What's So Special about Specialized Courts? the State and Social Change in Salt Lake City's Domestic Violence Court

Article excerpt

The nationwide growth in specialized or problem-solving courts, including drug courts, community courts, mental health courts, and domestic violence courts, among others, raises questions about the role of the state with respect to social change. According to social control theories of the state, especially theories of technocratic or rationalized justice, law is increasingly about efficiency, speed, and effectiveness. Specialized courts, however, take on a social problem approach to crime, seeking to address crime's "root causes" within the individual, the society, and the larger culture in ways more characteristic of social movements. Are specialized courts about social control or social change? This study examines state action in a specialized court in domestic violence in order to examine this question. I focus on a domestic violence court that arose in February 1997 and four years later employed full-time judges, prosecuting and defense attorneys, and numerous other staff to handle all misdemeanor domestic violence cases in Salt Lake County, Utah. I ask how legal, political, and community officials justify the court and its operation in order to examine some important issues about the role of the state and social change. Ultimately, I suggest that my findings about the complementary roles of social control and social change within domestic violence courts have implications not only for critical theories of technocratic justice and for the battered women's movement but also for democratic theories of the state.

Techniques for making justice speedier and more efficient have produced legal innovations since the Progressive Era and before (Heydebrand & Seron 1990; Resnik 1982, 1985, 2002; Fiss 1983, 1984). Referred to as technocratic or rationalized justice (Heydebrand & Seron 1990)-a move from adjudication to administration-innovations have included unified dockets, more plea bargains and pretrial settlements, managerial judges, additional administrative staff, and an integrated judicial system. Special courts implementing these changes in the Progressive Era included juvenile courts, family courts, and small claims courts; later, also specialized housing, traffic, and narcotics courts (Heydebrand & Seron 1990:25). The 1990s brought a new nationwide movement toward special courts, now also called problem-solving courts (Goldkamp 2002; Herman & Feinblatt 2001; Butts 2001; Center for Court Innovation 2003), including drug courts, community courts, mental health courts, and domestic violence courts.1 And the legal community has greeted these latest organizational innovations with enthusiasm. The American Bar Association (American Bar Association 2001), the Conference of Chief Justices (Conference of Chief Justices 2000), and the Conference of State Court Administrators (Conference of State Court Administrators 2000) each unanimously adopted resolutions endorsing the new courts. In February 2002, the Fordham University Law School hosted an interdisciplinary symposium addressing the legal and social issues involved in the transition from the adversarial system to the problem-solving court system. Former Attorney General Janet Reno reiterated her support of problem-solving courts, and Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, of the New York Court of Appeals, called problem-solving courts "by far the most exciting, most promising recent development in the law" (Kaye 2002:1925).

Supporters of problem-solving courts claim that the courts allow legal officials to respond not only to individual troubles but also to broader social issues as communities identify them. But what happens when the social problem-solving goals of problem-solving courts confront their technocratic imperatives? How does the court's orientation to technocratic justice-the administrative goals of efficiency, effectiveness, and speed-combine with a social change orientation? The domestic violence court, the focus of this study, carries with it both of these imperatives: as a state institution, it contains technocratic imperatives, but as a problem-solving court and an outgrowth of the battered women's movement, it also contains substantive or value imperatives. …