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Impact litigation or strategic litigation is the practice of bringing lawsuits intended to effect societal change. Impact litigation cases may be class action lawsuits or individual claims with broader significance, and may rely on statutory law arguments or on constitutional claims. Such litigation has been widely and successfully used to influence public policy, especially by left-leaning groups, and often attracts significant media attention.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the American Civil Liberties Union and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (at times though its Legal Defense Fund) both pursued legal action to advance and protect civil rights in the U.S. The ACLU followed a primarily "defensive" strategy, fighting individual violations of rights when they were identified. The NAACP, in contrast, developed a more coordinated plan to actively file suits to challenge discrimination, known as "affirmative" or "strategic" litigation. The NAACP's model became the pattern for "impact litigation" strategies, which applied similar tactics in contexts other than racial discrimination.
Important early impact litigation cases included Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade.Brown, a 1954 U.S. school desegregation decision, was carefully prepared by Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP lawyers so that the eventual Supreme Court ruling invalidated official racial discrimination throughout the U.S. government. Many cases since then have closely imitated it, in the course of seeking greater protections for other disadvantaged groups.
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