This symposium Issue of the Columbia Law Review marks a moment of convergence and opportunity for an emerging field of legal scholarship focused on America’s state civil trial courts. Historically, legal scholarship has treated state civil courts as, at best, a mere footnote in conversations about civil law and procedure, federalism, and judicial behavior. But the status quo is shifting. As this Issue demonstrates, legal scholars are examining our most common civil courts as sites for understanding law, legal institutions, and how people experience civil justice. This engagement is essential for inquiries into how courts shape and respond to social needs and structural inequality and what all of this means for the present and future of American democracy.
Two key motivations drive scholarly interest in state civil courts. One motivation is generating knowledge. Historically, legal scholarship has largely ignored the most common and ordinary aspects of American civil justice in favor of studying the uncommon and the extraordinary. Thus, many of our core premises and assumptions—in civil procedure, administrative law, contracts, torts, and even constitutional law—are based on an understanding of only a sliver of formal civil justice activity. By case count, that slice is roughly two percent, the percentage of civil cases handled by federal courts each year, creating a glaring existential problem for legal scholarship. We need to know about the institutions that handle the other ninety-eight percent of civil matters to answer the most basic questions about civil law and the civil justice system, to say nothing of exploring broader social, economic, and political questions that intersect with civil courts’ work.
GW Paper Series
Columbia Law Review, Vol. 122, No. 5, 2022