Vol. 28 No. 3 (June 2018) pp. 31-32

AMERICAN JUDICIAL POLITICS: MYTH AND REALITY IN LAW AND COURTS, by Pamela C. Corley, Artemus Ward, and Wendy L. Martinek. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016. 474pp. Paper $86.95. ISBN: 9780415532983.

Reviewed by Todd C. Peppers, Department of Public Affairs, Roanoke College.

The request to review AMERICAN JUDICIAL POLITICS: MYTH AND REALITY IN LAW AND COURTS (herein after AMERICAN JUDICIAL POLITICS) came at an especially opportune time, namely, as I was preparing to teach my spring Judicial Process course. While the textbook for that course had been ordered, I decided to use AMERICAN JUDICIAL POLITICS as a supplemental text from which to prepare for class. Accordingly, as I prepared my lectures, class exercises, and class discussion topics, I read the assigned readings from the course text as well as the equivalent readings from AMERICAN JUDICIAL POLITICS. In short, I had the rare opportunity to give the textbook a “test run” in my own class. Overall, I was generally pleased with the results.

Over the last fifteen years, I have used and consulted a variety of textbooks and supplemental readings while teaching Judicial Process. What I have found is that a comprehensive judicial process textbook must cover the following (in no particular order): the different types of laws and their functions in society; the organization of the federal and state judiciary and the different functions of the courts therein; the background, selection and qualification of judges; the role of other legal actors (such as lawyers, litigations, and interest groups) in the legal system; legal and extra-legal theories of judicial decision-making; the civil and criminal trial process; and the implementation and impact of judicial policymaking. From this laundry list of topics, some textbook authors have differentiated their products by including additional topics such as dedicating a chapter to comparative judicial systems or spending more time on the finer points of the methods of legal interpretation.

My guess is that the authors of AMERICAN JUDICIAL POLITICS recognized the need to distinguish their book from the ordinary. They accomplished this goal in several ways, both large and small. First of all, the book is a pleasure to read. The authors pack a lot of information into the textbook, and they do so with a combination of accessible writing, easy-to-follow charts and graphs, and memorable pictures. The range and variety of photographs alone suggest the time and attention put into this project. Given the challenges of teaching this generation of undergraduate students, this book is designed to hold their attention.

Secondly, the authors decided to start each chapter with a compelling, straight-from-the-headlines story, which introduces the reader to the legal issues to be discussed in the chapter. Grandmothers scalded by fast-food coffee. Large corporations maximizing the odds of success through forum shopping. The fallibility of eye witness testimony. False confessions. Defendants dramatically vowing to appeal their cases to the Supreme Court. The impact of technology on the right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. The authors should be commended for this approach. I used several of their introductory stories to flesh out my own lectures and my students responded very positively. The stories were engaging, and students were quickly drawn into the attendant legal issues.

However, a few of the introductory stories did not serve the authors’ purposes. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 3 (“The Legal Profession: Lawyers and the Practice of Law”), the authors use a toxic tort case to illustrate the point that “legal disputes can be won or lost by skillful attorneys in the courtroom” (p. 56). They tell the story of Dr. Milton “Mike” [*32] Horowitz, a psychologist diagnosed with mesothelioma, a nasty form of lung cancer caused solely by asbestos exposure. Horowitz claimed that he was exposed to asbestos by smoking Kent cigarettes, which had an asbestos-containing filter. In order to show the jury that Horowitz’s memory was unreliable, defense counsel cross-examined the plaintiff and cleverly demonstrated that Horowitz could not even recall the color of his own father’s eyes – and so how could he recall the brand of cigarettes he smoked decades ago? The students walked away believing that a crafty attorney used a tricky tactic to win a defense verdict for his client. In point of fact, the plaintiff won the case and was awarded two million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.

Thirdly, the authors weave into the text a discussion of the myths, which reinforce popular legal culture (defined by the authors as “everything people know or think they know about law, lawyers and the legal system” (p. 2)). Often these myths are spawned by movies, and the authors liberally sprinkle samples of some of the prime offenders throughout the text, from “Legally Blonde” and its dubious take on modern legal education to “The Devil’s Advocate” with Lucifer turned litigator. The authors, however, do more than rattle off a list of myths. They also explore – often relying on social science research – whether there is any truth to these enduring urban legends (the answer is no).

Again, the authors should be commended for their creativity. For many students, a judicial process course is their first systemic exposure to American legal institutions and actors, and it is helpful to first clear away the thicket of half-truths and misunderstandings. My own quibble with this approach, however, is that many of the myths claimed to be part of the popular legal culture are, in fact, issues that the average citizen – or college student – has never considered. Consider a short list of myths asserted by the authors:

Grades in first-year law courses are based on class participation, quizzes, term papers, and final examinations. Law school graduates only work as practicing attorneys. Court organization involves neutral choices about institutional design. Complex court systems confuse local attorneys who do not know where to file cases. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee question nominees for the sole purpose of deciding how to vote. Plea bargaining stems from overburdened criminal courts. Jury consultants help lawyers successfully predict how jurors will vote. Supreme Court justices review each petition for writ of certiorari.

These are not myths stubbornly clung to by the public. These are issues – legal education, composition of the courts, the role of committees in judicial selection, the screening of appeals – never considered by the vast majority of the population. By calling them myths, and promising to pop them, the authors promise a bit more drama than they actually provide.

All in all, my quibbles are few. AMERICAN JUDICIAL POLITICS is a solid addition to the small universe of judicial process textbooks. Having experimented with the textbook this semester, I plan on adopting it next time I teach Judicial Process.

© Copyright 2018 by author, Todd C. Peppers.