This Month in Legal History: One Form of Action
The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure first became effective seventy-five years ago, on September 16, 1938. Subject to frequent but relatively minor amendments, the FRCP remain in force today. The new rules culminated decades of creeping reform, with dramatic effect. Upon enactment, the FRCP at once unified civil practice in the federal district courts. They also implemented a particular theory for the adjudication of disputes.
Rule 2 epitomizes the approach of the FRCP, stating in its entirety: “There is one form of action—the civil action.” This rule eliminates from federal court such forms of pleading claims as the common law forms of action. The common law forms emphasized formal and standardized statements, with small regard for the facts of the case.
Rule 2 also eliminates from federal court the procedural separation of actions in equity from actions at law. Principles of equity, which roughly equates to fairness, originated in the England Court of Chancery. The remedies for actions in equity, such as injunctive relief or the restoration of a prior relation between the parties, differ from remedies for actions at law—essentially, damages. Prior to the enactment of the FRCP, the federal courts applied one set of procedural rules to actions in equity and different sets of procedural rules to actions at law, sometimes with harsh consequences for litigants.
The overarching effect of Rule 2—and the FRCP in general—is to facilitate the adjudication of claims based on the facts of the dispute rather than the formalities of pleading, on substance rather than procedure. The theory is that such an approach is more just.
Still, the FRCP effected only a radical shift, from relative emphasis on procedure to relative emphasis on the merits of claims and defenses, not a categorical change. Pleading standards remain. Procedural rules still affect substantive outcomes. Not least, although a single regime of procedural rules now applies to all actions in federal district court, the problematic relation between law and equity survives.