Friday, November 14, 2014
Now available on the Courts Law section of JOTWELL is an essay by Jim Pfander entitled How Lower-Court Precedent Affects Supreme Court Precedent. Jim reviews Aaron Bruhl’s recent article, Following Lower-Court Precedent, 81 U. Chi. L. Rev. 851 (2014).
Tuesday, November 4, 2014
Michael J. Gerhardt and Michael Ashley Stein have posted on SSRN their article, The Politics of Early Justice, Lower Court Federal Judicial Selection 1789-1861, forthcoming in Iowa Law Review.
Almost every commentary on the history of the selection of federal judges presumes that there was some prior golden era in which national political leaders focused primarily on the merit of individual nominees and were not unduly swayed by partisan politics or ideology. Numerous constitutional scholars — and national leaders — have therefore roundly criticized the modern day judicial selection process, citing unprecedented delays and a low percentage of approval of federal court nominees as evidence that the system has broken down. They have argued that the ways in which senators, as well as presidents, have handled lower court nominations in the modern era have deviated from how the nation’s first chief executives and the first few Senates handled such nominations. Yet, there is one glaring omission in almost all commentaries on disputes over judicial selection over the past few decades — the absence of any substantiation of an earlier, so-called golden era, in which there actually was general deference within the Senate to presidents’ nominations to federal district and appellate judgeships. Even the classic work on federal judicial selection by the late Kermit Hall begins its analysis of federal judicial selection in 1825, disregarding nearly forty years of prior practices in the field and reinforcing the received but unsubstantiated assumptions about how judicial nominations to lower courts fared beforehand.
This Article is the first to make a serious comprehensive historiography of federal judicial selection from 1789-1861 in the United States. Following six years of archival and secondary source research, we identified each of the lower court nominations made by presidents from George Washington through James Buchanan and then tracked the Senate’s actions on each of their nominations through both archival and secondary sources. Further, we identified the criteria employed in the first seven decades of judicial nominations as well as the outcomes of, and grounds for, the Senate’s proceedings for all of these nominations. We believe that the results of this unprecedented study are significant because they provide a window into an era of early federal judicial selection that has been virtually ignored by both commentators and national political leaders. While we identified some antiquated practices, such as several of the earliest presidents’ judicial nominees actually declining judgeships after the Senate had confirmed their nominations, we found other patterns of practice that are similar to contemporary developments. Among the most significant of these latter patterns are the facts that: every antebellum president took political considerations into account in making nominations; all antebellum presidents, with the exception of William Henry Harrison, had most of their judicial nominations confirmed by the Senate; and three antebellum presidents — George Washington, Martin Van Buren, and James Polk — enjoyed 100% of their judicial nominations confirmed by the Senate. Yet, political parties, particularly in times of divided government, often split along party lines in judicial confirmation proceedings, and several judicial nominations in the antebellum period failed because of opposition based on the particular nominees’ ideologies or past political decisions. In short, there was no golden era of judicial nominations but rather different eras in which politics, in different ways, shaped federal judicial selection.
Monday, November 3, 2014
Over on the Courts Law section of JOTWELL is an essay by Steve Vladeck entitled Appealing to Injustice. Steve reviews Bill Richman and Bill Reynolds' recent book, Injustice on Appeal: The United States Courts of Appeals in Crisis (Oxford Univ. Press 2013).
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Far from resting on its laurels after pushing through the latest round of defense-oriented amendments to the FRCP, the Advisory Committee on Civil Rules continues its assault. This time, among many other things, it's tackling class actions – as if the Supreme Court wasn't already doing a pretty good job of eviscerating class actions by itself.
The 588-page agenda book for the Committee's meeting in Washington, D.C. on October 30-31, 2014 is on the U.S. Courts website here.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Monday, August 18, 2014
We covered earlier the upcoming Hastings Law Journal symposium on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Atlantic Marine Construction Co. v. U.S. District Court. It will take place in San Francisco on Friday, September 19th. Here’s an announcement/invitation with more details:
You are cordially invited to attend a symposium on Atlantic Marine v. U.S. District Court, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court last Term that held forum-selection clauses to be enforceable under Sec. 1404(a)'s authorization of venue transfer. The symposium, co-sponsored by UC Hastings and Hastings Law Journal, will bring renowned scholars from across the country to discuss the importance of the decision and its implications for civil litigation. Up to 3.5 hours of California MCLE credit is available. Free and open to the public, the symposium will be held at UC Hastings College of the Law, 198 McAllister St., in the Louise B. Mayer Room from 1:00-4:30pm on Friday, September 19, 2014. A reception for all attendees will immediately follow. Register here: http://www.hastingslawjournal.org/symposium/.
Saturday, August 16, 2014
Stephen Burbank and Sean Farhang have posted on SSRN their article Federal Court Rulemaking and Litigation Reform: An Institutional Approach (forthcoming in Nevada Law Journal).
