Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts

Constitutional and Congressional Limitations on Federal Court Jurisdiction

A court’s ‘‘subject matter jurisdiction’’ is its power (and duty) to adjudicate a case: without jurisdiction, the court lacks power to proceed, and whenever a defect in its subject matter jurisdiction is discovered, the court must dismiss the case without reaching the merits. Unlike state courts of first instance, which typically possess general jurisdiction over any case that comes before them, Article III of the Constitution and the federal statutes that implement it both strictly limit the subject matter jurisdiction of the federal courts. Thus, no federal court has jurisdiction over a case unless it falls within Article III’s list of the kinds of ‘‘cases and controversies’’ that comprise the judicial power of the United States and Congress has enabled the constitutional provision by granting the court statutory jurisdiction over the case. From this it follows, as the Court held in Marbury v. Madison, (1803), that Congress may not expand the jurisdiction of the federal courts beyond the limits of Article III. As for the lower federal courts (district courts and courts of appeal), Article III has been interpreted to give Congress the power both to ‘‘ordain and establish’’ them and to control the kinds of cases that they can hear (Sheldon v. Sill, 1850). And although Article III directly establishes the institution of the Supreme Court and grants it original jurisdiction over certain narrow types of disputes, that article also gives Congress the power to make ‘‘exceptions’’ to, and provide ‘‘regulations’’ for, the Court’s appellate jurisdiction. The Supreme Court has interpreted the latter language as authorizing Congress to define its appellate jurisdiction by statute. Hence, the Supreme Court will have appellate jurisdiction only if the case before it falls within Article III and Congress has granted it jurisdiction by statute (Ex parte McCardle, 1869).

All of this seems to leave the federal courts’ jurisdiction vulnerable to Congressional abridgement for political reasons and has led to the introduction of literally scores of bills in Congress over the past fifty years seeking to restrict access to the Supreme Court and/or to the lower federal courts in such politically controversial areas as subversive activities, legislative apportionment, school busing, school prayer, abortion rights, and gay marriage. Although none of these bills has yet become law, there is an extensive debate in academic and political circles about the limits, if any, on Congress’ power to strip the federal courts of jurisdiction over cases involving the assertion of federal constitutional rights. At a minimum it is generally agreed that Congress lacks the power to give the federal courts jurisdiction to decide a case according to an unconstitutional rule of decision (United States v. Klein, 1871), especially if the rule of decision unconstitutionally impinges on the judicial power itself (Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 1995). Nor may Congress exercise its power to control federal court jurisdiction to deny aggrieved persons at least some access to courts (whether federal or state) for the assertion of their constitutional claims. And although Congress can and has given jurisdiction over certain cases falling within Article III to administrative agencies and legislative courts such as military tribunals, this power is limited and seems to require, at a minimum, that a duly constituted Article III court have jurisdiction to conduct judicial review of these entities’ decisions (Northern Pipeline Construction Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line, 1982). Finally, Article III’s use of the practically synonymous terms ‘‘case’’ and ‘‘controversy’’ has been read to deny the federal courts the power to issue advisory opinions (Flast v. Cohen, 1968) and to require the adoption of the doctrines of standing, ripeness, and mootness to assure the existence of a concrete and live dispute—a ‘‘case’’—between the parties (see Ripeness in Free Speech Cases, Standing in Free Speech Cases).

