The protection of whistleblowers exposing fraud or wrongdoing perpetrated by individuals or corporations has been an issue for centuries. Under English common law, suits brought on behalf of the government by individuals alleging fraud were known by the Latin phrase describing them, “qui tam pro domino rege quam pro si ipso in hac parte sequitur,” meaning “who sues on behalf of the King as well as for himself.”
The first statute to protect whistleblowers in the United States was the federal False Claims Act, inspired by the corruption and fraud that resulted from the Civil War. Passed in 1863, the act allowed private parties to bring suits against those corporations or individuals trying to defraud the government, with the bringer of the lawsuit entitled to half the recovery from the fraud, which included a $2,000 fine for each violation and damages amounting to double the loss from the fraud.
States also began to pass their own versions of whistleblower laws. By the 1980s, such legislation had become common at the state and federal level, and in 1986 the federal False Claims Act was strengthened to give whistleblowers more rights. Despite being unpopular with businesses, the federal False Claims Act has withstood Supreme Court scrutiny and today serves as the most important of the many federal and state laws protecting whistleblowers.
State and federal whistleblower statutes generally fall into two categories: those that encourage whistleblowers by giving them some form of compensation for their action, such as the False Claims Act, and those that protect the whistleblower from retaliation, which constitute the majority of state and federal statutes. As of 2002, all 50 states provide some sort of whistleblower protection.