Citizen Suits

In the following blog post, the author summarizes the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled Taking the Law to Court: Citizen Suits and the Legislative Process”:AJPS Blog - Citizen Suits and the Legislative Process

What is at work in this system of distributive decision-making is a conflict over how to appropriate spending: On a controversial public good like climate change mitigation or health care provision, or on particularistic earmarks benefiting one or another legislative district?

My game-theory analysis focused on situations where actors are in conflict over distributive decisions. The outcome of the game is budgetary allocation between a public good and particularistic funding for a legislative district.

I hypothesized that when it comes to this type of legislative conflict, citizen suits influence the legislative bargaining process. My model found that citizen suits lead lawmakers to craft more socially efficient bills in anticipation of the suits’ ensuing restructuring of political conflict. The suits’ effect can be to forge better compromises between majority and minority positions.

The degree to which citizen suits can moderate distributive negotiations, however, rests on nuances in the degree of bargaining conflict that exists between majority and minority policy-makers. Citizen suits succeed best as moderators between extreme positions when a high degree of bargaining conflict exists between negotiating sides.

Passage in the 1970s of new far-reaching environmental laws including the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act reflected the presence of a strong majority of legislators in favor of environmental protection. Ensuing decades saw a weaker legislative majority in favor of the public good.  Let’s call these actors half-measure proponents — a weak majority in favor of public good spending, but not at the expense of their individual district’s particularistic needs.

In this scenario, the citizen suits weaken the bargaining power of those on the greater private-good spending side. They moderate the distributive ratio back toward the middle between private and public good, thus stimulating the provision of the public good.

On the other hand, less bargaining conflict means lesser impact for citizen suits. In particular, the suits’ moderating effects weaken significantly when a very strong legislative majority rises in opposition to the public good. Here citizen suits can buffer but not seriously redesign distributive decision-making.

Those wondering where this leaves environmental or health-care public-good proponents today might look closely at my framework in which the courts and the legislature act as a system. The diverse preferences of citizens and the formal laws of even majority institutions construct room for citizen suits to strike compromises that temper extremes.

About the Author: Marion Dumas is Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow at Santa Fe Institute. Her paper “Taking the Law to Court: Citizen Suits and the Legislative Process” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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