The Upside of Losing

By:  Ben Depoorter

 

Conventional understanding in legal reform communities is that time and resources are best directed toward legal disputes that have the highest chance of success and that litigation is to be avoided if it is likely to establish or strengthen unfavorable precedent. Contrary to this accepted wisdom, this Essay analyzes the strategic decisions of litigation entrepreneurs who pursue litigation with the awareness that losing the case can provide substantial benefits. Unfavorable litigation outcomes can be uniquely salient and powerful in highlighting the misfortunes of individuals under prevailing law, while presenting a broader narrative about the current failure of the legal status quo. The resulting public backlash may slow down legislative trends and can even prompt legislative initiatives that reverse the unfavorable judicial decisions or induce broader reform.

 

This analysis revises some conventional wisdom about litigation. First, while it is traditionally understood that legal reform activists must persuade courts to recognize unattended rights or to confirm new rights and activist positions, the analysis here suggests that social changes can be obtained in litigation without requiring the involvement of courts as policymakers. Moreover, passive courts and judicial deference in fact strengthen the mobilizing effect of litigation by clearly shifting the burden to legislators and their constituents. Second, the dynamics of successful defeat in litigation shed new light on the costs and benefits involved with litigation. In the proposed framework, a plaintiff’s decision to litigate rests not simply on the probability of success but also on a tradeoff between the potential costs of a negative precedent and the political benefits obtained in defeat. Third, the mobilizing potential of adverse court decisions presents a fascinating conflict between the immediate interests of the actual plaintiff and of the litigation entrepreneur or intermediary that supports the litigation with an eye on the underlying long-term goals of a social cause. Finally, the potential benefits of adverse outcomes refute some of the criticisms about the limitations and downsides of pursuing social change through courts.

 

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