Trial court judges are often referred to as the workhorses of the judicial system. This is unsurprising given that millions of civil and criminal cases are filed and resolved in U.S. state and federal trial courts each year. Very few of these cases ever reach appellate courts, meaning that trial courts are often the first and only court with which people directly interact. At the same time, trial courts can make local and national policy, both in individual cases and in the aggregate. This important role of trial courts and their actors has not gone unnoticed by scholars across social science disciplines. One can consider trial courts in a broad sense by tracking the historical developments that led to the trial courts in the United States. As caseloads have increased, trial courts—particularly those with specialized jurisdictions—have been created out of necessity. State trial courts feature variation in their judicial selection methods, including elections and appointments. At the federal level, increased polarization has led to contentious partisan confirmation battles for federal trial court judges. Trials are a rare occurrence, with plea agreements and settlements being the most frequent methods of resolving cases. To understand trial court actor behavior, it is important to remember that state and federal trial courts sit at the bottom of their judicial hierarchies. The preferences of their hierarchical superiors, along with the presence of high trial court caseloads and the rarity of trials, rein in judges’ discretion and the potential effects of their personal characteristics and attitudes. Because of these judge constraints, actors such as prosecutors, defense attorneys, and juries play a significant role in trial court outcomes. As the literature reveals, the “repeat players” in trial courts hold significant advantages over less experienced litigants and attorneys that affect their likelihood of gaining favorable outcomes, among other things. Race and gender of these actors can have significant effects on behavior in certain types of cases. There are many hurdles that remain for scholars seeking to study trial courts. For example, state trial courts, in particular, continue to be difficult to study empirically. This is due largely to a lack of data availability. Relatedly, scholars must continue to strive to find ways to study trial court outcomes and events that do not lead to published opinions—for example settlements, plea bargains, prosecutorial declinations, and many decided motions. Each of these involves important decisions and outcomes that affect parties and may be affected by judges and lawyers.
Christina L. Boyd and Adam G. Rutkowski
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has generated considerable controversy since it came into force in 2002, principally because of its overriding focus on African conflict situations and suspects. This has led to accusations that the ICC is a neocolonial meddler in African affairs, wielding undue and unaccountable influence over the domestic political arena. Drawing on the author’s field research in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2006 this article contends that the neocolonialism critique of the ICC exaggerates the power of the Court while underestimating the capacity of African states to use the ICC to their own ends. Delivering distanced justice from The Hague with limited expertise on African societies and spending scant time in the field, the ICC has failed to grapple sufficiently with complex political dynamics “on the ground.” Combined with the Court’s heavy reliance on state cooperation, these factors have enabled African governments to use the ICC to target their political and military enemies while protecting themselves from prosecution. This has also emboldened African states in continuing to commit atrocity crimes against civilians, especially during periods of mass conflict and fraught national elections. While claiming to hover above the political fray, the ICC has become heavily politicized and instrumentalized by African states, with lasting and damaging consequences for the practice of national politics across Africa. To avoid being willfully used by African governments, the ICC must bolster its political expertise and become politically savvier. Rather than claiming to be neutral while hovering above the domestic terrain, the ICC must embrace its inherently political nature and deliver justice in a way that improves rather than undermines the practice of national and community-level politics across Africa.
Michael J. Nelson and James L. Gibson
Even though most judges in the United States stand for election in the context of strong normative objections to the practice of electing judges, political scientists have produced a surprisingly thin theoretical framework for understanding how judicial campaigns affect voters. This paucity of research is particularly surprising given the increasingly politicized environment in which judicial elections operate. The literature on judicial campaigns is well-served to draw upon the well-trodden research about campaign effects for executive and legislative office. In some important respects, however, judicial contests differ from those for executive or legislative office. To this end, the Expectancy Theory pioneered by James L. Gibson provides an important theoretical development, emphasizing that the effects of judicial campaigns are highly conditional upon variation in voters’ willingness to tolerate different types of campaign activity. Moreover, the effects of campaigns are highly dependent on the context of both institutional design and voters’ own experiences with judicial elections.