The Rise of Judicial Management in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas, 1955-2000, by Steve Harmon Wilson. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002. 559 pp.
In The Rise of Judicial Management, part of Studies in the Legal History of the South, historian Steven Harmon Wilson sets his sights on the often-understudied federal district courts and attempts to position his research on the Southern District of Texas at the intersection of legal history and social scientific analysis. These are certainly laudable goals; even a cursory glance at the political science and history literature reveals both a bias toward the higher federal courts and little or no cross-disciplinary communication, with frequent duplication of efforts. However, I begin with a quick forewarning to potential readers: The Rise of Judicial Management is first and foremost a narrative, historical account of the judges and cases before the courts of the Southern District of Texas that offers little in the way of critical analysis, social scientific evidence, or generalizable assertions on judicial management. That said, readers of Justice System Journal may best appreciate the book as a case study on the difficulties of judicial prioritization and implementation.
Wilson argues in his introduction that changes in the quantity and substance of litigation from 1955 to 2000, coupled with federal directives, necessarily changed the operation of the Southern District court and led to the rise of judicial management. Wilson distinguishes among three varieties of judicial management: docket management (maintaining efficient and orderly caseflow), case management (guiding complex litigation through the courts), and public-law litigation (using judicial power outside the courtroom to achieve broad social reform). Wilson gives the most attention to the third of these, public-law litigation, and relies upon the definition of litigation coined by Abram Chayes in which the judge is both "the creator and manager of complex forms of ongoing relief, which have widespread effects on persons not before the court and require the judge's continuing involvement in administration and implementation" (p. 7).
The eight chapters are grouped chronologically and by subject matter. This organizing strategy probably does the least justice to the two chapters dealing with public-school desegregation and integration efforts, separating them by 140 pages. Chapter 1 focuse:- upon challenges in the first decade after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), while chapter 5 picks up the story in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The judicial responses to segregation in the Southern District can be broadly characterized as incremental in nature, and as increasingly less tolerant of the school districts' proclivity to stall. Wilson provides a good description of judges' tactics in developing remedies, including injunctions, advisory panels, hearings, and adoption of federal guidelines fashioned by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).
Because of southern Texas's large Hispanic population, which was considered to be legally "white," desegregation there posed a number of unusual problems for district judges and litigants. Although the legal barriers erected for African-Americans did not apply to Hispanics, there was much de facto discrimination against MexicanAmericans with respect to linguistic segregation and school districts' reliance upon "neighborhood schools." The distinction between de jure and de facto discrimination is borne out in several desegregation cases that Wilson follows in great detail. In Ross v. Houston Independent School District (1957, 1960) plaintiff African-American parents relied on the Supreme Court's opinion in Brown, whereas in Hemandez v. Driscoll Consolidated Independent School District (1957), the plaintiff Mexican-American parents chose not to rely on Brown's reasoning. Because at that time the Court had not clarified whether Brown applied to nonblack racial minorities, African-Americans argued that their segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause, while Mexican-Americans, not eager to give up their "white" legal status, based their legal arguments on the Due Process Clause.
While the differences between African-Americans' and Mexican-Americans' legal struggles are intriguing, the way in which Wilson frames these differences tends to minimize them. A more explicitly comparative analysis would be useful in tracing the history from the formation of plaintiffs' legal strategies to the judges' initial remedies and on to the continuing oversight of implementation of remedies. The comparison-in chapter 5-of judicial management in Ross v. Houston Independent School District (1957, 1960) with Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Independent School District (1970) is the one of the few places where Wilson synthesizes his findings concisely and clearly. He concludes that African-Americans were largely successful in resorting to the courts, but Hispanic victories in the 1950s and 1960s had "very limited effect in terms of ending discrimination" (p. 39). The author should not have left unexplored an observation such as this, particularly when a large body of political-science literature addresses the role of courts as policy makers and their efficacy (or lack thereof) in implementation. The fact that Wilson fails to discuss Gerald Rosenberg's The Hollow Hope and subsequent critical responses to it indicates that Wilson remains almost exclusively situated in legal history rather than in social science.
In chapter 2, Wilson draws attention to rising caseloads from 1950 to 1960, although the chart used to illustrate these increases actually shows the growth in civil cases to be relatively flat over the period. There is a good discussion of the movement to increase the size of the federal judiciary in the 1960s and the evolution of the political environment that allowed for the creation of more district judgeships under Kennedy in 1961 and Johnson in 1966. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to problems of legal distinction and statutory definition in maritime law and land-based workers' claims.
Chapters 3 and 6 are dedicated to criminal cases before the Southern District, particularly immigration violations and narcotics smuggling, where again, the Southern District's proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border played a prominent role in the challenges the district judges faced. Surges in immigration and narcotics cases reflected national policy emphases on strong border justice as well as the emerging primacy of the prosecutor over the judge. Wilson observes that the increasing number of federal prosecutions in the Southern District "was an accurate reflection of the increase in the number of crimes being committed on the border" (p. 118), not a result of more aggressive law enforcement. But while the district's judicial personnel may have believed or hoped this to be true, Wilson fails to provide any support for this contention and does not reconcile his statement with examples he gives elsewhere of enforcement officials' abuse of their role.
