The Structures of Local Courts
76 Pages Posted: 10 Jun 2020 Last revised: 22 Sep 2020
Date Written: May 11, 2020
Local courts are, by far, the most commonly used courts in our justice system. Cases filed in local courts outnumber those filed in federal court by a factor of over two hundred. Few litigants who receive local-court judgments appeal the matter further. The justice we possess is thus largely the justice created by local courts, but they are largely absent from the law school curriculum. We know astonishingly little about them.
This Article begins to remedy that absence by providing a structural account of local courts that situates them as distinct institutions within the justice system. Because local courts are influenced by all levels of government—federal, state, and local—they exhibit a radical diversity—not just between states but within them, and not just in the way that they operate but in their organizing principles. The Article links the many problems experienced by local courts—chronic underfunding and a lack of oversight cause problems that run deep—with the state and federal structures that shape local-court function and administration. On the state side, the Article analyzes hand-coded, raw survey data from the National Center for State Courts to describe the interactions between local courts and administrative bodies within state judicial branches. Although States differ, administrative distance between state and local institutions joined with the rarity of appeals from local-court judgments makes local courts meaningfully independent from the state system. Federal law compounds this independence by sheltering local courts from external scrutiny. Judicial federalism doctrines like preclusion, abstention, and habeas corpus require federal courts to defer to the legal and factual findings of local courts. Federal enforcement doctrines like standing and immunity protect local courts from legal reform efforts.
The Article then reevaluates our theories of judicial federalism in light of the diversity and problems of local courts. It argues that the values of judicial federalism invoked by both courts and scholars rely on the fiction that state courts are monoliths. In fact, the reality of state courts—including the diversity and relative obscurity of local courts—frustrate these values. Instead, the Article argues that the more valuable conceptual function of local courts is not normative but rather descriptive: they provide us with an understanding of the justice we have, not the justice we aspire to or the justice required by law. They—and not federal courts—are the starting points from which we should define and evaluate our system of justice.
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