Vol. 27 No. 6 (July 2017) pp. 101-104

AMERICAN COURTS EXPLAINED: A DETAILED INTRODUCTION TO THE LEGAL PROCESS USING REAL CASES, by Gregory Mitchell and David Klein. St. Paul, MN: West Academic Publishing. 2016. 247pp. Softbound $49.00. ISBN 978-1-63459-879-8.

Reviewed by Christopher P. Banks, Department of Political Science, Kent State University. Email: cbanks6 [at]

AMERICAN COURTS EXPLAINED uses two actual cases, COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY V. WOODALL (a criminal case) and PROMOTION IN MOTION V. BEECH-NUT (a civil case) as the basis for taking students through a detailed examination of the adversarial process from start to finish. Designed as a stand-alone or supplemental text, it differs from other judicial process textbooks that present course material in a more conventional format that typically analyze topics such as the nature and origins of law, judicial organization, judicial selection, the legal profession, criminal and civil litigation, and appellate decision-making, and judicial policy-making. While most, but not all, of those areas of study are addressed by Mitchell and Klein, their exploration is contextualized within the framework of the Woodall kidnapping, rape and murder trial, and the Beech-nut breach of contract and warranty civil action. In a rather unique way, the book discusses relevant concepts by detailing the “law of procedure” underlying each case, thereby elucidating “how cases get filed in court and how they progress through the state and federal courts.” (p. 202). In short, the main cases serve as the template to analyze select topics within the judicial process in an effort to underscore their conceptual significance to the study of law and courts, and politics in general. Moreover, in the preface the authors explain that the book is a “descendant” (p. iii) of Daniel Meador and Mitchell’s AMERICAN COURTS, a casebook that is used in law schools and part of West’s American Casebook series. In this sense, AMERICAN COURTS EXPLAINED is an analogous textbook that is aiming for a share of the undergraduate liberal arts market.

In order to accomplish its aims, the first chapter logically introduces students to the WOODALL criminal case and the PROMOTION IN MOTION civil action. Undoubtedly, both are interesting in their own right and each illustrates the procedural and substantive complexities of criminal prosecutions and civil litigation. In WOODALL, the defendant, a former sex offender that was recently released from prison, was prosecuted and ultimately convicted of the brutal kidnapping, rape, and murder of a sixteen-year old victim that was snatched from a convenience store in Greenville, Kentucky after she drove there to rent a movie. After a grand jury indictment, the prosecutor indicated that the Commonwealth would seek the death penalty at trial, and the defendant initially pled not guilty even though the police were able to secure shoeprint, fingerprint, and DNA evidence that strongly suggested that he was guilty as charged. Shortly before trial, and after a successful defense motion to change the trial’s venue to another location, Woodall changed his plea to “guilty,” which meant that the only remaining issue was whether he should be put to death after a sentencing hearing. At the sentencing hearing, the trial judge refused a defense counsel request to instruct the jury to not draw any negative inferences about Woodall’s decision to not take the stand and testify. After the jury sentenced him to death, the trial judge’s decision became the basis for state and federal court appeals (including habeas corpus) that ultimately affirmed his death sentence over a span of sixteen years.

In contrast, PROMOTION IN MOTION, which took four years to litigate, is a civil action that involved a breach of contract claim filed by Promotion in Motion against Beech-Nut Nutrition Corporation in a New Jersey trial court after Beech-Nut removed Fruit Nibbles from the market, a product that Promotion in Motion manufactured and packaged for Beech-Nut. [*102] Beech-Nut did so after receiving customer complaints and internal quality control reports indicating that the Fruit Nibbles’ product, which was ingested by toddlers, degraded in a short period of time after was put in stores, thus making it “shriveled, disgusting-looking snacks” of poor quality (p. 7). After successfully removing the case to a federal trial court, Beech-Nut not only denied in its answer that it breached their agreement but also filed a counter-claim seeking damages against Promotion in Motion, alleging that the failure to deliver acceptable Fruit Nibbles breached express and implied warranties of merchantability and fitness. Subsequently, Beech-Nut eliminated its own liability after it received a favorable motion for summary judgment against Promotion in Motion, a development that left Promotion in Motion potentially liable for damages on Beech-Nut’s breach of warranty claims. After a jury trial, Beech-Nut prevailed and received a $2.2 million damage award which Promotion in Motion paid in full after pursuing an unsuccessful appeal before a federal appellate court.

