The People's Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America

The People's Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America

by Jed Handelsman Shugerman


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In the United States, almost 90 percent of state judges have to run in popular elections to remain on the bench. In the past decade, this peculiarly American institution has produced vicious multi-million-dollar political election campaigns and high-profile allegations of judicial bias and misconduct. The People’s Courts traces the history of judicial elections and Americans’ quest for an independent judiciary—one that would ensure fairness for all before the law—from the colonial era to the present.

In the aftermath of economic disaster, nineteenth-century reformers embraced popular elections as a way to make politically appointed judges less susceptible to partisan patronage and more independent of the legislative and executive branches of government. This effort to reinforce the separation of powers and limit government succeeded in many ways, but it created new threats to judicial independence and provoked further calls for reform. Merit selection emerged as the most promising means of reducing partisan and financial influence from judicial selection. It too, however, proved vulnerable to pressure from party politics and special interest groups. Yet, as Shugerman concludes, it still has more potential for protecting judicial independence than either political appointment or popular election.

The People’s Courts shows how Americans have been deeply committed to judicial independence, but that commitment has also been manipulated by special interests. By understanding our history of judicial selection, we can better protect and preserve the independence of judges from political and partisan influence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674055483
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 02/27/2012
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 927,464
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Jed Handelsman Shugerman is Associate Professor at Fordham University School of Law.

Table of Contents

Introduction: America's Peculiar Institution 1

1 Declaring Judicial Independence 14

2 Judicial Challenges in the Early Republic 30

3 Judicial Elections as Separation of Powers 57

4 Panic and Trigger 84

5 The American Revolutions of 1848 103

6 The Boom in Judicial Review 123

7 Reconstructing Independence 244

8 The Progressives' Failed Solutions 159

9 The Great Depression, Crime, and the Revival of Appointment 177

10 The Puzzling Rise of Merit 208

11 Judicial Plutocracy after 1980 241

Conclusion: Interests, Ideas, and Judicial Independence 267

Appendixes 276

Notes 295

Acknowledgments 369

Index 373

What People are Saying About This

Robert W. Gordon

The People's Courts is the first comprehensive history of judicial elections, an exciting work that sharply challenges how we usually think about courts, constitutionalism, and democracy. For a long time to come this is going to be the definitive book on elected judiciaries.
Robert W. Gordon, Stanford Law School

Hendrik Hartog

A powerfully framed and comprehensive exploration of how judges and politicians (often politician-judges) responded to the apparent tensions between popular democracy and judicial independence. The People's Courts will be essential reading for everyone interested in the political history of the judiciary.
Hendrik Hartog, Princeton University

John Fabian Witt

This is an important book on a vastly important topic--the indispensable source for anyone interested in how the United States arrived at the 'peculiar institution' of judicial elections.
John Fabian Witt, Yale Law School

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