University of Michigan Law School
Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse

Civil rights litigation has been tremendously important in this country, especially since the 1950s. The injunctions entered in civil rights cases have transformed a huge number of governmental institutions--schools, prisons, mental health facilities, housing authorities, police departments, child welfare agencies, etc. Injunctive cases have closed some institutions and opened others, dominated budget politics, become models for statutory interventions, and generally regulated practices. Thousands of such cases have been filed over the past fifty years and new cases are filed all the time; hundreds, old and new, are ongoing and remain influential.

But information about the cases has always been exceedingly hard to come by. Only a small number of the cases have ever been the subject of published judicial opinions. For the others, little or no information is accessible either to scholars or the public. Even obtaining copies of injunctive orders that remain in effect can be a major challenge; getting hold of less central documents or of documentation in cases since dismissed can be nearly impossible for non-experts or the unfunded. This state of affairs is problematic as a matter of public policy because informational scarcity makes good policymaking and advocacy more difficult, as officials, lawyers, and activists are forced to spend much of their time finding out by word of mouth who else has encountered issues similar to the ones they confront. And, similarly, ordinary citizens are unable to uncover the legal regime in which the governmental institutions that affect them are situated. And, the problem interferes with good scholarship, when scholars are forced to study only unusual cases because the ordinary ones are so elusive.

In a large and growing number of case categories, the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse provides the information needed to understand individual cases and the category as a whole.

For policymakers
The Clearinghouse allows policymakers interested any of the substantive areas covered (corrections, education, housing policy, etc.) to access reforms that have been implemented in other jurisdictions. Court decrees have long been a source of regulatory innovation, so even organizations and jurisdictions that have not been sued often want to know what those decrees provide, to consider whether similar practices and procedures might be useful for them. But the decrees have not previously been available. The Clearinghouse corrects this situation.

For advocates
Lawyers representing clients in civil rights cases often have access only to reported court opinions and thus have difficulty determining whether decrees have been entered in similar cases arising elsewhere that could be informative to their cases. The Clearinghouse addresses this situation by making such decrees easily accessible. For both plaintiffs' and defendants' counsel, the Clearinghouse is therefore an important tool for developing litigation strategy, negotiating settlements, and designing remedies. For plaintiffs' attorneys in particular, it can also be useful to check whether a particular institution is already subject to court-order regulation on a particular topic.

For researchers
The Clearinghouse allows scholars interested in civil rights, government operations, civil procedure, or any of the substantive areas covered to better understand the interplay of law and public policy. Instead of searching through reported opinions, knowing that such opinions are unrepresentative but unable to get access to the "law in action," researchers can use the Clearinghouse to understand the settlement and/or post-decree activity in civil rights cases, to look at the course of the litigation involved, and to obtain records and do searches unavailable elsewhere.

For teachers and students
The Clearinghouse can enable teachers of civil rights history and other U.S. history topics to bring the legal side of civil rights into the classroom. And for law school classes, the Clearinghouse can be a tool to teach about complex litigation, with its multiple parties and phases, many decision points, and long life. It can also be useful in substantive classes, providing examples of complaints, briefs, opinions, and decrees on many topics.

In addition, students can use the documentation of cases in the Clearinghouse as a basis for litigation case studies, which are often ideal student papers. The Clearinghouse posts well over a hundred such studies, many written by students at several different law schools. We would be extremely happy to add to this part of the resource; just propose a new posting.