DOI: 10.37419/LR.V11.I3.4 ">

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This Article considers how American political polarization and the substantive issues driving it raise unique challenges for adjudicating self-defense claims in contexts of political protest. We live in an age where roughly a quarter of the population believes it is at least sometimes justifiable to use violence in defense of political positions, making political partisans somewhat more likely to pose a genuine threat of bodily harm to opponents. Furthermore, the psychological literature shows that people are more likely to perceive threats from people with whom they politically disagree and that juries tend to evaluate reasonableness claims according to their own political positions. All three of these phenomena create challenges for the rule of law due to the increased risk that factually similar cases will turn out differently and that the justice system will merely recreate the monomaniacal, us-versus-them polarization of society at large. This Article surveys the relevant political science and psychological literature on partisanship and reasoning and proposes two interrelated solutions: one pragmatic, at the level of individual trials, and the other cultural, at the level of social discourse. It suggests that judges import what we know about the distortive effects of partisanship into the courtroom through the use of court-appointed psychological experts and jury instructions. Both have shown some success—if tailored precisely to the facts of a specific case—in correcting some forms of juror bias and reasoning errors. This Article further argues that incorporating these processes into the adjudication of politicized self-defense claims will have a broader, expressive value for society as a whole. Trials provide a model for truth-finding, which, for better or for worse, impacts how private citizens evaluate culpability in their day-to-day lives. If trials draw even some people’s attention to the ways in which partisan thinking can generate or justify acts of violence, they may be a force for moderation in how people deal with their political disagreements, which will have benefits far beyond the courtroom.