Professor Greg Mitchell's New Book Demystifies U.S. Court System

Greg Mitchell, an expert in legal judgment and decision-making, was inspired by a previous book he worked on with the late UVA Law professor Daniel J. Meador, who died in 2013.

March 28, 2016

From small claims court to the U.S. Supreme Court, University of Virginia School of Law Professor Greg Mitchell's new book provides readers the first comprehensive, easy-to-understand overview of the entire American court system.

Co-authored with UVA political science professor David Klein, "American Courts Explained: A Detailed Introduction to the Legal Process Using Real Cases," published by West Academic, is aimed at anyone who seeks to grasp the basics of how justice is administered in the U.S.

Mitchell, an expert in legal judgment and decision-making, is the Joseph Weintraub–Bank of America Distinguished Professor of Law and the Thomas F. Bergin Teaching Professor of Law. He also co-authored the 2009 West book "American Courts" with the late UVA Law professor Daniel J. Meador.

Mitchell's latest book uses two real cases — a criminal case and a civil case — to illustrate the court's important procedures and legal concepts. An online companiongives readers access to the public court documents related to the cases.

"We decided to use real cases because we felt putting legal concepts into concrete terms may help people understand their significance," Mitchell said. "If we just abstractly define a concept such as 'personal jurisdiction,' everyone will be able to comprehend the terminology we used but have no appreciation for the practical significance."

The criminal case Mitchell and Klein chose is Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Woodall, which involved the constitutional rights of a defendant who pleaded guilty to murder in hopes of avoiding the death penalty.

"It's a horrible case involving an abduction and killing of a high school student by a guy who had just been released from prison for a former sexual assault," Mitchell said. "He ultimately pleads guilty to the kidnapping and the murder, but he reserves the right to challenge the imposition of the death penalty. We track the case from the arrest stage to the indictment, arraignment, all the way up through the Supreme Court."

He said the case illustrates concepts such as double jeopardy and the privilege against self-incrimination and makes a good vehicle for discussing criminal and habeas procedure, as well as the intricacies of how the Supreme Court works.

The case also tests the courts' commitment to principles of procedural justice, he said.

"People who have read the book actually come away, to my surprise, much more sympathetic to Mr. Woodall than I expected," Mitchell said. "He committed, by his own admission, a horrendous crime. But people who have read it have concerns that even a person who had committed a truly terrible crime should still be given basic due process rights."

The civil case the authors chose, Promotion in Motion v. Beech-Nut, likewise involved extensive court process, including countersuits and appeals. Promotion in Motion, a maker of fruit snacks, sued Beech-Nut, a baby foods company, for breach of contract after Beech-Nut discontinued a product it had outsourced called Fruit Nibbles.

"After the first batch was delivered to Wal-Mart and other retail companies, there were many complaints describing the Fruit Nibbles upon opening as disgusting, looking like dead baby toes, moldy and choking hazards," Mitchell said. "You don't want your supposedly healthy baby snack described as a choking hazard."

He said Promotion made for a lighter-hearted counterpoint to the criminal example, demonstrated a civil case that actually made it to jury trial, and illustrated the importance of discovery practice and summary judgment motions in modern-day civil practice.

Mitchell said the book will be marketed to pre-law students and undergraduates who are taking a course on judicial process in American courts. He also recommended the book for incoming law students looking to bone up with summer reading, "Or just the general public who may want a better understanding of how our courts work."

Before writing the book, Mitchell and Klein compared notes and agreed: There was nothing else on the market quite like their intended approach.

"I asked David if he knew of any good intro books written on the American court system," Mitchell said. "There were some on how cases proceed written for political science students and focusing on political science theories of how courts fit into other systems of government, but they don't really tell how the courts are structured, what they do and the basics of the legal process in U.S."

Mitchell said their intentionally "demystifying" book was inspired by work he did with Meador on "American Courts," which Meador had referred to as his "Little Book," aimed at LL.M. and pre-law students, and focusing primarily on civil procedure.

"We decided to basically take the idea Dan had and expand on it tremendously to add much more detail about how cases begin and end their lives," Mitchell said. "This was a book written from scratch, but we were definitely inspired by what he was doing in terms of explaining the details of the court system. Dan believed it was really important to help people understand what our courts do on a day-to-day basis, and how state and federal courts interact, to give an appreciation for the American legal process."

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