This Article is accompanied by a set of data visualizations, developed in collaboration with TWO-N.
Municipal courts are the lowest and least scrutinized echelon of the U.S. criminal system. Largely ignored by judicial theorists, municipal governance scholarship, and criminal theory alike, these city-controlled courts operate on the intellectual sidelines; even basic public information about their dockets and operations is scarce. This Article brings municipal courts into the broader legal and scholarly conversation, offering the first comprehensive analysis of the enormous municipal court phenomenon. Nationwide, there are over 7,500 such courts in thirty states. Collectively they process over three and a half million criminal cases every year and collect at least two billion dollars in fines and fees. Created, funded, and controlled by local municipalities, these courts — sometimes referred to as “summary” or “justice” or “police” courts — are central to cities’ ability to police, to maintain public safety, and to raise revenue. At the same time, they often exhibit many of the dysfunctions for which lower courts have been generally criticized: cavalier speed, legal sloppiness, punitive harshness, and disrespectful treatment of defendants. Unlike their state counterparts, however, the U.S. Supreme Court has formally excused municipal courts from some basic legal constraints: judges need not be attorneys and may simultaneously serve as city mayors, while proceedings are often summary and not of record. These hybrid institutions thus pose thorny conceptual challenges: they are stand-alone judicial entities that are also arms of municipal government operating under reduced constitutional constraints as they mete out criminal convictions. As such, they create numerous tensions with modern norms of due process, judicial independence, and other traditional indicia of criminal court integrity.
This Article provides a framework for appreciating the institutional complexity of this lowest tier of American criminal justice. Municipal courts deviate substantially from the classic model of courts as neutral, independent guardians of law. They are also vehicles for cities to express their political autonomy and redistribute wealth, and thus constitute underappreciated engines of local governance. As criminal adjudicators, they quietly contribute to localized mass incarceration while threatening the integrity of some foundational features of the criminal process. At the same time, they represent a potentially attractive opportunity to render criminal institutions more locally responsive. Finally, they reveal a deep dynamic at the bottom of the penal pyramid: low-status cases and institutions exert a formative influence over law itself. These complexities make reform especially challenging. There are doctrinal reforms that could strengthen municipal court operations, but they are inherently limited. The deeper reform would be to stop dismissing these courts as minor, inferior institutions and to take them and their millions of defendants seriously across the board of law, policy, and politics. Widely influential, jurisprudentially challenging, and democratically complicated, municipal courts deserve a more central place in the modern legal conversation.
For the data collected for this Article and more information about the Municipal Courts Project, or to contact the author, please visit http://www.municipalcourts.org.
Far from the marble halls of the U.S. Supreme Court lurks a judicial animal of a completely different character: the lowly municipal court. City courts in the United States go by a variety of names, including “municipal,” “town,” “summary,” “justice,” “mayor,” and “police” courts. Created and operated independently by cities and towns, these are courts of limited jurisdiction that hear misdemeanors, local ordinance violations, and sometimes civil claims involving small amounts. A few such courts are large — the Seattle municipal court filed nearly 10,000 criminal cases in 2019 — but many are small — just a room in the local municipal building or police station where the judge might preside once or twice a month. In the aggregate, however, municipal courts comprise a substantial percentage of U.S. judicial operations. There are over 7,500 such courts in thirty states scattered across the country, they adjudicate over three and a half million criminal cases every year, and they collect over two billion dollars for local jurisdictions.1 They are central to the authority of cities to police, to maintain public safety, and to raise revenue. And yet they are commonly ignored or underestimated by scholars who study courts, cities, and criminal law.
