Society

NSF Funds Mark’s Research Into Impact of Pandemic on Courts

Alyx Mark

Alyx Mark

Assistant Professor of Government Alyx Mark studies the American separation of powers system, access to justice, and Supreme Court decision-making. She was recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant to study the response of state courts to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Congratulations on receiving the NSF RAPID grant! Can you please explain how this opportunity came about?

Near the beginning of the pandemic, NSF sent out a Dear Colleague letter soliciting project proposals related to COVID-19. When I read that letter, my first thought was that this was relegated to epidemiologists and others working in areas directly applicable to studying the pandemic. But when I began thinking about how it related to my own research, I realized there are quite significant impacts to how court systems work as a result of the pandemic. I submitted a brief overview of a project idea, and then they invited me to submit a full proposal. The funding was just awarded, and ultimately the whole process took just under a month—versus four months or more, which is typical for NSF funding. The NSF has a special funding stream that is exclusive to these types of projects.

Can you share more about your proposed research project?

Thanks to our federalist system of government, states have considerable authority to dictate how their courts operate, how they’re organized, what types of specialty courts they have, etc. It is very rare that a massive shock like this forces every state to respond. Hurricane Katrina was a similar example, when many states in the South had to rethink how courts and other government processes worked in the wake of the catastrophic disaster.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I became interested in studying how states were moving their courts to remote operations at different speeds and in different ways. I thought it would be interesting to catalog all the ways that states are meeting this challenge, and to speak to the people who are implementing the procedures. I’m also very interested in studying the impact of remote operations on people who use the courts to solve their legal problems. I want to know whether the innovations being forced by the pandemic are mitigating or aggravating existing access challenges for vulnerable populations. I plan to focus the project on civil justice, such as landlord-tenant disputes, family law, debt collection cases, and so on. One reason for this is that people don’t have the same types of constitutional protections on the civil side that they have on the criminal side, such as guaranteed counsel.

What are these existing barriers to access that you’ve alluded to with regard to civil courts?

One of the main barriers we see for vulnerable populations is a lack of access to affordable legal assistance. I’m conducting research on reforms to the legal profession in Utah with Anna Carpenter, a law professor at the University of Utah. A recent report revealed that over 90 percent of civil court cases in the Salt Lake City area involved at least one party that was not represented by a lawyer. What’s happening in Utah is not unique—across the country, it is estimated that the vast majority of people represent themselves in civil court, yet these people are much less likely to have a favorable outcome. Also, courts may not be easy to physically access, particularly for people who live in rural areas or lack transportation. And for people who can get to court, there can be challenges with accessing the information they find there. For example, is the information that courts are providing understandable to you? Are court forms written in your language, or at a grade level you can read? Beyond all that, many people who are faced with a civil legal problem do not identify the problem as something that can be addressed through the justice system. Rebecca Sandefur, a scholar many in the access to justice field look up to (including me!), uses an iceberg to describe this phenomenon, with the tip of the iceberg being people who actually go to court, and underneath the water being everyone else who doesn’t realize they can use the justice system to solve their problems.

How do you plan to conduct your research?

There are three stages to the project. The first stage is a comprehensive scan of all the changes that every state court in the U.S. has made in response to the pandemic, ranging from their courts of last resort to municipal courts. The support from the NSF enables me to work with three undergraduates on conducting this data collection effort. In the second stage, I’m interested in speaking with the people who have both designed and implemented these changes. Who are these people, both internal and external to the court system, who have been working on these innovations and reforms, and how are they feeling about how it’s going? Finally, I plan to investigate this question about whether these innovations have had any impact on access to justice for vulnerable populations. I’ll be working with the Quantitative Analysis Center (QAC) on analysis for this stage.

It’s still early in your research, but what have you seen thus far in terms of how courts are responding to the pandemic? 

Three main types of changes to hearings are emerging. In some states, I’ve seen delays or pauses on all jury trials and all non-emergency types of cases. In others, I’ve seen shifts to online or telephonic hearings. For example, the Texas Supreme Court is holding its oral arguments on Zoom, with all the justices and the two attorneys in the middle of their “Brady Bunch” square. And then in some places, emergency cases, such as domestic violence cases, are still being physically held in courts, with social distancing measures being taken for safety.

