JOANNA C. SCHWARTZ, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law
For decades, scholars have debated the extent to which financial sanctions cause government officials to improve their conduct. Yet little attention has been paid to a foundational empirical question underlying these debates: When a plaintiff recovers in a damages action against the government, who foots the bill? [...] beyond anecdotal information about the practices in a few large agencies, there has been no systematic inquiry into the source of funds used by governments to satisfy suits.
In this Article, I report the results of the first nationwide study to examine how cities, counties, and states budget for and pay settlements and judgments in cases against law enforcement. Through public records requests, interviews, and other sources, I have collected information about litigation budgeting practices in 100 law enforcement agencies across the country. Based on the practices in these 100 jurisdictions, I make two key findings. First, settlements and judgments are not always — or even usually — paid from jurisdictions’ general funds; instead, cities, counties, and states use a wide range of budgetary arrangements to satisfy their legal liabilities. All told, half of the law enforcement agencies in my study financially contribute in some manner to the satisfaction of lawsuits brought against them. Second, having a department pay money out of its budget towards settlements and judgments is neither necessary nor sufficient to impose a financial burden on that department. Some law enforcement agencies pay millions from their budgets each year towards settlements and judgments, but the particularities of their jurisdictions’ budgeting arrangements lessen or eliminate altogether the financial impact of these payments on these agencies. [...].