In our article, we engage with the anthropologist Gerd Spittler’s pathbreaking article “Dispute settlement in the shadow of Leviathan” (1980) in which he strives to integrate the existence of state courts (the eponymous Leviathan’s shadow) in (post-)colonial Africa into the analysis on non-state court legal practices. According to Spittler, it is because of undesirable characteristics inherent in state courts that the disputing parties tended to rather involve mediators than pursue a state court judgment. The less people liked state courts, the more likely they were to (re-)turn to dispute settlement procedures. Now how has this situation changed in the last four decades since its publication date? We relate his findings to contemporary debates in legal anthropology that investigate the relationship between disputing, law and the state. We also show through our own work in Africa and Asia, particularly in Southern Ethiopia and Kyrgyzstan, in what ways Spittler’s by now classical contribution to the field of legal anthropology in 1980 can be made fruitful for a contemporary anthropology of the state at a time when not only (legal) anthropology has changed, but especially the way states deal with putatively “customary” forms of dispute settlement.