The local criminal court phenomenon sits at the intersection of several legal disciplines: criminal justice, local government law, and the institutional role of courts. It has almost entirely slipped beneath the radar of each.2 The vast scholarship theorizing the nature of courts, adjudication, and the judicial role barely mentions them. No leading casebook on municipal governance devotes a section to municipal courts, and most do not discuss them at all.3 In the past fifty years, there have been a mere handful of criminal law review articles analyzing any aspect of this type of court, even though these courts have been around since before the nation’s founding.4 At the same time, or perhaps by way of explanation, data on these courts are scant. No centralized authority collects comprehensive information about them, how many there are, and the size of their dockets.5 Some individual states publish such information; most do not.6
This inattention might make sense if municipal courts were materially indistinguishable from the lowest tier of state trial courts that also adjudicate low-level crimes. Those state trial courts — typically referred to as “district courts” or “superior courts” or sometimes “limited-jurisdiction courts” — are part of integrated state judicial systems, created by the state and managed by a central state authority. Their dockets and operations are for the most part publicly reported, and as trial courts they receive a modicum of attention.7 These lower state courts process the majority of misdemeanor cases in the United States.8 They have been increasingly criticized for their hurried, dehumanizing, and sometimes unconstitutional processing of minor offenses, their tendency to criminalize poverty and race, and their regressive reliance on criminal fines and fees.9 Municipal courts share many of the same operational pathologies as their state counterparts and are sometimes included in, and conceptually subsumed under, this more general umbrella of the “lower court.”10
But municipal courts have structural features and political dynamics that distinguish them from lower state courts in significant and sometimes startling ways. They are created, funded, and occasionally dissolved by city officials who have deep interest in and influence over how their courts operate, especially with respect to the amount of revenue they generate.11 Sometimes municipal courts report to the state central judicial authority, sometimes they do not, even in purportedly unified judicial systems.12 Judges may be appointed by local city councils or by mayors. Sometimes the judge is the mayor.13 Sometimes the judge is not a lawyer. Prosecutors may be part-time lawyers running their own private practices with strong connections to the judge, to the police, or to city businesses. Sometimes those prosecutors also serve as judges in other cities. Sometimes there is no professional prosecutor and the prosecutorial role is filled by the arresting police officer.14 In many of these courtrooms, defense attorneys are scarce to nonexistent.
In other words, municipal courts routinely lack the usual indicia of independence, impartiality, and legal due process that conventionally characterize the judiciary and on which criminal law relies for much of its integrity. These courts are often run in informal fashion by interested parties, or by parties whose salary and tenure depend on satisfying local political and economic interests.15 Judges perform work closely associated with city officials, law enforcement, and even tax collectors. Such conflicts and informality do not accord with many basic structural guarantees of criminal court integrity.16
Municipal courts also present a variety of functional challenges, some of which they share with state lower courts, some of which flow from their own unique features. As the 2015 U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of Ferguson revealed, the revenue from municipal courts may supply a substantial percentage of a municipality’s budget and thus incentivize systemic overcriminalization.17 Because municipal court judges are selected locally, they may have political relationships with local officials, law enforcement, and city elites that create conflicts, corrupt individual cases, or fuel inequitable practices. In courts where judges are not attorneys, the lack of legal expertise in the courtroom may result in illegal or inaccurate outcomes. While many of these dysfunctions plague lower courts more generally, municipal court structures often magnify them.
This Article offers the first comprehensive description of and analytic framework for the modern criminal municipal court phenomenon in the United States. Because municipal courts have been largely ignored in the legal literature, no previous work has documented how many there are nationwide, the size of their dockets, how they operate, or their aggregate impact on the U.S. criminal process. The first half of this Article fills this descriptive gap. Part I provides an empirical description of the phenomenon based on new data collected on municipal courts in all thirty states. This Part further provides a taxonomy of basic municipal court characteristics including their informality, their reliance on incarceration to collect fines and fees, and the types of financial and institutional conflicts that plague key legal actors. The municipal court in Ferguson is best known as an especially troubling example of these challenges, but Ferguson is just one of many possible stories: other municipal courts exhibit the kinds of positive qualities that have kept these courts popular for centuries, including their local political responsiveness and their flexibility to experiment with criminal justice reforms.
