Studying the 'New' Civil Judges

38 Pages Posted: 8 May 2018 Last revised: 5 Jul 2018

See all articles by Anna E. Carpenter

Anna E. Carpenter

The University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

Jessica Steinberg

George Washington University - Law School

Colleen F. Shanahan

Columbia University - Law School

Alyx Mark

Wesleyan University Dept. of Government; American Bar Foundation

Date Written: April 9, 2018


We know very little about the people and institutions that make up the bulk of the United States civil justice system: state judges and state courts. Our understanding of civil justice is based primarily on federal litigation and the decisions of appellate judges. Staggeringly little legal scholarship focuses on state courts and judges. We simply do not know what most judges are doing in their day-to-day courtroom roles or in their roles as institutional actors and managers of civil justice infrastructure. We know little about the factors that shape and influence judicial practices, let alone the consequences of those practices for courts, litigants, and the public. From top to bottom, we can describe and theorize about our existing civil justice system in only piecemeal ways. Given legal scholarship's near-complete focus on federal civil courts, the stories we tell about the civil justice system may be based on assumptions and models that only apply in the rarefied world of federal court. Meanwhile, state judges and courts--which handle ninety-nine percent of all civil cases--are ripe for theoretical and empirical exploration.

In response, we call for more research aimed at increasing our understanding of state civil courts and judges and offer a theoretical framework to support this work, one that reflects how state courts differ from federal courts. This framework is grounded in a core fact of American civil justice, one both easily observed and largely overlooked: the majority of parties in state civil courts are unrepresented. Given this new pro se reality, our theoretical framework identifies four novel assumptions to guide future research: (1) the adversary process is disappearing; (2) most state court business is still conducted through in-person interactions between judges and parties; (3) the judicial role is ethically ambiguous in pro se cases; and (4) a largely static body of written law has not kept pace with the evolving and dynamic issues facing state courts. Building on the growth of empiricism and empirically grounded theory in traditional legal scholarship and access to justice research, we call on scholars to develop theory and gather data to map the new reality of civil justice and judging in America, and suggest questions to guide future research.

Keywords: judges, courts, access to justice, legal profession

Suggested Citation

Carpenter, Anna E. and Steinberg, Jessica and Shanahan, Colleen F. and Mark, Alyx, Studying the 'New' Civil Judges (April 9, 2018). 2018 WIS. L.R. 249 (2018), GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2018-25, GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2018-25, Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2018-21, Available at SSRN:

Anna E. Carpenter

The University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law ( email )

383 S. University Street
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0730
United States
84112 (Fax)

Jessica Steinberg (Contact Author)

George Washington University - Law School ( email )

2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States

Colleen F. Shanahan

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States

Alyx Mark

Wesleyan University Dept. of Government ( email )

United States

American Bar Foundation ( email )

750 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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