ProPublica recently published a heartbreaking, maddening, and deeply upsetting story about a local juvenile court and justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee. Make the time to read the article, if you can. I won't attempt to summarize it in detail, but the gist is that a local juvenile court judge, working with police and other local officials, unlawfully abused and jailed children over the course of decades, seemingly in violation of state and federal law, and basic human decency.
The article reminds us of a few things - things we already know, but perhaps have the privilege to forget. It reminds us that unchecked governmental institutions can cause human tragedy – tragedy that, because of who it befalls and where it happens, can exist out of the sightlines of the media. It reminds us that these tragedies can exist for decades without being addressed, and that we have little idea how widespread they are.
It reminds us, too, that it is local courts—not federal courts, not state supreme courts—that lie at the core of the justice system. Let me throw a few statistics at you. In 2015, 343,176 cases were filed in the federal courts. 86.2 million cases were filed in local courts (by “local courts,” I mean all trial-level state courts, including both general and limited jurisdiction courts). These cases are almost never appealed: appeals rate estimates for local courts range from 1% to 7% depending on the type of court, much lower than appeals rates from federal district court decisions. Judgments in these courts often do not take the form of written opinions, and proceedings are rarely transcribed, though they are often recorded.
Put these things together, and you get a picture of a set of institutions that are both deeply consequential to the people who use them, but also deeply opaque, out-of-sight, and rarely supervised. Add to this a few other things: many local court judges are not lawyers because in many places, they are not required to be; much local press has disappeared in recent years, providing less oversight of these courts; a set of judicial federalism doctrines (like preclusion, abstention, and habeas corpus) shelter these courts from federal judicial review; and local judges serving alone in rural areas can become quite isolated from others in the judicial community. Maybe it isn’t so shocking that tragedies like the one in Rutherford County can persist for so long.
What can we do about it? We can start by figuring out what legal academia even has to say about these courts. Local courts fall into a weird void within law schools. They don’t fit anywhere. Classes in State and Local Government Law don’t tend to cover them, perhaps because local government textbooks (at least the ones I’ve seen) don’t cover them. Federal Courts classes don’t cover local courts, even though the judicial federalism doctrines shelter them. Classes on State Constitutional Law focus on state supreme courts, even though local courts certainly interpret state constitutions (and the federal Constitution) - and with far more frequency than state supreme courts. Civil Procedure classes mostly focus on federal civil procedure. Some law school clinics do engage with local courts, and some criminal law classes focus on the criminal aspects of these courts. But by and large, chances are high that a law student will make it through all three years of law schools without realizing that the courts they primarily learn about dole out a tiny fraction of the justice generated by our justice system.
So perhaps the first step is to start introducing these courts into the law school curriculum. I won’t go so far as Nestor and call for requiring a class on these courts, but I will suggest that those who teach classes in fields that implicate local courts should incorporate them into their courses. If you want an easy way to do so, please be in touch! I would be happy to suggest content for a local court module.
In addition, consider asking students to visit these courts. They are generally close by, and sitting in on hearings can be truly eye-opening. Though these courts and the structures that surround them can shelter injustice, some states and local governments have also done terrific, innovative things with them. Arizona, for example, has piloted “community courts,” which offer social services and reduced sanctions for chronic offenders of low-level crimes. These programs, as well as the problems described in ProPublica's article, and the local courts that house them, deserve our attention.