Since the bold rulemaking reforms of 1993 were very nearly blocked by Congress, it has seemed that the important lessons for some rulemakers had to do with the epistemic deficits or overreaching of proposed reforms, while for others the lessons focused attention on the locus of partisan control in Congress. The former group may have learned from the Court’s strategy of incrementalism – death by a thousand cuts – in litigation reform involving the interpretation of federal statutes. The latter group may regret, if not the loss of leadership in procedural lawmaking, then the loss of leadership in retrenchment, which some rulemaking critics have seen signaled in the Court’s recent use of decisions effectively to amend the Federal Rules.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
By now most folks have seen yesterday’s conflicting rulings over whether the Affordable Care Act authorizes subsidies for individuals who purchase insurance on a federal exchange (as opposed to exchanges run by the states). The D.C. Circuit found that such subsidies were not statutorily authorized (the Halbig case). And an hour later, the Fourth Circuit found that the subsidies were statutorily authorized (the King case).
The merits of these decisions, as a practical matter and in terms of statutory interpretation, have received tremendous attention. But Article III standing was also an issue in both Halbig and King. Who, after all, suffers the constitutionally required “injury in fact” by virtue of receiving a subsidy? The answer: People who would be subject to the individual mandate if they are entitled to the subsidy but would not be subject to the individual mandate (on income grounds) without the subsidy. Here’s how the Halbig majority explained it with respect to one of the plaintiffs in that case, David Klemencic:
Klemencic resides in West Virginia, a state that did not establish its own Exchange, and expects to earn approximately $20,000 this year. He avers that he does not wish to purchase health insurance and that, but for federal credits, he would be exempt from the individual mandate because the unsubsidized cost of coverage would exceed eight percent of his income. The availability of credits on West Virginia’s federal Exchange therefore confronts Klemencic with a choice he’d rather avoid: purchase health insurance at a subsidized cost of less than $21 per year or pay a somewhat greater tax penalty.
The D.C. Circuit found that this was sufficient for purposes of Article III standing, and the Fourth Circuit reached the same conclusion. From the Halbig majority opinion (footnote omitted):
The government characterizes Klemencic’s injury as purely ideological and hence neither concrete nor particularized. But, although Klemencic admits to being at least partly motivated by opposition to “government handouts,” he has established that, by making subsidies available in West Virginia, the IRS Rule will have quantifiable economic consequences particular to him. See Clapper v. Amnesty Int’l USA, 133 S. Ct. 1138, 1147 (2013) (explaining that a “threatened injury” that is “certainly impending” may “constitute injury in fact” (emphasis and internal quotation marks omitted)). Those consequences may be small, but even an “‘identifiable trifle’” of harm may establish standing. Chevron Natural Gas v. FERC, 199 F. App’x 2, 4 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting United States v. Students Challenging Regulatory Agency Procedures, 412 U.S. 669, 689 n.14 (1973)); see Bob Jones Univ. v. United States, 461 U.S. 574, 581-82 (1983) (noting that Bob Jones University sued for a tax refund of $21.00). Klemencic thus satisfies the requirement of establishing an injury in fact, and because that injury is traceable to the IRS Rule and redressable through a judicial decision invalidating the rule, we find that he has standing to challenge the rule.
And from the King opinion:
We agree that this represents a concrete economic injury that is directly traceable to the IRS Rule. The IRS Rule forces the plaintiffs to purchase a product they otherwise would not, at an expense to them, or to pay the tax penalty for failing to comply with the individual mandate, also subjecting them to some financial cost. Although it is counterintuitive, the tax credits, working in tandem with the Act’s individual mandate, impose a financial burden on the plaintiffs.
The defendants’ argument against standing is premised on the claim that the plaintiffs want to purchase “catastrophic” insurance coverage, which in some cases is more expensive than subsidized comprehensive coverage required by the Act. The defendants thus claim that the plaintiffs have acknowledged they would actually expend more money on a separate policy even if they were eligible for the credits. Regardless of the viability of this argument, it rests on an incorrect premise. The defendants misread the plaintiffs’ complaint, which, while mentioning the possibility that several of the plaintiffs wish to purchase catastrophic coverage, also clearly alleges that each plaintiff does not want to buy comprehensive, ACA-compliant coverage and is harmed by having to do so or pay a penalty. The harm in this case is having to choose between ACA-compliant coverage and the penalty, both of which represent a financial cost to the plaintiffs. That harm is actual or imminent, and is directly traceable to the IRS Rule.
Monday, June 9, 2014
AALS Section on Federal Courts: Annual Award for Best Untenured Article on the Law of Federal Jurisdiction
The AALS Section on Federal Courts is pleased to announce the third annual award for the best article on the law of federal jurisdiction by a full-time, untenured faculty member at an AALS member or affiliate school and to solicit nominations (including self-nominations) for the prize to be awarded at the 2015 AALS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.
The purpose of the award program is to recognize outstanding scholarship in the field of federal courts by untenured faculty members. To that end, eligible articles are those specifically in the field of Federal Courts that were published by a recognized journal during the twelve-month period ending on September 1, 2014 (date of actual publication determines eligibility). Eligible authors are those who, at the close of nominations (i.e., as of September 15, 2014), are untenured, full-time faculty members at AALS member or affiliate schools, and have not previously won the award.
