For a wide variety of claims against the government, the federal courthouse doors are closed to all but those brought by powerful, organized interests. This is because hundreds of laws—colloquially known as “channeling statutes”—require disaffected groups to contest government bodies directly in appellate courts that hear cases individually. In theory, these laws promise quick, consistent, and authoritative legal decisions in appellate courts. In fact, without class actions, government bodies avoid judicial review by selectively avoiding claims brought by some of the most vulnerable people in the administrative state—from veterans and immigrants to coal miners, laborers, and the disabled.
This Article proposes a novel solution: courts of appeals should hear class actions themselves. In so doing, courts high in the judicial hierarchy would continue to authoritatively decide important legal questions involving government institutions while ensuring groups of similar, unrepresented parties finally get their day in court. While appellate class actions might sound like a strange procedural innovation, appellate courts already have the power to do this. Relying on the All Writs Act, appellate courts long ago created ad hoc procedures modeled after class actions to respond to systemic government harm.
This Article is the first to examine nascent experiments with appellate class actions. It shows that, contrary to popular belief, appellate courts can hear class actions, and it explains why they should do so. In cases challenging systemic abuse, this power has become vital not only to level the playing field between the government and the governed but also to protect courts’ core functions in our separation of powers—to hear claims, interpret law, and grant meaningful relief. Without classwide judgments in such cases, courts risk ceding power to the executive branch to decide for itself when judicial decisions limit its own unlawful policies.