The Ottumwa Courier

August 23, 2013

The reach of sociology

Judge Annette Scieszinski
Ottumwa Courier

---- — Every year Iowa judges are invited to speak in local schools, on college campuses and at civic events to help the community understand the role of the courts in daily life. An interesting trend on my circuit of judicial outreach is the demand for presentations to high school and college sociology classes where the dynamics of human interactions are being explored.

Sociology students examine societies and the behaviors of individuals and groups. Indeed, that is familiar subject matter for a judge because working in the courts is like one giant sociology lab.

Consider the example of our criminal case work. The law curtails criminal acts because they victimize folks and destabilize the larger community. In our system of justice, a judge is tasked with figuring out what sentence to impose. Since offender rehabilitation is a goal, the judge seeks options to assist defendants in transforming their future conduct into lawful lifestyles. The judge also must factor what terms of sentence will protect the community from further crime by the individual defendant as well as what message needs to be sent to deter others from committing similar offenses. In a sociology class syllabus, teachers refer to crime as “deviant” behavior — that conduct which deviates from society’s norms (like the standards underlying criminal laws enacted by the policy-making Legislative and Executive Branches of government).

Divorce cases also display distinct sociological symptoms. By legal definition, these actions are driven by deterioration of the marriage relationship. The court ushers a peaceful and fair resolution of the issues, which often takes form in a reasonable division of marital property and debt. When children are involved, the judge’s priority must be the best interests of the kids — determining what circumstances will allow them to grow up physically and mentally healthy and also attain social maturity. To get to that legal goal, facts about parental behaviors and interactions, as well as children’s unique needs, become pivotal.

Whether it be in criminal cases, domestic disputes or even business litigation, the court system is confronted with legal issues that frequently turn on human relationships and behavior. It’s no wonder students of sociology seek insights from those of us who work in that arena.

Judge Scieszinski, from Albia, has worked 17 years as a trial judge, covering criminal, domestic and business litigation. She may be reached at