New Article: Producing Justice in Poor People’s Courts: Four Models of State Legal Actors

New Article: Tonya Brito, Producing Justice in Poor People’s Courts: Four Models of State Legal Actors, 24 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 145 (2020). Abstract below:

This Article examines how judges and government attorneys produce justice in poor people’s courts, which are characterized by a substantial volume of cases, socioeconomically disadvantaged litigants, and an absence or asymmetry of representation. The Article’s findings are drawn from an extensive qualitative empirical study of one type of poor people’s court, specifically family court proceedings where the state is pursuing child support from low- and no-income noncustodial fathers. Focusing on the judges and government lawyers who handle these cases, and drawing from their own accounts as well as on ethnographic in-court observations, I identify four distinct models of state legal actors that emerge from the study’s empirical data: navigators, bureaucrats, zealots, and reformers. These models are distinguished by the legal actors’ perceptions of the cases they handle, their conception of their role in the cases, their approach to enforcement and decision making, and how they produce justice in legal disputes involving poor and disadvantaged people.

Navigators are morally conflicted by the cases they see in poor people’s courts and, though they express sympathy for poor fathers who cannot pay support, they are also somewhat defensive about their own role and report feeling as if they themselves are in a bind. I refer to their enforcement and decision-making approach to the cases as a harm-reduction strategy because they attempt to keep the cases spinning in place to avoid the harshest outcome—civil incarceration— for poor fathers who fail to pay support. Bureaucrats view these cases as “open and shut” and, espousing a legal formalist approach, believe that they are simply doing their job without regard to questions of moral judgment. They deemphasize the discretion they enjoy and contend that they are evenhandedly administering justice. Zealots, by contrast, express hyper-moralistic views of the parents in child support cases and perceive the poor fathers uniformly as deadbeat dads. The judges and government attorneys who fall into this category view themselves as righteous child advocates and pursue an aggressive enforcement approach in order to make fathers into more responsible citizens. Finally, reformers have a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the moral complexities raised in these cases. They report being troubled by what is happening to the families in their courts and, through their efforts at change, take on the role of internal reformers.

This Article contributes theoretical insight into the scholarly debate about the meaning(s) of access to justice. Through an empirically rigorous and grounded exploration and analysis of how civil justice works in poor people’s courts, this Article finds that justice is not one story, but many.

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