Part II maps the unique legal and institutional character of modern municipal courts. They have a long constitutional pedigree and special status as local institutions, which partially explain why the Supreme Court has given them special procedural dispensations: nonattorney judges, lack of jury trials, limited rights to defense counsel, unique appellate procedures, and room to engage in a high degree of informality. They are also exempt from the constraints of separation of powers. As a result, their peculiar interbranch relationships — for example, when the judge also happens to be the mayor — have given rise to their own, more permissive doctrine of adjudicatory conflict and judicial neutrality. Even as the U.S. criminal system has undergone massive jurisprudential and institutional changes over the past seventy years, much of this less formal municipal court regulatory structure has persisted. It creates various tensions with judicial norms, due process, and other traditional indicia of criminal court integrity. In these ways, municipal courts evade and weaken key constitutional and normative boundaries that define and constrain modern criminal courts.
This Article focuses on criminal municipal adjudication. Although some courts also perform civil functions, city courts are primarily criminal institutions both historically and in practice.18 More fundamentally, it is in the exercise of criminal jurisdiction that their influence and peculiarities are most problematic. Many low-level civil tribunals grapple with similar challenges of informality, lack of resources, and litigant socio-economic disadvantage, but by definition they lack the unique power to convict and impose criminal punishment.19 Criminal courts, by contrast, must fulfill an additional and special institutional function. They are the traditional, primary check against law enforcement overreach, an independent bulwark — at least in theory — that stands between the vulnerable defendant and the coercive arm of the state.20 Criminal procedure, in turn, is one of the legitimating features of the modern criminal state’s authority, a primary protection against state coercion, discrimination, and disrespect of the system’s perennially vulnerable subjects. Because norms of independence and legal procedure are routinely weakened in municipal court, these thousands of courts — and the millions of convictions and sentences they issue — push the legitimating boundaries of criminal court adjudication in troubling and underappreciated ways.21
The second half of this Article proposes a conceptual framework for making sense of these courts and their normative implications. Municipal courts are hybrid governance institutions: simultaneously courts and municipal government entities. Their structures and practices test the boundaries of the neutral adjudicator model. Collectively, they are a major engine of low-level misdemeanor conviction, the criminalization of race and poverty, and local mass incarceration. Although municipal courts have mostly fallen between the cracks of scholarly discourses on courts, cities, and criminal justice, they are natural subjects for each of these disciplines. In turn, they offer provocative insights into the nature of criminal adjudication, the risks and benefits of strong city authority, and the challenges of misdemeanor criminal justice in the era of wealth-based and racialized mass incarceration.
Specifically, municipal courts are a problematic species of court. They often operate without the kinds of neutrality, independence, and formality that scholars have long associated with and demanded from the judicial function. These courts’ close relationships to their parent cities can even resemble relationships between administrative adjudicators and their parent agencies. By exploring the theoretical discourse on the nature of the judicial function, including the Supreme Court’s recent discussion of “judicial character,”22 and insights from the administrative context, section II.A reveals how municipal courts fit uneasily within existing normative judicial frameworks.
Just as importantly, municipal courts are created and run by cities. Although these entities are central to city governance, they have received little attention from the local government literature. Section II.B deploys some of that literature to identify the influential local governance and economic functions of municipal courts, and to suggest how they could become a more prominent part of existing conversations around cities, localism, and urban economic development and disadvantage.
Municipal courts are also criminal justice institutions. This Article brings local government and criminal justice scholarship together in order to consider how municipal courts might contribute to the newly invigorated debate over local criminal justice democracy. On the one hand, municipal courts exhibit many localist dangers of parochialism and informality that threaten their integrity as independent neutral adjudicators. On the other hand, they are deeply rooted local institutions that offer the possibility of improved local control over, and responsiveness to, the unique criminal justice needs of individual communities. Even as they pose democratic risks, they offer potential democratic benefits. They are paradigmatic examples of the tense relationship between criminal justice and local democracy, not only in the abstract but in their treatment of millions of politically and socially vulnerable defendants who pass through these courts every year.
