On the Future of State Courts Research

By Yates, Jeff | Justice System Journal, September 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

On the Future of State Courts Research


Yates, Jeff, Justice System Journal


The future of research on state courts is, in many ways, not too different from the future of most other political- science topics or subfields. It faces some of the same challenges and pitfalls as others, as well as the same potential for intriguing new insights and breakthroughs. Yet, in some ways, it is unique. Some aspects of its distinctive path in the academy have been due to customs and norms within the field of political science, and some are attributable to the innate challenges of this research endeavor. Accordingly, I will touch on matters that are perhaps common to research in other fields as well as matters that might be considered special to state courts research.

KEEPING IT INTERESTING

Will state courts research essentially run out of novel topics or new ideas? I think that this is no more problematic for state courts than it is for any other field or research topic. It is easy for a field to become stagnant in its research endeavors, and no field is immune from this possibility. To avoid stagnation of research in state courts, we need to carefully consider what types of research questions and methods are worthwhile. Although this point may seem somewhat abstract, it defines itself in very practical ways through peer-review decisions and the judgments of editors, conference section heads, award committees, and, ultimately, readers.

If the peer-review process can be fairly accused of something, it is that it provides authors with incentives to be a bit too cautious and narrow in the range of questions that they ask and how those questions are approached. In state courts research there are a multitude of intriguing questions and phenomena to be analyzed. However, if we are engaging in rational self-preservation (most especially as untenured faculty), then we tend toward addressing incremental improvements to rather old questions. This is not to say that such an approach does not have its place in the discipline - it does - because refinement of traditional scholarship has merit. But it should not drive the discipline. Of course, this problem is often simply one of degree; there is research that is incremental in its contribution, and then there is research that is essentially derivative - yet both are frequently published. In contrast, some studies take on novel questions or engage literatures that are not commonplace in political science - and often seem to pay the price in peer review and editorial decisions. The fact that a study asks questions that are not steeped in the dominant literature or does not follow conventional approaches does not necessarily mean that the existing literature is being shunned or that the reseaich fails to ask "big" or "important" questions; it may simply mean that new paths of intet est are developing. If the discipline is to avoid stagnation and remain vibrant, then it must welcome research that pushes the boundaries of the field and probes new insights.

CLAIMING AN IDENTITY

This brings us to a challenge that faces law and courts study more generally. If the field is to flourish, then it cannot be all things to all people within political science. It must find, and stake claim to, its own identity. While we should always consider courts in broader context, this does not mean that state courts research should be considered as a mere subset of American politics research. This really gets to the point of what questions are to be asked, rather than whether context should be considered; clearly, context within the broader milieu of American politics matters, and proper controls should always be incorporated in any study. However, not all questions that are compelling and worthwhile in law and courts, and especially in state courts, involve questions about how courts or legal actors interact with, or are influenced by, other major political actors (e.g., Congress, state legislatures, executives, etc). Interesting and important questions on state courts research may focus on matters that do not necessarily lend themselves to traditionally popular questions from American politics research.

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