Civil Rights Class Actions: Procedural Means of Obtaining Substance

I cannot resist the temptation to start this Article with a personal note. The first
legal matter I worked on was as a law student writing a memorandum supporting
over 4000 Japanese-Americans who had renounced American citizenship while in
internment camps during the Second World War. They sought to reclaim that
citizenship, claiming that conditions at the camp were so coercive that the
renunciations were not voluntary. I had to prepare an argument supporting the
position that theirs was properly a class action. They won that case’ although I have
no way of knowing whether my memorandum played any role in the outcome. The
court held that there were common questions of law and fact and “that there is a
large saving of filing and verification costs and the necessity of proof in each
individual case of the conditions at Tule Lake [the internment center].”2 The court
also left open the possibility that the government might prove that certain
individuals who had renounced had done so voluntarily, that is that some who
claimed to be members of a class which had been subjected to coercion in fact had
not suffered that abuse.


In this Article, it is hardly possible to discuss all of the areas of class actions in
the civil rights field. I shall limit myself to a few: prisoners’ rights, school
desegregation, and employment discrimination, and only to some aspects of each. I
shall note something about how the rule has functioned in these areas over the
years and reactions to that experience.