This Article argues that civil rights law is better understood as civil rights equity. It contends that the four-decade-long project of restricting civil rights litigation has shaped civil rights jurisprudence into a contemporary version of traditional equity. For years commentators have noted the low success rates of civil rights suits and debated the propriety of increasingly restrictive procedural and substantive doctrines. Activists have lost faith in civil rights litigation as an effective tool for social change, instead seeking change in administrative forums, or by asserting political pressure through social media and activism to compel policy change. As for civil rights litigation, activists have, most damningly, ignored it. This Article makes a preliminary case for understanding civil rights jurisprudence as a contemporary version of traditional equity, available in limited circumstances to address extraordinary violations of rights. Civil rights litigation has become a limited tool: inappropriate for driving social change, unreliable for litigants involved in everyday disputes, and mostly incapable of articulating and developing rights through precedent. Judges are the powerful, central figures in this litigation. And the rights landscape is structured by the capabilities and demands of the kind of equity regime civil rights litigation has become. What emerges is a vision of the courts as protectors of the status quo in social and political relationships.
Civil Rights Equity: An Introduction to a Theory of What Civil Rights Has Become
John Valery White
March 4, 2022