Tracing Plurality, Process and Persistent Injustice across the Rural Lawscape: Ethnographic Engagements with State and Tribal Courts

Panel Organizer:   
Michele Statz, PhD
Anthropologist of law
Assistant Professor, UMN Medical School, Duluth campus

Panel Abstract:
This panel critically evaluates the “persistent injustice” (Wandler 2015) experienced across diverse rural communities in the U.S. More specifically, it considers the jurisdictional contexts and jurisprudential differences that both complicate and mitigate this injustice, and that likewise shape rural individuals’ conceptualizations of, access to, and expectations for state and/or tribal courts.

As scholars have documented, the “rural lawscape” (Pruitt 2014) tends to be marked by geographic isolation; precarious employment; widely dispersed or nonexistent social service providers; a dearth of public transportation; a lack of anonymity; and what are often powefully pervasive gendered and moral discourses around work, fairness, and self-sufficiency. This panel highlights how rural community members—perhaps most notably Native Americans, im/migrants, youth, and the elderly, disabled, and veterans—are vulnerable to or because of such factors, as well as how these “ordinary people” themselves produce and powerfully influence legal systems of practice and signification (Silbey 2005).

This panel also considers how the socioeconomic and spatial contours of rurality impact the practice and efficacy of law, with particular attention to rural attorney shortages, diminished state and federal funding, and insufficient or absent attention to rural practice and/or Indian law in law school training. It also explores the documented urbanormativity (Fulkerson and Thomas 2013) of scholars, judges, and legislators whose presumptions and resource allocations fail to recognize the complexity and vulnerability of state and tribal courts or the uneasy connections and divergences between these courts’ jurisdictions and practices.

To that end, we invite papers that explore how and when rural community members mobilize or neglect the law; jurisprudential differences across rural courts; the experiences of rural pro se litigants; court capacity; the role of legal process in re/defining rights and community; intersections of rural place, law and identity, including class, gender, race, tribal membership, and/or citizenship; the arguable agility of tribal courts—and perhaps of rural courts more broadly (see Nesper 2015); the role and influence of tribal, state and federal governments in rural communities; and methodological insights into meaningfully eliciting rural expertise and experiences.

This panel will offer a rigorous and comparative consideration of rural access to justice in context. It will necessarily complicate popular and policy assumptions of rural America, and it will engage and grow the relatively limited empirical scholarship on rurality and law. If you are interested in participating, please send an abstract of up to 250 words to Michele Statz at by Friday, March 30, 2018. Decisions about abstracts will be emailed by April 2, 2018. Registration and panel proposals are due April 16, 2018.

Please note: every panel participant must be registered to attend the AAA Annual Meeting and an active AAA member.