The Institutional Mismatch of State Civil Courts

Colleen F. Shanahan, Columbia Law School
Jessica K. Steinberg, George Washington University Law School
Alyx Mark, Wesleyan University
Anna E. Carpenter, The University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

This article originally appeared in 122 Colum. L. Rev. 1471 (2022). Reprinted by permission.


State civil courts are central institutions in American democracy. Though designed for dispute resolution, these courts function as emergency rooms for social needs in the face of the failure of the legislative and executive branches to disrupt or mitigate inequality. We reconsider national case data to analyze the presence of social needs in state civil cases. We then use original data from courtroom observation and interviews to theorize how state civil courts grapple with the mismatch between the social needs people bring to these courts and their institutional design. This institutional mismatch leads to two roles of state civil courts that are in tension. First, state civil courts can function as violent actors. Second, they have become unseen, collective policymakers in our democracy. This mismatch and the roles that result should spur us to reimagine state civil courts as institutions. Such institutional change requires broad mobilization toward meeting people’s social needs across the branches of government and thus rightsizing state civil courts’ democratic role.