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Much of the Supreme Court’s work is devoted to interpreting statutes and regulations generated by the modern regulatory state. Increasingly, the common law tradition seems to be of little relevance to resolving the great disputes of our time. In my view, relegating common law principles to the back-bench constitutes a major source of confusion in the Supreme Court’s constitutional jurisprudence. The reason is that modern statutory law is heavily parasitic on the common law. A clear understanding of the uses and limits of common law principles is often the only way to see to the bottom of the well in many Supreme Court disputes.
The importance of common law is illustrated by Spokeo Inc. v. Robins, which was just argued before the Supreme Court. In Spokeo, the plaintiff sought to bring a class action suit on behalf of all individuals who had been injured by inaccurate reporting under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which attaches a fine between $100 and $1,000 for each offense. In the particular case, the plaintiff Thomas Robins had alleged that the defendant’s credit report had misstated the plaintiffs’ marital status, income, and educational levels in ways that made it more difficult for him to gain employment. The District Court held that the plaintiff did not have standing under Article III of the Constitution to maintain that claim on the ground that he did not allege that he had suffered “any actual or imminent harm” that could support the case. The Ninth Circuit found that such injury did exist, and the matter should be allowed to go forward. The Supreme Court took the case to address the following issue:
Whether Congress may confer Article III standing upon a plaintiff who suffers no concrete harm, and who therefore could not otherwise invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court, by authorizing a private right of action based on a bare violation of a federal statute.