The People's Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America

Article excerpt

The People's Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America. By Jed Handelsman Shugerman. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. 381. $35.00.)

In this impressive piece of work, the author examines the history of popularly elected courts in the United States. The book is sweeping, covering debates over judicial organization and selection from the Jeffersonian era to the present. The core of the book, however, is focused on the decades before the Civil War, particularly the Jacksonian period. The United States is unusual in subjecting most of its judges to some form of election. The federal judiciary is the outlier in the American context with its reliance on political appointment of life-tenured judges, but the national courts tend to receive most of the scholarly and popular attention. State and local judges do much of the work of the American legal system, however, and understanding how these judicial systems were constructed and what the consequences of their organization might be remain important scholarly projects.

Jed Handelsman Shugerman's thesis is that the rise of judicial elections followed economic crisis. The recessions of the 1840s led political reformers to blame state legislators for political and economic mismanagement. Appointed judges were seen to be pawns of elected politicians. Judicial elections would create more distance between the courts and the legislatures and potentially empower judges to act in the public interest by reining in legislative power. Rather than being a partisan project of Jacksonian Democrats, the movement for judicial elections swept through the political system and became a broadly supported proposition. For the most part, reformers, led by constitutional drafters in New York, got what they wanted: more independent-minded judges willing and able to exercise the power of judicial review and influence state economic policy. …