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It is a commonplace in American politics that Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to favor access to courts to enforce individual rights with lawsuits. In this article we show that conventional wisdom, long true, no longer reflects party agendas in Congress. We report the results of an empirical examination of bills containing private rights of action with pro-plaintiff fee-shifting provisions that were introduced in Congress from 1989 through 2018. The last eight years of our data document escalating Republican-party support for proposals to create individual rights enforceable by private lawsuits, mobilized with attorney’s fee awards. By 2015-18, there was rough parity in levels of support for such bills by Democratic and Republican members of Congress.

This transformation was driven substantially by growing Republican support for private enforcement in bills that were anti-abortion, immigrant, and taxes, and pro-gun and religion. We demonstrate that this surge in Republican support for private lawsuits to implement rights was led by the conservative wing of the Republican party, fueled in part by an apparent belief during the Obama years that the president could not be relied upon to implement their antiabortion, immigrant, and taxes, and pro-gun and religion agenda. We conclude that the contemporary Republican party’s position on civil lawsuits has become bifurcated, reflecting the distinctive preferences of core elements of their coalition. They are the party far more likely to oppose private enforcement when deployed to enforce business regulation, while embracing it when deployed in the service of rights for their social conservative base.


Political parties, civil litigation, statutory implementation, private enforcement regimes, regulatory laws, attorney’s fees, fee shifting, enforcement powers, regulatory legislation, access to court, federal litigation.

Publication Title

U.C. Irvine Law Review

Publication Citation

11 U.C. Irvine L. Rev. 657 (2021)