When we see these courts moving operations to a remote space in a very short period of time, the question becomes, what is the added risk of having these processes happen remotely? If it doesn’t appear to be adding significant risks, then perhaps courts can consider extending some of these policies beyond the pandemic to improve access for those vulnerable populations. We’re seeing this very rare surge of innovation as a consequence of the pandemic, and I see solutions being utilized that could also be very useful for the long term.

In addition to changes to how hearings work, courts have also reconsidered how filing paperwork happens. Just to give one example, what if we could relax notary requirements for people who don’t have easy access to notaries, and instead ask them to submit a statement that says, “Under penalty of perjury, everything I’ve said in this statement is true.”

What do you think the appetite is for this kind of longer-term change? 

It’s hard to say at this point. There are many reasons why states have not pursued major innovations, including a lack of resources to do so. But, that’s not to say that states aren’t doing innovative things. For example, Utah—a state I’ve been researching—is piloting a system of online dispute resolution for small claims cases, and recently opened up its legal market so that non-lawyers (Licensed Paralegal Practitioners) can provide limited forms of services in certain areas of law. I think a moment like this is really important because it allows courts to take stock of how they’ve been doing things and ask themselves if changes are possible.

What are you teaching this semester? Are you incorporating this current moment into your teaching?

This spring I’m teaching American Government & Politics and Judicial Decision-Making. In the latter class, the students are working on grant proposals for their own projects related to what judges do. It’s nice to see this spectrum of interest among the students ranging from the U.S. Supreme Court all the way down to a municipal docket. Seeing my students’ proposals was a bit of an inspiration to light a fire under my office chair to write my own proposal to the NSF!

In my American Government & Politics class, we’ve been talking about the connections between federalism and the coronavirus. We see a pattern of state reactions to what’s happening nationally. To say the very least, this is an unusual moment that is providing these really wacky examples of national-state relations. The pandemic has allowed us to test some of the theories we’re learning about in the abstract by examining current events.

Dolan Studies Impact of COVID-19 on Public Attitudes Toward Globalization

Lindsay Dolan

Lindsay Dolan

Assistant Professor of Government Lindsay Dolan specializes in international political economy and comparative politics in developing countries. Her research and teaching interests include international organizations, foreign aid, and development. Together with her co-author Quynh Nguyen of Australian National University, she has been studying how COVID-19 is affecting public attitudes toward globalization.

President Trump recently announced that he is suspending U.S. funding for the World Health Organization (WHO). Can you briefly explain the role of the WHO, particularly during a global health crisis, and what will be the implications of the U.S. cutting funding? Which countries or populations will be most affected?

The World Health Organization (WHO), like many international organizations, exists to provide information and coordinate among its 194 member states. Although it works on a host of global health issues, pandemic preparedness is an important part of its mandate. Its role during such a crisis is to collect and disseminate valuable information on the number of cases, provide scientific and technical information to inform government responses, and to establish a forum for coordination among governments.

Spinner P’15 Offers Insight on Food Supply Chain Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Steven L. Spinner P'15

Steven Spinner P’15

Steven Spinner P’15 is chairman/CEO of United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI), the largest publicly-traded grocery distributor in the United States, with 59 locations in the U.S. and Canada. UNFI’s customers include natural product superstores, independent retailers, conventional supermarket chains, e-commerce retailers, and restaurants—meaning Spinner and his team have a comprehensive perspective on our food supply chain.

Spinner recently spoke with us about how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting what we see (and don’t see) on grocery store shelves, and shared his thoughts on how the current situation might impact future consumer behavior.

You gave an interview on Bloomberg TV in March, advising consumers against hoarding food, and reassuring us that the food supply chain is still working effectively. Is that still true now, a few weeks later?

Absolutely. The United States has the most sophisticated supply chain probably in the world, with unbelievable manufacturing capacity. There is plenty of food in the supply chain. The only bottleneck is the volatility of purchase habits, as well as the pure logistics to get that much food into supermarkets. For example, if you budgeted with a manufacturer to have 3% growth over a period of weeks and instead you have 30% growth over that same period, it’s really difficult from an industry perspective to accommodate that growth.

