St. Mary's Law Journal


In Martin v. Wilks, the United States Supreme Court held nonparties to employment discrimination consent decrees may attack, in a collateral lawsuit, decisions made pursuant to the decrees. A consent decree is a voluntary judgment between parties which facilitates settlement of litigation by providing one party with equitable relief. Courts retain jurisdiction over parties to a consent decree, and they can issue contempt orders to parties violating the terms of the decree. Unlike judgments, the parties cannot challenge the consent decrees, except in limited circumstances. Recently, federal courts have widened the scope of preclusion law by defining the term “claim” broadly. In Martin v. Wilks, the Court allowed employees who were not parties to employment discrimination consent decrees to contest an employment decision made pursuant to the decrees. The majority favored permissive intervention, rejected efficiency and consistency arguments favoring the collateral attack bar, and dismissed policies advocating voluntary settlement of title VII claims. The majority properly held Wilks’ reverse discrimination claims should be litigated because nonparties should not be precluded from litigation except under limited circumstances. Additionally, the majority correctly remanded Wilks’ claim to the district court to adjudicate the legality of the consent decree and properly overruled the doctrine of impermissible collateral attack. If stability, uniformity, and finality are indeed the foundations of justice, then collateral lawsuits which result in different outcomes destroy these foundations and lead to injustice. If a system of mandatory intervention is indeed the desired result, then Congress, not the courts, should rewrite the rules.


St. Mary's University School of Law