Saturday, March 21, 2009

The judiciary and state politics

Placing State Supreme Courts in State Politics, by Brace, Hall and Langer, tries to place the various state supreme courts (although in the case of NY it is called the high court because the Supreme Court is the trial court level) within the state political context. In order to accomplish this, the article looks at the courts and their influence and how they were influenced in the abortion controversy.

The first thing that stuck out at me when reading this article was then last line in the abstract. “Moreover, by capitalizing on the analytical advantages of comparative state judicial politics scholarship, scholars will be able to solve some of the most complex puzzles in the study of state politics.” This is a pretty impressive claim that the author makes – and it immediately pulls me into the study to see if they really can prove this. While I find courts important, it would shock me to find that a study of court can solve most of the complex puzzles in state politics.

I found the overview of current research to be helpful. While I tend to enjoy judicial articles, I am in no way very knowledgeable about the field. This overview presented me with the main points. Additionally, the authors were able to state their problem with the current state of the research. The main problem that they had was that the research dealt with the micro-level behavior of the court, rather than the behavior of the court in the context of the state as a whole.
I think that this is primarily because the literature has always separated out the courts, and they are viewed as an isolated institution rather than one that plays a role in the day-to-day politics and policy making that is normally undertaken by the studies. I base this assumption on the reading we have done for our various classes. In the reading that we have been doing, the focus has been on major policy making in the legislative process and how different factors (gender, professionalism, and interest groups to name a few) can affect that process. However, the state courts don’t play much, if any, of a role in that process. Rather they belong to a different process that occurs once the legislative process is complete.

I did not find the discussion on the abortion proceedings to be of significance to the question of how the state court is placed into state politics. It seems to be common knowledge that a court can overturn a statute. However in a state court they can only overturn a statute as unconstitutional if it doesn’t match the constitution of the State. The abortion debate seems to indicate that they are overturning statutes in relation to the federal constitution. However, those are questions for the federal courts alone to answer. So I found the abortion discussion somewhat muddied by this fact. Additionally, they also looked at micro-behavior of the court – the behavior of individual judges in upholding or not upholding the statute. That seems to go against their view that you need to more broadly view the roles of the state courts.

Lastly, I did not find anything in this paper that indicated that the study of courts on a macro level would answer the most complex questions. I think that they proved courts matter – but I do not think that was ever in doubt. Additionally, they provided a very rough framework for how to view courts in a macro level, while still looking at the micro behavior of the court. So that was interesting. However, the initial draw to see how courts would fix state problems did not pan out, and that is disappointing.

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