Dancey on the Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis

Logan Dancey

Logan Dancey

Associate Professor of Government Logan Dancey’s research and teaching interests include the United States Congress, campaigns and elections, and public opinion. We spoke to him about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

As a scholar of legislative decision-making, can you describe how the workings of the United States Congress look different during a time of crisis?

It’s still early, but the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic shows that even this gridlocked and polarized Congress—which doesn’t seem to accomplish much in normal times—is still fairly quick to respond to crises. We’ve seen large bipartisan majorities agree on fairly large-scale responses to the pandemic. I think that’s to be expected given the magnitude of the problem, as well as the incentives that members of Congress have to try to solve problems as they arise. When crises like this are forced onto Congress’s agenda and they have no choice but to act, it can break down those partisan and ideological divisions that seem so strong during normal times, though the legislative outcomes may not be perfect or satisfy everyone.

Aalgaard: COVID-Related Incidents Part of a Long “Historical Arc of Anti-Asian Racism”

Scott Aalgaard

Scott Aalgaard

Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies Scott Aalgaard studies modern and contemporary Japan, including the experiences of Japanese-Americans during World War II, when approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent were forced into internment camps. We spoke to him about the echoes of that history in the surge in racist incidents against Asian-Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Aalgaard, as we think about the increase in racist acts against people of Asian descent in the United States today, can you please offer a brief history of racism faced by Asian-Americans?

The first thing that I want to argue is that we can’t understand either the Japanese internment during the Pacific War or the present crisis with racism surrounding the coronavirus as exceptions. Racism is very much the norm instead of the exception in this country and others. It’s also critical to understand that racism isn’t just about vilifying the other, it’s about solidifying a sense of a pure self. In the North American context, that sense of self is understood as white. This is an argument that Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his writings about how the construct of whiteness itself was created by positively contrasting it against blackness at the time of slavery.

Startup Led by Dhanda ’95 Developing COVID-19 Diagnostic Tests

Rahul Dhanda

Rahul Dhanda ’95

A lack of fast, reliable diagnostic testing has played a major role in the rapid proliferation of cases of COVID-19. Rahul Dhanda ’95 and his team at Sherlock Biosciences are working furiously to change that, potentially shortening the testing’s time horizon to a matter of minutes.

Dhanda is co-founder, CEO, and president of the engineering biology startup based in Cambridge, Mass., which is creating two different diagnostic tests for COVID-19—one rooted in CRISPR technology, the other in synthetic biology. The hope is that the tests can be released during the course of the current pandemic, Dhanda said, each with its own different applications and utility.

A history major who also took premed classes at Wesleyan, Dhanda earned his MBA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before forging a successful career in the biotech field, with a specialty in diagnostics.

McGuire Studies the Relationship Between Democracy and Public Health

James McGuire

Professor of Government James McGuire is a political scientist with expertise in the association between democracy and public health.

You study the relationship between democracy and population health. Does the literature find that democracy is good for population health?

As a political scientist I’ve long been interested in democracy, and especially in its possible impact on other aspects of well-being. Many other political scientists have studied democracy’s impact on economic growth and income inequality. My interest has been in democracy’s impact on the risk of early death, and particularly on child mortality in developing countries. For Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, whose capabilities approach I endorse, the end of human development is to enable each of us to lead a thoughtfully chosen life. To live the life one has reason to choose, however, one has to be alive.

For my forthcoming book Democracy and Population Health, I reviewed more than 200 quantitative studies of the association between the two phenomena. On balance, these studies find that democracy is usually, but not invariably, beneficial for population health. One can certainly dredge up examples of authoritarian countries that have done well. China, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba have reduced infant mortality quite steeply over the past 30 years, but for every such case there is a North Korea, Venezuela, or Zimbabwe—authoritarian countries where infant mortality has declined only at a glacial pace.

Fowler: Effective Communication Around Health Crises Has “Life-Saving Consequences”

Erika Franklin Fowler

Erika Franklin Fowler

Associate Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler is an expert on political communication. When she’s not analyzing campaign advertising with the Wesleyan Media Project, she investigates how media, including ads and news, influence opinions and attitudes in a variety of health-related policy areas. Her past studies, many of which are co-authored with Sarah Gollust ’01, have examined media around the Affordable Care Act, mammography screening and the HPV vaccine.