Before moving to an explanation about where (geographic, subject matter, and personal jurisdiction) and how (filing complaints and related procedures) criminal and civil actions begin, chapter two supplies a basic overview of the organization, docket composition, and staffing mechanisms of state and federal courts. In relation to the subsequent chapters, chapter two is the most conventional because it conveys the same type of information that is commonly found in other judicial process textbooks: the dual system of courts and their organizational structure, the origins of law, the types of cases (or business) appearing on criminal and civil dockets, judicial federalism, and judicial selection processes of federal and state courts are all briefly touched upon. Taking on the larger concepts about how federal and state courts intersect with each other obviates the need to discuss the main cases that serve as the framework for the book’s analysis of key topics; but their discussion provides the background and context for grasping the procedural logistics and complexities of the WOODALL and PROMOTION IN MOTION cases, a narrative that begins in earnest in chapter three.

Chapter three uses the facts and legal claims underlying WOODALL and PROMOTION IN MOTION to explain how state and federal courts have the jurisdictional power to adjudicate criminal and civil actions, initially focusing on the particulars of the constitutional requirements of establishing venue and proper forums. Thereafter, the discussion turns to detailing the formal processes of filing complaints in civil actions and initiating criminal prosecutions through the preliminary stages of arraignments, preliminary hearings, bail postings, and grand jury indictments. In the course of the discussion, other subjects, such as Department of Justice policy on federal and state prosecutions, venue, statute of limitations, access to legal representation, and the differences between misdemeanor and felony crimes, are briefly outlined in sidebars or boxes that appear in between the narrative text. Similar boxes are situated in all of the chapters and they generally are helpful sidebar discussions that flesh out concepts and practical tools for understanding ideas relating to the legal process, such as comprehending what a legal “case” is (chapter one), interpreting legal citations (chapter two), identifying what “Rambo Attorneys” are in civil actions (chapter four), defining hearsay evidence and listing common objections to evidence in trials (chapter five), outlining the requirements of judicial recusal (chapter six), and elucidating the standards of judicial review of executive actions and the methodologies of constitutional and statutory interpretation (chapter seven).

Chapter four addresses the pretrial stage, initially concentrating on explaining the key point that the parties engaged in litigation often seek procedural advantages through adversarial (and not inquisitorial) combat that is largely dictated by their attorneys’ decision-making. Beginning with PROMOTION IN MOTION, the authors introduce students to the particulars and strategies related to filing motions to dismiss or summary judgements, along with asserting affirmative defenses in response to civil complaints. Next, the discovery process is [*103] outlined by analyzing how lawyers employ different motions to gain information through depositions, subpoenas, interrogatories, and request to admit facts; and, why Beech-Nut decided to move for summary judgement, a key filing that successfully ended that company’s liability exposure and shifted the focus to whether Promotion in Motion would have to pay damages for diminishing the value of all of the Fruit Nibbles product during the manufacturing and packaging process, an issue that still had to be resolved by trial. Thereafter, in examining the pretrial phase in criminal cases, Mitchell and Klein use WOODALL to show how the procedural milieu underlying prosecutions differs from civil litigation in the course of explaining the nature of prosecutorial discretion, standards of proof, pretrial publicity, guilty pleas, and plea agreements.

The significance of trials, which the authors characterize as registering the popular belief that they are the “centerpiece of the American judicial system,” is addressed in chapter five. (p. 91). After showing that trials are a rarity for a variety of reasons, the authors deftly use WOODALL and PROMOTION IN MOTION to illustrate different aspects of the criminal and civil trial processes. Perhaps more so than any other chapter, Mitchell and Klein make effective use of trial transcripts to demonstrate select concepts, such as voir dire and for cause challenges during jury selection in Woodall’s criminal prosecution (pp. 103-106), and how opening statements (pp. 117-119) and witness testimony (pp. 121-122) are key elements of framing the theory of the case and securing evidence in the PROMOTION IN MOTION civil action. Along the way, the authors make a number of different points that underscore the importance of law and fact distinctions, jury instructions, burdens of proof, the rules of evidence, proffering evidence, closing arguments, jury deliberations, jury verdicts, and post-trial motions.

