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Northwestern Political Scientist Casper Dies at Age 63

March 7, 2006 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Jonathan Casper, 63, an innovator in research on law and society who pushed the boundaries of traditional methods and topics of inquiry, died Friday, March 3, in Evanston.

Casper was a former chair and professor of political science, faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and associate dean in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University and senior research fellow at the American Bar Foundation (ABF).

He broke with tradition in political science by changing how people looked at courts, focusing on the informal processes in trial courts that have such a strong influence on outcomes. Then again he broke ground in his interdisciplinary work by exploring what psychological theories had to say about decision making in the criminal and civil justice systems.

In his early research, Casper interviewed lawyers involved in civil rights litigation, culminating in his first book, “Lawyers Before the Warren Court” (1972). While conducting that research, he visited courthouses across the country and noticed that criminal courts spent much of their time on guilty pleas rather than on trials. This observation led him to his path-breaking research on informal justice.

He initiated the first empirical studies of the less visible plea-bargaining process that dominates the American criminal justice system. Focusing his attention on defendants, he ultimately interviewed 600 defendants in three states shortly after their arrest and then again after the disposition of their case. He discovered, to his surprise, that defendants who pleaded guilty expressed higher levels of satisfaction than those who had trials -- regardless of outcome, eventually explaining this finding by applying theories of procedural justice to the trial process.

Later Casper’s increasing fascination with psychological theory led to his classic work on juror judgments about search and seizure. He, with Kennette Benedict, his former wife, found that police decisions to conduct a search were more likely to be seen as based on probable cause when the search uncovered illegal conduct than when no illegal conduct was uncovered -- even when what the officers knew in advance was held constant.

The study showed the influence of hindsight bias on juror judgments about whether the police had probable cause before conducting a search. In essence, the study showed that jurors who were told that evidence of illegal conduct was found in a search were influenced by a cognitive process called the hindsight bias and were unable to disregard the information in determining damages that resulted from the search.

Casper’s later empirical studies reflected an increasing breadth of inquiry about the behavior of juries. That research showed the crucial role that legal instructions can play in jury decisionmaking, revealed the limited ability of cross-examination or an opposing witness to control the influence of unjustified claims about the defendant’s dangerousness, and showed how perceptions of lawyers are affected by the witnesses they present.

He collaborated on that research with Shari Seidman Diamond, professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law and senior research fellow at the American Bar Foundation.

Casper’s former colleagues noted his unaffected style, sense of fun and passion for justice.

“Jay Casper brought an extraordinary combination of passion, wit and joyful creativity to his work,” said Diamond. “He was the ideal collaborator, engaged and eager to consider all sides of a question. He was forthright, critical and open -- always ready with a joke to accompany a well-justified argument for a different position.”

“Jay’s impact on political science from the early ‘70s, when he published some truly remarkable work, has been considerable,” said Lynn Mather, professor of law and political science at the University of Buffalo and director of the Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy. “Who else has published three books in one year?”

“Jay was a wonderful and loyal friend from the time we first met at the ABF and Northwestern,” said Rayman Solomon, dean of Rutgers School of Law, Camden. “Whether on the tennis court or at an academic seminar, his incisive mind and his quick wit made him exciting to learn from and a joy to be with. He will be greatly missed.”

“Much of his work dealt with ordinary people -- underdogs, criminal defendants -- and how they experienced and were affected by the legal system,” said Dennis Chong, a former colleague and professor of political science at Northwestern. “Jay showed defendants convicted for crimes still come away with a positive assessment of the criminal justice system when they feel the procedures were fair.”

Casper’s work on the U.S. Supreme Court and other legal institutions focused on how those institutions brought about social change, Chong stressed.

“On a personal level, he was as an inspiring mentor, a devoted friend, a loving and playful father,” said Susan Shapiro, senior research fellow at the American Bar Foundation. “And he was passionate about politics, equality and civil liberties.”

“He shared his enormous intelligence and insight as a mentor and adviser without any pretentiousness, offering straightforward simple and elegant solutions,” said Milt Heumann, professor of political science at Rutgers University. “He was a brilliant mensch. You can’t study the problem of the role of the Supreme Court in the American legal system without drawing on Casper’s foundational empirical research article in the American Political Science Review.”

The frequently cited quote from Casper’s book “The Politics of Civil Liberties” (Harper & Row, 1972) suggests that passion for justice:

“The freedom to express varying and often opposing ideas is essential to a variety of conceptions of democracy. If democracy is viewed as essentially a process -- a way in which collective decisions for a society are made -- free expression is crucial to the openness of the process and to such characteristics as elections, representation of interests and the like.”

He is the author or co-author of five books and more than two dozen articles.

In 1985, Casper joined Northwestern’s political science department and its Institute for Policy Research and became a senior research fellow at the American Bar Foundation. He served two terms as chair of political science, from 1988 to 1991 and from 1994 to 1997. He was associate dean in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences from September 1998 to August 2000.

Before moving to Northwestern, Casper was on the faculty of Yale University, Stanford University and the University of Illinois and was a Guggenheim fellow from 1975 to 1976. He received his bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in 1964 and his doctorate in political science from Yale in 1968.

Casper is survived by his daughter, Sarah; his former wife, Kennette Benedict; his brother Barry Michael Casper and his wife, Nancy Casper; and his nephews Daniel, Benjamin and Michael Casper.

A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date. (Donations may be made to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, 4100 W. Ann Lurie Place, Chicago, IL 60632, or to Mather Life Ways, 1603 Orrington, Evanston, IL 60201.)

Topics: People