The Political Development of Job Discrimination Litigation, 1963-76. 2009
Studies in American Political Development 23: 23-60
In lobbying for the job discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964, liberal civil rights advocates wanted an administrative job discrimination enforcement regime modeled on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), with no private lawsuits. Pivotal conservative Republicans, empowered by a divided Democratic Party and the ﬁlibuster in the Senate, defeated an administrative framework and provided instead for private lawsuits with incentives for enforcement, including attorney’s fees for winning plaintiffs. They were motivated by native suspicion toward bureaucratic regulation of business in general, as well as fear that they would not be able to control an NLRB-style civil rights agency in the hands of their ideological adversaries. In the political environment of 1963–64, some meaningful enforcement provisions were necessary, and to conservative Republicans private litigation was preferable to public bureaucracy.
This choice had important self-reinforcing policy feedback effects. Civil rights advocates were initially optimistic about agency implementation and skeptical about the efﬁcacy of private litigation to enforce Title VII, even with attorney’s fees for winning plaintiffs. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, civil rights advocates observed an agency lacking the material resources and political will and commitment to carry out its mission. At the same
time, they observed levels of private enforcement that far exceeded their expectations, as well as courts inclined toward broadly proplaintiff interpretations of Title VII. The CRA of 1964’s attorney’s fees provisions also had the effect of contributing funds to civil rights groups that prosecuted lawsuits and of conjuring into being a private, for-proﬁt bar to litigate civil rights claims in general, and job discrimination claims in particular. These developments drove a transformation in the enforcement preferences of civil rights groups toward private litigation, weakening their historic support for administrative implementation. Working together with the burgeoning for-proﬁt civil rights bar, they mobilized to expand the fee-shifting provisions of the CRA of 1964 across the entire ﬁeld of civil rights, which they accomplished by successfully lobbying for enactment of the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976. Thus was created the modern civil rights enforcement framework.
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