Brad A. Myrstol, Indiana University

A great deal of the extant literature examining the organizational transformation of American courts in the 20th century has often depicted the phenomenon in terms of a "natural" progression whereby "primitive" forms of legal organization have been replaced by more "advanced" organizational structures. In particular, courts manned by judges without formal legal training, "lay courts," have been largely conceptualized and depicted as "backward" or "inefficient" while more complex organizational models of courts witnessed in many contemporary jurisdictions are described as "modern" and "efficient" (or at least "innovative"). Underlying this theoretical vision is an understanding of social organization as directly related to function. To many, this relation of function to form seems obvious; consequently, it is an assumption that has gone largely unexamined in the organizational literature relating to criminal justice organization. However, the very taken-for-granted character of court criminal justice organization in general, and the professionalization of trial courts in particular, indicates a an institutional process. Studies of court organization have been largely descriptive in character, yet lacking much in the way of a theory explaining the underlying institutional dynamics. This paper is a study of American trial courts designed to test some of recent insights and assertions of institutional theory within the sociology of organizations. In particular, this paper seeks to explain the widespread organizational "death" of that particular form of court organization broadly understood as "lay courts" in the post WWII era. Data gathered from the US census, as well as other archival sources is used to document the precipitous decline in "justice of the peace" courts in the US and relate these declines to macro-institutional factors. An attempt is made to also examine the effects of other factors believed to influence patterns of organization.

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Updated 05/20/2006