The Institutional Mismatch of State Civil Courts

68 Pages Posted: 24 Jun 2022 Last revised: 12 Jun 2023

See all articles by Colleen F. Shanahan

Colleen F. Shanahan

Columbia University - Law School

Jessica Steinberg

George Washington University - Law School

Alyx Mark

Wesleyan University Dept. of Government; American Bar Foundation

Anna E. Carpenter

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

Date Written: April 15, 2022

Abstract

State civil courts are central institutions in American democracy. Though designed for dispute resolution, these courts function as emergency rooms for social needs in the face of the failure of the legislative and executive branches to disrupt or mitigate inequality. We reconsider national case data to analyze the presence of social needs in state civil cases. We then use original data from courtroom observation and interviews to theorize how state civil courts grapple with the mismatch between the social needs people bring to these courts and their institutional design. This institutional mismatch leads to two roles of state civil courts that are in tension. First, state civil courts can function as violent actors. Second, they have become unseen, collective policymakers in our democracy. This mismatch and the roles that result should spur us to reimagine state civil courts as institutions. Such institutional change requires broad mobilization toward meeting people’s social needs across the branches of government and thus rightsizing state civil courts’ democratic role.

Keywords: judges, civil procedure, access to justice, judicial behavior, state courts, legal profession, empirical research, housing, debt collection, family law

Suggested Citation

Shanahan, Colleen F. and Steinberg, Jessica and Mark, Alyx and Carpenter, Anna E., The Institutional Mismatch of State Civil Courts (April 15, 2022). 122 Columbia L. Rev. 1471 (2022), University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 503, GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2022-62, GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2022-62, Columbia Public Law Research Paper , Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4143712 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4143712

Colleen F. Shanahan (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

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

Jessica Steinberg

George Washington University - Law School ( email )

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

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)

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