“I’m drawn to research on messaging at the intersection of health and politics because it has such important—sometimes life-saving—consequences for citizens, and there are practical actions we can all take to improve the information environment,” said Fowler.

As the current coronavirus pandemic unfolded, Fowler reached out to government leaders in Connecticut with advice on communicating effectively in order to best protect public health. Here was some of the advice she shared:

  • We know from prior situations that the time is now for government (and specifically health authorities) to get out in front with simple clear messaging. Uncertainty and a lack of clear communication to ordinary citizens breeds lots of opportunity for misinformation and risks confusion in behavior that is very dangerous to the state’s public health response.

Grossman on Mitigating the Economic Fallout from the Coronavirus

Grossman

Richard Grossman

Richard Grossman, professor and chair of economics, is an expert in economic history as well as current policy issues in macroeconomics, banking, and finance. In this Q&A, we asked him about the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, and how the government is responding in efforts to mitigate the damage.

Q: We’ve all seen the headlines about a coronavirus-induced recession. What is the current state of the economy, and what do you predict we’ll see over the coming months?

A: Prior to the virus outbreak, the American economy was doing well by conventional standards. The unemployment rate was 3.5% in March, down from a peak of 10% around a decade ago. According to the government’s most recent estimate (released on Feb. 27), real gross domestic product grew by 2.3% in 2019. Not stellar, but high relative to other developed economies. It is going to get substantially worse quite soon.

Students Engage with Google Employees through Career Virtual Panel

On Feb. 27, the Gordon Career Center hosted a Google Career Virtual Panel featuring Wesleyan alumni who offered insight on their roles in sales, business, product management, marketing, legal issues, and other roles at Google.

The panel was assembled by Sherry Liang ’20, who completed a WEShadow at Google last winter, and Peer Career Advisor Esmye Lytle ’21.

Speakers included:

Aaron Stoertz '03

Aaron Stoertz ’03

Aaron Stoertz ’03: Stoertz graduated with a BA in English. Since then he worked in conservation biology, public health, and international health policy at the World Health Organization before landing in tech, where he’s worked his way into a position as a product manager at Google Health.

Terry Wei ’07: Wei has 13 years of experience in public relations and communications. She currently leads communications for Waze, the world’s leading crowdsourced navigation app. Previously, Wei was head of public relations at Squarespace and managed product communications at Mercedes-Benz. Originally from California, Wei studied English at Wesleyan and graduated in 2007.

Wesleyan in the News

NewsWesleyan in the News
1. The Open Mind: “Democratizing the Jury”

Associate Professor of Government Sonali Chakravarti is interviewed in connection with her new book, Radical Enfranchisement in the Jury Room and Public Life, in which she offers a “full-throated defense of juries as a democratic institution.” “I am very interested in how ordinary people engage with political institutions, and juries are the place where ordinary people have the most power,” she says. Chakravarti calls for more robust civic education, continuing into adulthood, in order to have a “more effective, modern jury system.”

2. Hartford Courant: “Sen. Murphy, Aiming to Expand Pell Grant Eligibility for Incarcerated Students, Hears from Inmates at York Correctional Institution”

Senator Chris Murphy, who is the co-sponsor of a bill to expand the federal Pell grant program for college students to include inmates, met with 11 inmates who have participated in educational programs at York Correctional Institution through the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education and other college-in-prison programs.“What’s important about the REAL Act is that college affordability should be accessible to all students regardless of where they are,” said CPE program manager Allie Cislo. “It’s one thing rhetorically to commit to reentry,” she said, but resources like educational programs “can make or break it for people.”

3. American Theatre: “Digging for New Roots”

This article on “climate change theatre” features Ocean Filibuster, a play by Assistant Professor of Theater Katie Pearl through her theater company, PearlDamour. Commenting on the play’s premise, in which a new Senate bill proposes sentencing the world’s oceans to death and the ocean stands to speak in its own defense, Pearl said, “We thought, well, what if the ocean finally got fed up with taking all of our crap, and started talking and didn’t stop until we actually shut up and listened?” American Theatre, a leading publication in the theater industry, writes: “Ocean Filibuster recalibrates the human experience by reminding us of the comparatively small scale and depth of our own existence.”