Civil Procedure Class Notes 10/13/03


NEW TOPIC!  Subject matter jurisdiction!


There are federal and state courts in each state.  Does any court within a state have the power to hear a case?  That’s the question of personal jurisdiction.  Notice that it doesn’t matter whether we’re in federal or state court.


If so, which court?  That’s the question of subject matter jurisdiction.  Now it does matter whether we’re in state or federal court.


We’ll start out with…Federal Subject Matter Jurisdiction!


Terminology of federal jurisdiction


In each state, there are courts of limited (subject matter) jurisdiction and general (subject matter) jurisdiction.  Make sure to distinguish this from general (personal) jurisdiction.  Does the federal court have original jurisdiction?


Assuming there’s a question that is within the limited jurisdiction of the federal courts, do they hear it at trial, or only on appeal?  This is the Mottley issue.


Is the federal court the only court that can hear a case?  This introduces the idea of exclusive versus concurrent jurisdiction.  Most things that the federal government creates causes of action for can be heard in state courts, and we call this concurrent jurisdiction.


An example of exclusive jurisdiction is patents!   On the other hand, an example of concurrent jurisdiction is trademarks.  Fairman doesn’t know and doesn’t care why trademarks are concurrent and patents are exclusive.


Sources of federal subject matter jurisdiction


Where does all this subject matter jurisdiction come from?  There are three “tiers” of federal subject matter jurisdiction:


1.     The constitutional tier – Article III provides jurisdiction for the federal courts.  This Article enumerates all the things that the federal courts may (not must) have jurisdiction over.  That is, just because the Constitution allows the federal courts to have jurisdiction certain things it doesn’t mean that Congress must allow federal courts to have jurisdiction over all of those things.

2.     The statutory tier – For example, 28 U.S.C. § 1331 gives the federal courts jurisdiction over “federal questions”.  The general idea is that Congress can proscribe some subset of the federal court jurisdiction that the Constitution provides.

3.     The decisional tier – For example, Mottley interprets the constitutional and statutory language.


Why would you want to be in federal court???


There are practical reasons and strategic reasons.


1.     Federal courts may be faster!  They may have a rocket docket!  Or they may be slower than the state court in question, which may be more desirable to your side.  Time is almost always on the side of the defense.

2.     You may get a different jury pool in federal court than state court.

3.     Federal judges are appointed for life!  This may shield them from political pressures and allow them to more impartially decide a controversial issue.


Among the practical reasons are:


1.     Rules

2.     Location

3.     Dockets

4.     Familiarity


Among the strategic reasons are:


1.     The nature of the case

2.     Judges

3.     The jury pool

and again:

4.     Dockets

5.     Familiarity


Choice of forum is seen as one of the most critical decisions in the course of litigation.  Judges prefer to dismiss cases on jurisdictional grounds rather than on the merits.  “As a litigator, you always offer the court a jurisdictional ‘out’.”


Does federal subject matter jurisdiction replace personal jurisdiction?  Nope.  You must have both of them.  For a federal court to have the power to enter a binding judgment, it needs personal and subject matter jurisdiction.  This is what the course is all about.


Why do you have to have both?  They come from different parts of the Constitution.  Subject matter jurisdiction comes from Article III, while personal jurisdiction stems from Due Process in the Fourteenth Amendment.  Compare Rule 12(b)(1) (subject matter jurisdiction) to Rule 12(b)(2) (personal jurisdiction).


Here’s a simple breakdown of federal subject matter jurisdiction:


·        Claims: Federal question or “arising under” jurisdiction

·        People: Diversity jurisdiction

·        Boats: Admirality jurisdiction


Federal question jurisdiction – Louisville & Nashville Railroad v. Mottley


The Mottleys got a lifetime pass on the railroad, but later Congress banned such free passes and the railroad rescinded the pass.  Congress did this because the railroads gave out free passes as bribes.


The railroad says, “We’d love to keep giving you the pass, but it’s illegal and we can’t do it.”


What do the Mottleys do?  They sue in federal court!  We have a contract, and you broke it!  We want specific performance!  They don’t know it yet, but we’re going to have a federal question issue.