In response to the similarity of cases in their dockets in the 1960s, judges in the district's divisions near the border developed a number of managerial strategies; these included assembly-line docket management, "collective" trials of undocumented immigrants, and a plea-bargaining "template" for narcotics offenders. The "collective" trials, in particular, represent an early response to managing the tension between the values of equity and efficiency in administering justice. In response to the need to clear both dockets and jail cells for more serious crimes, the border-division judges periodically called in dozens of undocumented immigrants waiting for indictment, who then waived their right to counsel, entered guilty pleas, and received suspended sentences before (usually) being repatriated to Mexico. Wilson explores how the Southern District interpreted the Speedy Trial Act of 1974 into formal operating rules and, on the civil side, held a "blitz" docket call in 1977 to clear out hundreds of old, unresolved cases. There is a brief mention here about the introduction of a. caseweighting system in the Southern District, although more attention is paid to the division of labor among judges as a means to cope with workload demands. Readers wanting more in-depth discussion of court management, as it is broadly understood, will likely be frustrated by Wilson's making only passing mentions of it.
Chapter 4 deals with the implications of federalism for what Wilson calls "structural reform litigation." In the 1960s, traditional federal-state distinctions and the judicial principles of comity and abstention were challenged by civil-rights cases, as the Supreme Court's decisions in Monroe v. Pape (1961) and Dombrowski v. Pfister (1963) created exceptions to the abstention doctrine and triggered increases in federal civil-rights suits under section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. However, when the Burger Court, in Younger v. Harris (1971), advised federal district judges to refrain from enjoining state laws if a criminal prosecution was already underway, save for evidence of bad faith or official harassment, many civil-rights questions were to be left to the state courts for resolution. Within this shifting environment, the Southern District grappled to find a workable interpretation of federalism to resolve section 1983 cases. Here, Wilson looks beyond the impact on judges to include the ways that the federalism debate affected the legal strategy of the Mexican-American community in fighting discrimination. This chapter also describes Southern District judges' differing responses to First Amendment challenges and state morals enforcement, which Wilson attributes to divergent understandings of the role of federal courts.
The book's final two chapters promise to describe the increased role of judicial adjuncts, including clerks, staff attorneys, and magistrate judges. However, chapter 7 primarily focuses on judicial oversight of two major corporate misconduct cases decided in the district, which provide examples of an increased emphasis on settlement and, in one, on the use of a special master. Most of Wilson's discussion, however, continues in the vein of early chapters on judicial oversight.
The final chapter focuses on prison-reform litigation in the 1980s, when the influx of prisoner civil-rights cases required the district's judges to delegate some oversight responsibilities to special masters and magistrate judges. Wilson offers a solid comparison of the handling of two prison-overcrowding cases, Alberti v. Sheriff of Harris County (1975) and Ruiz v. Estelle (1980), and illuminates the district's pilot program for managing prisoner civil-rights cases, which relied heavily upon magistrate judges. He then jumps back to the war on drugs, with a relatively brief overview of changes in the district under the Reagan and Clinton administrations. The concluding chapter, a mere three pages, again emphasizes the increasing discretionary power of the prosecutor relative to the judge and the flood of narcotics prosecutions, in the absence of adequate judicial personnel to process the rising caseloads. Wilson closes with a rather pessimistic quote from a former Southern District court clerk, Jesse E. Clark, who likens the district's unfilled judgeships and overburdened dockets to a traffic jam: "There are too many cars and too little cement" (p. 358).
Overall, The Rise of Judicial Management is a dense, richly detailed description of the competing interests at work in the Southern District of Texas during the last half of the twentieth century. This richness of detail stems from the author's copious use of court documents (case files, published opinions, memos, and the like), judicial biography, and oral history to flesh out the district judges' perspectives. A notable contribution of the volume is Wilson's attention to the Southern District's unique environment, particularly in terms of its dealings with tri-ethnic integration, border justice, and federalism's impact on civil-rights litigation and narcotics policy. By selecting a district so close to Mexico, Wilson presents a new angle to the often-studied areas of school desegregation and the emergence of drug cases in federal criminal justice. The attention paid to the messiness of implementing judicial decrees, frequently glossed over by legal scholars but captured well throughout this book, also is commendable. Wilson errs on the side of being over-inclusive in his choice of subject matter; coupled with his use of thick description, this makes the narrative seem unfocused.
Wilson falls short, however, in his attempt to meld historical research with social science. The book lacks an overarching analytical framework, nor does the author cite any of the relevant empirical political-science literature on judicial implementation or federal district judges. This further obscures the major theme laid out in the introduction and the book's title: the rise of judicial management. It might be more accurate to say that this book is a chronological account of a federal district court rather than an analysis of judicial responses to the changing nature of litigation. Practitioners seeking insights on judicial management, although they may find much of the subject matter interesting, will likely learn nothing new here. For social scientists, this book has potential to inform understanding of how a trial court actually operates, particularly in lengthy and complex litigation, but the lack of framework hinders its usefulness for them. Certainly, Wilson's work is timely for the contemporary debate about "activist judges" and the proper role of the judiciary in resolving contentious social problems, but readers are left to draw their own conclusions about whether the federal district courts were the best-situated institution to tackle challenges like desegregation.
Alberti v. Sheriff of Harris County, 406 F. Supp. 649 (S.D. Tex., 1975).
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Independent School District, 324 F. Supp. 599 (S.D. Tex., 1970).
Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479 (1963).
Hernandez v. Driscoll Consolidated Independent School District (S.D. Tex., 1957, cited in Wilson, p. 39).
Houston Independent School District v. Ross, 364 U.S. 803 (1960).
Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961).
Ross v. Rogers, 2 Race Rel. L. Rptr. 1114 (S.D. Tex., 1957).
Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F. Supp. 1265 (S.D. Tex., 1980).
Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971).
LAURA MOYER is a political science doctoral student studying law and courts at the University of Georgia, where she also received her master of public administration. She has contributed an earlier piece to this Journal commemorating its twenty-fifth volume. E-mail: email@example.com…