices after public interest law firms, this Comment proposes that state actors embrace the model of federal prosecutors in order to avoid partisan capture. First, they should establish a cadre of career appellate lawyers likely to span several administrations. Second, they should impose upon themselves--or state legislators should impose upon them--the discipline of primarily accepting cases through agency referral.


Three classes of state and local government attorneys have assumed a newly prominent role in affirmative constitutional litigation in recent years. First, since the mid-1970s, state attorneys general have filed increasing numbers of amicus briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court under the aegis of the National Association of Attorneys General. (6) Second, in the past ten years, a dozen states have established the office of state solicitor general, (7) the occupant of which is charged with state appeals in front of the Supreme Court and with other critical appeals. …

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