Approaches to Federal Judicial History: The Federal Courts and Criminal Justice

Approaches to Federal Judicial History, Forthcoming

Vanderbilt Law Research Paper No. 18-23

23 Pages Posted: 21 May 2018 Last revised: 6 Jun 2018

See all articles by Sara Mayeux

Sara Mayeux

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Date Written: May 7, 2018


Mass incarceration has long constituted not only a sociological fact and a moral disaster in the United States, but also a major sector of the public and private economy; a significant component of ideologies of race, gender, and sexuality; and a distorting influence upon electoral processes and deliberative democracy. What role has the federal judiciary played in this complex history? This short historiographical essay provides a brief and necessarily selective introduction to exemplary scholarship addressing the relationship between the federal courts and criminal justice in U.S. history, and seeks to encourage historians of the carceral state—even or especially those who do not define themselves primarily as legal historians—to join the conversation. The essay is structured around three of the most significant ways in which the federal judiciary has historically made and enforced criminal justice policy: by adjudicating federal criminal prosecutions; by reviewing state-court convictions, via federal habeas jurisdiction; and by reforming state prisons and local jails, via constitutional conditions-of-confinement litigation. This essay was prepared at the invitation of the Federal Judicial History Office for a forthcoming volume.

Keywords: mass incarceration, criminal justice, federal courts, federal judiciary, article iii, habeas, carceral state

Suggested Citation

Mayeux, Sara, Approaches to Federal Judicial History: The Federal Courts and Criminal Justice (May 7, 2018). Approaches to Federal Judicial History, Forthcoming, Vanderbilt Law Research Paper No. 18-23, Available at SSRN: or

Sara Mayeux (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States

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