Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2012


Assessing a year’s worth of debate over the 2009 Supreme Court decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, this Article provides a novel explanation for the decision and presents it as radical indeed, but in a way previously unremarked by commentators. The sharp divisions in the responses to Iqbal have masked a deeper consensus and have blocked wide awareness of the decision’s constructive potential for diverse interest groups. This consensus is based on a simplified account of the ideal function of pleading in our system of civil litigation, one that first took hold in the early twentieth century. What unsettles many observers about Iqbal is its suggestion that district court judges must interpret a civil complaint in order to decide whether it states a claim. As this Article explains, however, pleading scrutiny always has involved interpretation; if we find that suggestion troubling, it is only because the vocabulary we have long used to discuss the role and treatment of civil pleadings represses this fact. The Article describes the ways this vocabulary has shaped the debate over Iqbal and the contingent historical reasons for its dominance. Looking forward, it shows how Iqbal makes possible a new agenda for procedural scholarship that draws from work on other types of legal interpretation, and it suggests some of the specific ways in which this perspective can guide implementation of Iqbal and clarification of its requirements.