Localist Statutory Interpretation
The average citizen’s point of contact with the judicial system as a litigant is, most likely, in the nation’s municipal, county, or local courts. Whether she is contesting a traffic infraction, being charged with a misdemeanor, being cited for a violation of a local ordinance, or in a dispute with a neighbor or landlord, the average citizen is probably more likely to find herself in what might be called a “local court” than in a federal or high-level state court. Setting aside the controversy surrounding staffing village and town courts (which too often have nonlawyers with almost no legal training or knowledge serving as adjudicators), legal scholars have almost universally ignored the law in local courts, favoring the study of federal courts and state appellate courts. Much like the drunk man who looks under the lamppost for his lost keys at night because it is the only place he has the light to see, so too the legal scholar often studies published cases because they are available from databases at her fingertips. It is also likely that the sheer diversity of local courts, the limitations on their subject matter jurisdiction, and the complexity of their organization nationwide render it hard to study these courts as a unitary class. The diversity and the lack of easily accessible decisions, however, cannot justify the lack of attention to how local judges should behave when faced with statutory questions, a task that comprises the day-to-day work of our local courts. These public officials are the face of law and justice to citizens in our democracy. What they do in their courtrooms when applying statutes is probably more relevant to citizens’ sense of the legitimacy of our legal system and the rule of law than the vast majority of the Supreme Court’s business at One First Street.
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Part I of this Article defines the category of local courts for analysis, as well as the types of cases those courts typically hear. Part II then explores what it could mean for such local courts to pursue a “localist” agenda and analyzes its desirability under certain conditions. This analysis considers the kinds of elections that routinely place local judges into their offices and the manner in which local courts are embedded within state and local institutional structures. I conclude by asserting that the (concededly modest) accountability available for local judicial performance, combined with the possibility for careful state supervision of “localist” judicial action, supports giving local courts more discretion in interpreting both local ordinances and state statutes. On the whole, the argument aims to reveal the benefits of a type of “intrastate judicial federalism” that promotes dialogue and experimentation in the development of statewide policy. My conclusion draws from the perspectives of both “pro-localism” views as well as those more enamored of state power, highlighting some ways to settle that debate in at least this one understudied context.
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Kenneth A. Stahl