February 20, 2013
SCOTUS Opinion in Gunn v. Minton
Today the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in Gunn v. Minton, covered earlier here and here. The case revisits the recurring problem of when a federal law ingredient in a state law cause of action is sufficient for federal question jurisdiction (cases "arising under" federal law). It's a pretty quick turnaround--oral argument was on January 16.
Chief Justice Roberts authors the opinion, which endorses and applies the test developed eight years ago in Grable & Sons Metal Products, Inc. v. Darue Engineering & Mfg., 545 U. S. 308 (2005). Here’s one colorful passage on Grable [Slip Op. 6], which the Chief distills into a four-part test:
[E]ven where a claim finds its origins in state rather than federal law—as Minton’s legal malpractice claim indisputably does—we have identified a “special and small category” of cases in which arising under jurisdiction still lies. Empire HealthChoice Assurance, Inc. v. McVeigh, 547 U. S. 677, 699 (2006). In outlining the contours of this slim category, we do not paint on a blank canvas. Unfortunately, the canvas looks like one that Jackson Pollock got to first. See 13D C. Wright, A. Miller, E. Cooper, & R. Freer, Federal Practice and Procedure §3562, pp. 175–176 (3d ed. 2008) (reviewing general confusion on question).
In an effort to bring some order to this unruly doctrine several Terms ago, we condensed our prior cases into the following inquiry: Does the “state-law claim necessarily raise a stated federal issue, actually disputed and substantial, which a federal forum may entertain without disturbing any congressionally approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities”? Grable, 545 U. S., at 314. That is, federal jurisdiction over a state law claim will lie if a federal issue is: (1) necessarily raised, (2) actually disputed, (3) substantial, and (4) capable of resolution in federal court without disrupting the federal-state balance approved by Congress. Where all four of these requirements are met, we held, jurisdiction is proper because there is a “serious federal interest in claiming the advantages thought to be inherent in a federal forum,” which can be vindicated without disrupting Congress’s intended division of labor between state and federal courts. Id., at 313–314.
Applying Grable, the Court ultimately concludes that federal jurisdiction did not extend to Minton’s state law malpractice action, even though issues of federal patent law were “necessary” and “actually disputed” for purposes of requirements 1 and 2. As to the third requirement, Chief Justice Roberts writes [Slip Op. 8]:
[T]he federal issue in this case is not substantial in the relevant sense…. As our past cases show, … it is not enough that the federal issue be significant to the particular parties in the immediate suit; that will always be true when the state claim “necessarily raise[s]” a disputed federal issue, as Grable separately requires. The substantiality inquiry under Grable looks instead to the importance of the issue to the federal system as a whole.
The full discussion of the third requirement [Slip Op. 8-12] is worth a read, with some interesting discussion of the possible effect (or lack thereof) of state court malpractice actions on federal patent law and issue preclusion. As to the fourth requirement, the Chief Justice writes:
It follows from the foregoing that Grable’s fourth requirement is also not met. That requirement is concerned with the appropriate “balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities.” Ibid. We have already explained the absence of a substantial federal issue within the meaning of Grable. The States, on the other hand, have “a special responsibility for maintaining standards among members of the licensed professions.” Ohralik v. Ohio State Bar Assn., 436 U. S. 447, 460 (1978). Their “interest . . . in regulating lawyers is especially great since lawyers are essential to the primary governmental function of administering justice, and have historically been officers of the courts.” Goldfarb v. Virginia State Bar, 421 U. S. 773, 792 (1975) (internal quotation marks omitted).