What was the federal question that the Mottleys believed allowed them to sue in federal court?  The Mottleys thought the statute was in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  The railroad is prohibited from giving the Mottleys their pass because it would violate a federal statute.  However, the Mottleys think that violates the Fifth Amendment.  It sorta seems like a federal question.


The two specific issues that the Mottleys argue are:


1.     Does the statute apply to the Mottleys?

2.     If so, does it violate the Constitution?


Neither of these questions get answered at this stage of the litigation.


Instead, the Supreme Court steps in and says that the federal district court didn’t have subject matter jurisdiction in the first place.


Here’s the really hard question.  Why wasn’t this question a federal question?


The federal question was not part of the claim, but rather part of the anticipated defense.  The court interprets the statute from which federal subject matter jurisdiction is derived.


The Well-Pleaded Complaint Rule


This is all you need to know to understand why Mottley comes out the way it does.


We look for a federal question on the face of the complaint.  If the federal complaint, as filed by the plaintiff, does not state the federal question, then there is no federal question.


Where did the federal question come from in Mottley?


The Mottleys’ complaint must look really simple: “We have this contract, they’re breaching, and we want damages.”  There’s no federal question there!  There a federal issue, but it would come up in the defendant’s answer.


But why isn’t that enough?  The court doesn’t answer this question clearly.


(I think the answer is going to be “efficiency vs. fairness” where efficiency wins out.)


It’s an efficiency rule!  You get tons of cases filed every day in federal court, and we need a good solid rule to be able to tell, from the outset, whether or not we have jurisdiction.  We don’t have to have the rule that way, but by having things run this way it will make it easier for the court and for the litigants, once they learn the rule.


Why are anticipated defenses not good enough?  It’s related to the efficiency argument.  A good lawyer can make a lot of different federal arguments that the defense could make.  But the other side might not make that argument.  In fact, sometimes they will strategically not make that argument.


What if the railroad has already filed its answer saying exactly what the Mottleys predicted?  What will the court do?  Say there is a Rule 12(b)(1) motion in front of you.  Do you grant it?  This is going to be different from personal jurisdiction.  The railroad has not waived their jurisdictional argument.  Even if the answer is done, the federal question must be in the original complaint.


The Well-Pleaded Complaint Rule talks only about the complaint.


You could certainly criticize this rule on that basis: there might be cases with important questions of federal law that don’t come up in the original cause of action.  These would get booted out of federal court.


What happens to the Mottleys?  They get dismissed.  They file again in state court.  It goes all the way back to the Supreme Court!  They try the case on the merits and the Mottleys lose!  How could this be efficient???  Why couldn’t they rule on the merits in the first place?


Constitutional versus statutory power


The language in the Constitution and in the current federal question jurisdiction statute is the same.  They both say “arising under”.  But what the Supreme Court tells us is that this phrases doesn’t mean the same thing in these two documents!  How come?


Under the statute, the federal question must “arise under” a well-pleaded complaint.  You sort of read “well-pleaded complaint” into the statute.  This is what allows the Mottleys’ state case to ultimately be heard on appeal by the Supreme Court.


Think of two concentric circles.  The Mottleys’ case falls under Article III, which means that the Supreme Court can hear it.  However, it does not fall under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (or the contemporary equivalent), therefore, the lower federal courts do not have subject matter jurisdiction.


Is this madness?


How can we justify the Supreme Court having power over the Mottleys’ case on appeal from state court, but not on appeal from federal court?


Could Congress provide for original federal jurisdiction over the Mottleys’ claim?  Sure!  We could make the statutory limits coequal to the constitutional limits.


For example, you could add the words “or defense” to the language of § 1331.  Would that be constitutional?  Sure!  The Constitution doesn’t have anything like a Well-Pleaded Complaint Rule.  Congress has basically chosen not to do this.


Yeazell has two hypotheticals.


1.     The worker who argues that the employer failed to pay federal minimum wage.  On its face, this is a federal question and the federal courts would have original federal jurisdiction.

2.     A newspaper offers a First Amendment defense to a suit.  There is no original federal jurisdiction here.  But note that this one really has the more important federal issue.  There would, however, be appellate jurisdiction for this case.


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