Jurisdiction of the Federal District Courts

The federal district courts are the courts of first instance (trial courts) in the federal judicial system. Much of their original jurisdiction derives from }1332 of the Judicial Code (28 U.S.C.), which deals with Article III’s categories of controversies between citizens of different states and between a citizen of a state and foreign citizens or subjects (diversity jurisdiction). The ‘‘general federal question’’ jurisdiction of }1331 is far more important in the context of civil rights enforcement, however. Although }1343 specifically grants the district courts original jurisdiction over civil actions to enforce the substantive provisions of certain federal civil rights statutes, jurisdiction over these types of cases is also given by }1331, a fact that renders the former section essentially superfluous. Closely tracking the language of Article III, }1331 provides that ‘‘the district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States,’’ without regard for the amount in controversy. In federal question cases the district courts also have supplemental jurisdiction (under }1367) over closely related claims based on state law. The general federal question jurisdiction provided by }1331 is not exclusive, which means that most civil rights plaintiffs can choose to file their claims either in federal court or in state court. On the other hand, claims brought in state court that fall within the district court’s original jurisdiction, including claims brought under 42 U.S.C. }1983, are subject to Removal to Federal Court at the instance of the defendant. The district courts also have jurisdiction under }2241 over petitions for habeas corpus filed by prisoners held in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, including prisoners detained by executive order and prisoners held pursuant to a judgment of conviction by a state court (}2254). A full description of this important heading of district court jurisdiction over claims for the deprivation of civil rights can be found in Habeas Corpus: Modern History.

There are many limitations on the district courts’ federal question jurisdiction. To mention only a few of the most important ones: (1) }1331 itself creates no substantive claims but only provides jurisdiction for claims that have been created elsewhere, whether by statute, by treaty, by federal common law, or by Implied Rights derived from the Constitution itself, as in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents (1971); (2) original federal question jurisdiction is subject to the ‘‘well-pleaded complaint rule,’’ Louisville & Nashville R.R. Co. v. Mottley, (1908), which requires that the federal question in the case arise as part of the plaintiff’s claim and not merely by way of an anticipated defense to a state law claim; (3) the Anti- Injunction Act (}2283) prohibits federal courts from enjoining pending state court proceedings except in certain narrow circumstances; (4) several prudential (judge-made) rules require a federal district court with jurisdiction to abstain from exercising it, either because state law is unsettled and should be clarified before being attacked on federal grounds, Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., (1941), or because the federal plaintiff is seeking to interfere in an ongoing state criminal proceeding conducted in good faith, Younger v. Harris, (1971), or because the court deems it prudent to defer to parallel state court proceedings, Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, (1976); (5) the ‘‘political question doctrine’’ requires the federal courts to defer to Congress or the President if a particular constitutional question is committed by the text of the Constitution to another branch of government or if the courts lack judicially discoverable standards for resolving the question, Baker v. Carr, (1962); and (6) the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution has been interpreted to deny the federal courts jurisdiction over suits for damages brought by individuals against a state or state agency, unless the state has given its consent or Congress has effectively abrogated the state’s constitutional immunity.

Although 42 U.S.C. }1983 does not authorize suits against states or state agencies, it does permit civil rights claimants to seek damages in federal (or state) court against local governments and state and local officials in their ‘‘personal’’ capacity on account of their violations of constitutional rights. However, actual recovery of damages is often impeded by the defendant’s imposition of various doctrines of ‘‘official immunity’’ (see Harlow v. Fitzgerald [1982]). As for suits seeking purely prospective relief (including injunctions) against ongoing or future unconstitutional actions by the states, the Ex parte Young, (1908) doctrine avoids the bar of the Eleventh Amendment by allowing the plaintiff to sue the appropriate state official by name, in his ‘‘official’’ capacity. Because the United States also enjoys sovereign immunity to the extent that it has not been waived, the same rule applies to suits seeking injunctions or mandamus (}1361) against federal officials: the plaintiff is allowed to sue the federal official responsible for the allegedly unconstitutional federal practice by name, thus avoiding the bar of federal sovereign immunity (Shields v. Utah Idaho Central R.R., 1938). Moreover, in 1976, Congress amended 5 U.S.C. }702 of the Administrative Procedure Act to waive the sovereign immunity of the United States in any federal court action seeking an injunction against an ‘‘agency’’ of the United States. And in the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) the United States also waives its immunity for suits seeking damages against it for certain torts committed by federal employees, including some civil rights violations, although liability is subject to the many exceptions listed in }2680; exclusive jurisdiction over cases brought under the FTCA is granted to the district courts by }1346(b).

Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal

The Supreme Court has discretionary jurisdiction under }1257 to review, by writ of certiorari, any final judgment rendered by the highest court of a state in which judgment may be had (usually the state’s supreme court), but only to the extent that there is a dispositive federal question in the case. Generally speaking, the Court has no power to review state court decisions that only concern questions of state law (Murdock v. City of Memphis, 1875). Among other things, this means that state supreme courts are free to give broader protections to civil rights under their state constitutions than the Supreme Court has afforded under the federal Constitution, and so long as the state court makes it clear that its interpretation of state law does not rely on federal law, the Supreme Court is powerless to review (Michigan v. Long, 1983).

Within the system of federal courts, }1291 gives twelve of the thirteen current courts of appeal jurisdiction to review appeals from the final decisions of the district courts that are located within their respective geographical areas. Appeals before judgment (‘‘interlocutory appeals’’) are permitted only in certain narrow circumstances, such as the grant or denial of an injunction (}1292). The jurisdiction of the nonspecialized courts of appeal (the First through Eleventh Circuits, plus the D.C. Circuit) is limited by }1295, which gives the specialized Court of Appeal for the Federal Circuit exclusive jurisdiction to review the final decisions of the district courts in patent cases and in cases in which the United States is a party, and by }}2284 and 1253, which allow an appeal directly to the Supreme Court of any decision by a three-judge district court granting or denying an injunction in a legislative apportionment case. Cases in the courts of appeal are subject to discretionary review in the Supreme Court, pursuant to }1254, by petition for certiorari by any party, either before or after the rendition of judgment. The procedures and time limits for these various modes of seeking appellate review are specified in the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and in the Rules of the Supreme Court of the United States.

LOUIS E. WOLCHER

References and Further Reading

  • Fallon, Richard H., Daniel J. Meltzer, and David Shapiro. Hart and Wechsler’s The Federal Courts and the Federal System. 5th Ed. New York: Foundation Press, 2003.
  • Hart, Henry M., The Power of Congress to Limit the Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts: An Exercise in Dialectic, Harvard Law Review 8 (1953): 1362:1362–1402.
  • Irmas, Sydney, and Erwin Chemerinsky. Federal Jurisdiction. 4th Ed. Boulder: Aspen Publishing, 2003.
  • Wright, Charles A., and Mary Kay Kane. Law of Federal Courts. 6th Ed. St. Paul: West Group, 2002.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962)
  • Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971)
  • Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976)
  • Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83 (1968)
  • Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)
  • Louisville & Nashville R.R. Co. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149 (1908)
  • Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803)
  • Ex parte McCardle, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 506 (1869)
  • Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983)
  • Murdock v. City of Memphis, 87 U.S. (20 Wall.) 590 (1875)
  • Northern Pipeline Construction Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line, 458 U.S. 50 (1982)
  • Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211 (1995)
  • Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941)
  • Sheldon v. Sill, 49 U.S. (8 How.) 441 (1850)
  • Shields v. Utah Idaho Central R.R., 305 U.S. 177 (1938)
  • United States v. Klein, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 128 (1871)
  • Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908)
  • Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971)
  • United States Constitution: Art. III; Eleventh Amendment
  • 5 U.S.C.: }702
  • 28 U.S.C.: }}1253; 1254; 1257; 1291; 1292; 1331; 1332; 1343; 1346; 1361; 1367; 2241; 2254; 2283; 2284; 2680
  • 42 U.S.C.: }1983

See also Civil Rights Act of 1866; Civil Rights Act of 1875; Habeas Corpus: Modern History; Implied Rights; Judicial Review; Removal to Federal Court; Ripeness in Free Speech Cases; Standing in Free Speech Cases

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