Interdependence Classics: Lawrence Mohr, Organizations, Decisions, and Courts; Herbert Jacob, Courts as Organizations

Two articles published seven years apart beautifully illustrate the explosion of organizational theory in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the ways in which that theory began to be applied to the courts.  In a sense, they are perfect bookends for that era.  Lawrence Mohr’s 1976 Organizations, Decisions, and Courts is decidedly agnostic as to whether courts should even be considered organizations; by 1983, the answer was sufficiently obvious that Herbert Jacob simply entitled his piece Courts as Organizations.

Both articles carefully explore the organizational contours of court systems, and the ways in which courts operate differently from private sector firms. The articles also reflect the changing understanding of organizations In the 1970s.  The developments of that era opened the door for an entire field of court management.

More on both articles and their historical context after the jump.

American organizational theory in the mid-1970s had been developing seriously for thirty years, spurred by the careful work of Herbert Simon, James March, and Richard Cyert, among others. During this time, theorists had increasingly come to understand organizations as operating in an open system, meaning simply that they were strongly influenced by their external environment.  Put another way, decision-making within an organization was not purely a rational calculus of costs and benefits, but rather a reaction (at least in part) to the actions of competitors, customers, the state, and so on. Even after the open system perspective became commonplace, however, many questions remained. Exactly how does the environment affect organizational decision-making?  And to what degree is organizational behavior just a reaction to environmental conditions?  Is there still room for rationality?

Lawrence Mohr’s article was a deeply intellectual, and sometimes skeptical, effort to ascertain how–and whether–these questions applied to the court system. Noting that courts are not “organizations” in a classic sense (in that, for example, they lack robust internal systems to supervise practices and secure compliance with organizational goals), Mohr rejected the notion that a single model of organizational behavior could be used to understand and predict court system activity.  At the same time, he conceded that organizational theory might assist students of courts to the extent it recognized that administrative decision-making within an organization “may well be subject to different contexts at different times and may shift, with changes of context, into different modes of choice.”  Put differently, Mohr concluded that certain hypotheses about organizational behavior might apply to courts under certain circumstances.  But that was about all that could be stated with confidence.

Mohr’s article was an important product of its time, cautious about declaring courts to be organizations but optimistic that students of courts could learn something from organizational theory.  As it turned out, organizational theory itself was about to change. In the late 1970s, several different theorists (most of them based at Stanford) offered new takes on organizational behavior.  Resource dependence theory argued that organizations adapt their behaviors to obtain and protect flows of needed resources from the environment; accordingly, power and resources were closely interconnected. Population ecology theory borrowed from biology and sociology to determine how organizations emerge and change in a given environment.  Neoinstitutionalism focused on the decisions that create a convergence of structure and behavior of organizations in the same field.  While it has taken many years to foster a reconciliation among these theories (a process that is still very much ongoing), they collectively added a remarkable richness to our understanding of organizational behavior.

Herbert Jacob’s piece, written in the early 1980s, was the direct beneficiary of these new perspectives. Consider the issue of organizational structure. Like Mohr, Jacob noted that courts lacked the formal supervisory hierarchy so prevalent in ordinary organizations. But Jacob (drawing on insights from the new theories discussed above) further noted that courts at every level had a significant informal power structure. This structure was, in Jacob’s words, “very complicated,” in that attorneys, judges, and court staff all played significant strategic roles in the life of a case and control of a docket.

Jacob also built on the insights of the new theories by more fully exploring how courts interact with their environment.  Like other organizations, courts establish boundaries between themselves and the outside world to help clarify their internal decision-making.  They then reach beyond those boundaries in an attempt to control the environment where possible.  So, for example, trial courts rely on prosecutorial screening as a preliminary means of docket control in criminal cases, and use filing deadlines and mandatory pretrial conferences to control civil dockets.  Jacob further examined communication and decision-making in the courts, using a similar framework.

Jacob closes his article with a nod to Mohr:

This assessment of the utility of organizational theories is somewhat more sanguine than Mohr’s (1976).  Like Mohr’s, it places little emphasis on hierarchical elements of organizational structure, but more on the decisional processes that are so prominent in the courtroom’s work.  However, it sees the value of organizational concepts as extending beyond this emphasis on decisional processes to an examination of exchanges with the environment and the impact of recruitment and socialization.

Mohr and Jacob’s classic articles give a valuable glimpse into the dawn of the modern court organization movement.  They are well worth a careful read even today.

Citations: Lawrence B. Mohr, Organizations, Decisions, and Courts, 10 Law & Soc’y Rev. 621 (1976); Herbert Jacob, Courts as Organizations, in Empirical Theories about Courts (1983).

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