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Judicial Rotation As Centripetal Force: Sentencing In The Court Communities Of South Carolina*


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Courts as communities theory emphasizes the sentencing differences that can arise between localities within a single state. The results of published studies have highlighted how local differences emerge based on informal sociological and political processes defined by the communities perspective. The findings from recent quantitative studies from South Carolina have revealed notably less county variation in sentencing than has been observed elsewhere. I use qualitative interviews with 13 South Carolina trial judges to investigate sentencing processes and to shed light on these findings. The interviews explore the state's legal structure and culture, including the practice of circuit rotation in which judges travel among counties holding court. The results suggest rotation serves as a centripetal force of sentencing culture, homogenizing what might otherwise be a more varied collection of county‐specific norms. Rotation leads to increased uniformity through judge shopping and the cross‐pollination of ideas and norms. Defendants can strategically judge shop and plead in front of a lenient judge—a process that gives rise to the term “plea judge,” which is a label for the most lenient judges who sentence a large number of defendants. Rotation also increases the interactions among judges and prosecutors, expanding networks and grapevines, and leading to cross‐pollination and the sharing of ideas.