Finally, municipal courts reveal jurisprudential compromises that have been made for centuries at the lowest levels of the criminal system. Modern misdemeanor processing is increasingly criticized for its legal flouting and cavalier erosions of many aspects of rule of law. But for municipal courts, the phenomenon is more complex than mere lawlessness. Rather, the positive law governing municipal courts accommodates the pettiness of their cases, their local character, and their presumed lack of resources, by ratcheting down traditional due process requirements. Out of respect for these courts’ historical informality and unique institutional posture, the Supreme Court has affirmatively validated the lack of jury trials, the lack of counsel, the lack of legally trained judges, the lack of a record, and the summary quality of proceedings.23 One might say that municipal courts have been partially excused from the Warren Court criminal procedure revolution.24 Criminal law is different here: the inferior status of municipal courts exerts a gravitational pull on the law itself, blurring definitional lines between criminal and civil, and injecting informality into a relatively formalistic jurisprudential culture. In this sense, municipal courts resemble other low-status institutions such as juvenile courts, immigration proceedings, and family courts where greater informality is officially sanctioned even as the state metes out highly punitive treatments including incarceration. At the bottom of the penal pyramid, rule of law is thus not merely flouted: it is substantively rewritten.25
I have written extensively about misdemeanors and the thirteen million low-level cases that comprise eighty percent of the U.S. criminal docket.26 In particular, I have argued that the informality and punitiveness of misdemeanor processing is central to the identity of the American penal system and a major contributor to the criminalization of poverty and race. This Article takes that project a step further by zeroing in on a unique institution that shapes and drives much of that enormous machinery. Above and beyond the pettiness of misdemeanor crimes themselves, the bottom of the criminal system is centrally defined by these local institutions and their special characteristics and practices. Indeed, municipal courts have quietly defined the misdemeanor space for a very long time.
For all these reasons, municipal courts are central to the larger criminal justice governance project. They exert political, regulatory, and expressive authority in thousands of cities. Nationally, they generate a substantial portion of the U.S. criminal docket; they contribute heavily to low-level misdemeanor criminalization; and they represent a sizeable fraction of the nation’s judiciary.27 These courts deserve to be brought out of obscurity and into the foundational disciplines, not only of criminal law and procedure, but of judicial theory and local government law. Each of these fields offers new insights into this centuries-old penal practice, and each could be enriched by engagement with the municipal court phenomenon.
The Article concludes by grappling with the challenges of meaningful reform. As an initial matter, it supports stronger conventional procedural protections for defendants in municipal court. It does so, however, with full recognition of the inherent limits to doctrinal and formalist reforms, especially in low-status spaces where defendants typically lack the resources to take advantage of legal tools. Criminal procedure fixatives for social vulnerability and inequality are always partial and sometimes problematic, and they will be no panacea in municipal court either. Accordingly, the more fundamental reform is to elevate the status of the lowest echelons of the American criminal process. Ultimately, many of the injustices that plague municipal courts result from their invisibility and perceived unimportance. The Supreme Court, government officials, and scholars alike too often dismiss these courts as inferior and their cases as minor, and thus fail to scrutinize their operations or protect the defendants who pass through them. By raising their profile and bringing them into longstanding conversations about the judiciary, local governance, and criminal justice, this Article lays the groundwork both for appreciating these courts and for holding them accountable.
* Lee S. Kreindler Professor of Law, Harvard Law School. Special thanks to Michelle Wilde Anderson, Nestor Davidson, Sharon Dolovich, Amanda Frost, Rick Hasen, Don Herzog, Justin Levitt, Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Doug NeJaime, Richard Re, and Adam Zimmerman. This Article benefitted immensely from faculty workshops at Buffalo, Chicago, U.C. Davis, Harvard, U.C. Irvine, USC Gould, Wisconsin, and the annual Southern California Criminal Justice Roundtable. It also benefitted from excellent work by its Harvard Law Review editors. This Article is dedicated to the memory of my grandfather, Samuel Natapoff, who ran for the office of Municipal Court Justice in the Second Municipal Court District, Borough of the Bronx, on November 6, 1945. He was a candidate for the American Labor Party; he received 50,724 votes. Ginsberg v. Heffernan, 60 N.Y.S.2d 875, 877 (Sup. Ct. 1945); see also Flaw in Machines Mars Bronx Vote: Special Election and Court Fight Held Possible in Municipal Court Races, N.Y. Times, Nov. 7, 1945, at 1, 3.