The receipt of adverse trial judgments in PROMOTION IN MOTION and WOODALL allow for the cases to become the vehicle to analyze the appeals process in chapter six. By reprinting an excerpt from the Third Circuit’s opinion that rejected Promotion in Motion’s appeal of the trial judge’s summary judgment ruling (dismissing its breach of contract claim against Beech-Nut) and the jury’s verdict in favor of Beech-Nut (awarding damages), the authors illustrate that appeals’ court affirmances are the “norm” in appellate litigation (p. 135). A similar rule of appellate court deference is applied in Woodall’s criminal prosecution—both the Kentucky Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court’s refusal to instruct the jury about not making any adverse inferences about the accused’s failure to testify at the sentencing hearing was a violation of the Fifth Amendment self-incrimination principle. Mitchell and Klein extend the discussion on appellate procedure by using the private papers and conference notes of Justice Lewis Powell to illustrate how appellate courts circulate draft opinions between the justices’ chambers during the writing process as they weigh different interpretations of key precedents that will ultimately resolve the Fifth Amendment issue (pp. 141-146). Chapter six is also distinctive in undertaking a brief but thorough analysis of the process underlying filing habeas corpus petitions, an application that was first heard (and partially granted) in the U.S. district court, but later granted for review in the U.S. Supreme Court after it passed through the Sixth Circuit.

Woodall’s habeas petition, which at the case’s conclusion was denied, thus affords the authors the opportunity to highlight the role that the U.S. Supreme Court plays in the American legal system in chapter seven. The analysis uses a variety of sources, including data from the Supreme Court database and oral argument transcripts, to describe the political and legal significance of Supreme Court procedures and decision-making. Several topics, ranging from explaining the dynamics of the certiorari process to underscoring the importance of amicus curiae briefs, the involvement of the U.S. Solicitor General, oral argument, and the implications of attitudinal and other methods of judicial decision-making, are adroitly covered.

The book’s brief concluding chapter adopts a theme of complexity to discuss the issues [*104] relating to bringing multiple claims involving multiple parties in criminal and civil actions. After initially treating the issue with somewhat technical analyses of the principles underlying claim preclusion and compulsory counter-claims, the bulk of the chapter deals with rules and controversies surrounding class action lawsuits seeking either injunctive relief or damages; collecting judgments; and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms (arbitration and mediation, mostly).

On balance, AMERICAN COURTS EXPLAINED is an informative, well-written, and accessible resource for law and courts study and classroom use. Instructors adopting it will have to become familiar with the intricacies of the two main cases, a task that is made easier by consulting the book’s companion website ( and the accompanying instructor resources that, among other things, supply some of the actual documents pertaining to each case. In addition to containing several sidebar (or box) discussions, graphs, appendices, and a glossary, the authors also provide helpful suggestions on how the book might be used to engage in class discussion and create assignments pertaining to each chapter. The book is also unique in its approach by concentrating on the procedural aspects of criminal and civil litigation. As a result, instructors can use it as a stand-alone or supplemental text; in doing so, and as with most courses, ancillary material will probably have to be assigned if the subjects that are not covered in the book are of interest or part of the pedagogical aims of the course that is being taught. For example, the topics of legal theory, judicial administration, the legal profession, access to courts, and judicial policy-making (and its constraints) are not fully addressed. For some instructors, these omissions might be a pedagogical weakness as they are typically included in many judicial process textbooks; though, for others, it might not be that much of a shortcoming because the material can be incorporated through the use of external readings. Like any textbook, instructors will have to determine if the book that is chosen for their courses fit their pedagogical aims and teaching styles. Regardless, the book’s merits are considerable and make a solid contribution to the law and courts subfield.


Meador, Daniel John and Gregory Mitchell. 2009. AMERICAN COURTS 3rd ed. St. Paul: West Academic Publishing.

© Copyright 2017 by author, Christopher P. Banks.