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Engaging Ideas

The Courts and Social Change

How social movements use the courts to achieve policy goals

This Engaging Idea explores the evolving role of courts in shaping public policy.


Photo of Joshua Wilson

Joshua Wilson is Associate Professor at the University of Denver. Professor Wilson's research concerns the varying abilities of political and social movements to use law — broadly defined — in the pursuit of political ends. He has a Ph.D. in Jurisprudence & Social Policy from the University of California, Berkeley and was previously an Assistant Professor at John Jay College, CUNY.

Portions of his academic work have been published in Law & Society Review, Law & Social Inquiry, and Studies in Law, Politics, & Society, and his research has been discussed in Time Magazine, The Deseret News, The Guardian (UK), Macleans (CAN), and on NPR & PRI. His first book, The Street Politics of Abortion: Speech, Violence, and America's Culture Wars (Stanford University Press), was released in August of 2013. His second book, The New States of Abortion Politics (Stanford University Press) was released in June of 2016. Related popular media pieces that he has authored have been placed in Newsweek, TIME, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post's Monkey Cage, The Pacific Standard, and elsewhere. His current collaborative research project with Professor Amanda Hollis-Brusky (Pomona College), has received funding from the National Science Foundation and focuses on better understanding how legal education and training relates to legal and political change.

 More on the Subject

  1. Dr. Joshua C. Wilson's Publication (e) Portfolio and OpEds
  2. The Rights Revolution, by Charles R. Epp - this book gives an understanding of what led to the progressive use of courts
  3. The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, by Steven M Teles - gives an understanding of what led to the secular conservative use of courts
  4. Ideas with Consequences, by Amanda Hollis-Brusky - gives an understanding of how the contemporary secular conservative legal movement is using courts
  5. July 1, 2018, Politics Unplugged interview - Justice Kennedy's retirement could lead to old issues being reintroduced to Supreme Court

Questions for personal reflection or group discussion

  1. Think of major court cases that you have heard of recently. Can you start to see how they relate to the points in the discussion?
  2. How does this discussion possibly change the way in which you understand the politics, and the political stakes of judicial nominations?
  3. How, if at all, does the above make you reconsider the charge that "judicial activism" or "activist judges" are overstepping their bounds?
  4. What are possible risks to movements when they appeal to the courts?
  5. What are possible risks to the judiciary when they are asked to enter policy debates?
  6. How, if at all, do you see this as relating to when states or organized political groups sue over policy changes?

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