Nominations (or questions about the award) should be directed to Tara Leigh Grove at William and Mary Law School (email@example.com), Chair of the AALS Section on Federal Courts. Without exception, all nominations must be received by 11:59 p.m. (EDT) on September 15, 2014. Nominations will be reviewed by a prize committee comprised of Professors Janet Cooper Alexander (Stanford), Allan Erbsen (Minnesota), Tara Leigh Grove (William & Mary), James Pfander (Northwestern), and Judith Resnik (Yale), with the result announced at the Federal Courts section program at the 2015 AALS Annual Meeting.
Saturday, June 7, 2014
The Standing Committee met on May 29-30, 2014 in D.C. and unanimously approved the amendments as they were modified by the Advisory Committee at its meeting in April.
Hat tip: Center for Constitutional Litigation
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Some people really, really want to be in federal court instead of state court. In Arnold Crossroads v. Gander Mountain, No. 13-2020 (8th Cir. Jun. 2, 2014), defendant Gander tried and failed to remove the case three times. Plaintiff filed this breach-of-lease case on February 24, 2009 in Missouri state court, seeking one month's damages of $40,000. Defendant's first attempt at removal on the basis of diversity failed for lack of the amount-in-controversy requirement. Defendant then filed a declaratory judgment action in federal court, which was dismissed on abstention grounds in light of the pending state case.
Plaintiff eventually amended its complaint to seek millions of dollars in damages for breach of the lease's entire 15-year period, and defendant attempted to remove again, but this time failed because the effort to remove was untimely under 28 U.S.C. §1446 (one year for diversity actions).
A year later, the City where the lease was to have operated intervened as a plaintiff, seeking $750,000 from defendant. Defendant attempted a third time to remove, purporting to remove only the City. The federal district court once again remanded, and defendant appealed.
The Eighth Circuit dismissed the appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §1447(d) (an order remanding a case to the state court from which it has been removed "is not reviewable on appeal or otherwise"), because the district court's remand order was based on the "§1447(c) procedural flaw of untimely removal." Judge Smith dissented: "I would reach the primary issue in this case and hold that Gander can remove the City's claim because that civil action involved a new party who asserted a new and original claim."
Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Tired of using Mosley v. General Motors for an illustration of joinder under Rule 20? The D.C. Circuit has provided a great new case. The court quaintly began its opinion:
Generally speaking, our federal judicial system and the procedural rules that govern it work well, allowing parties to resolve their disputes with one another fairly and efficiently. But sometimes individuals seek to manipulate judicial procedures to serve their own improper ends. This case calls upon us to evaluate—and put a stop to— one litigant’s attempt to do just that.
AF Holdings, LLC v. Does 1-1058, No. 12-7135 (D.C. Cir. May 27, 2014).
Plaintiff AF Holdings, represented by a law firm related to one that was called a "porno-trolling collective" in another case, allegedly (there was some question of forgery) acquired the copyright to a pornographic film called "Popular Demand." It sued 1,058 "John Doe" defendants in federal court in D.C. for copyright infringement for downloading the film on a file-sharing service known as BitTorrent.
Moving for leave to take immediate discovery, AF Holdings then sought to serve subpoenas on the five Internet service providers linked to the 1,058 IP addresses it had identified: Cox Communications, Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and Bright House Networks. The district court granted the motion . . . . The providers refused to comply. Invoking Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45(d)(3)(A), . . . they asserted that the administrative expense involved was necessarily an “undue burden” because AF Holdings had failed to establish that the court would have personal jurisdiction over the defendants or that venue would lie in this district. . . . The providers also argued that any burden was necessarily undue because AF Holdings had failed to provide any reason to think that joinder of these 1,058 defendants in one action was proper. The district court rejected these arguments, . . . [but] certified its order for immediate appeal.
The D.C. Circuit vacated, holding that AF Holdings had failed to make a threshold showing of a good faith belief that the discovery would enable it to show that the court had personal jurisdiction over the unknown defendants; thus, the information sought from the service providers was not relevant.
The court then turned "to the question of joinder, which provides a separate and independent ground for reversal":
. . . Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 20(a)(2) sets forth that multiple defendants may be joined in one action if the plaintiff seeks relief “with respect to or arising out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences” and “any question of law or fact common to all defendants will arise in the action.” In a multi-Doe copyright infringement lawsuit such as this, at least one issue of law or fact will generally be common to all defendants—here, that issue might be whether AF Holdings has a valid copyright in Popular Demand. But whether all of these Doe defendants could possibly have been a part of the same “transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences” so as to support joinder is a more difficult question. . . . For purposes of this case, we may assume that two individuals who participate in the same swarm [a type of peer-to-peer file sharing] at the same time are part of the same series of transactions within the meaning of Rule 20(a)(2). In that circumstance, the individuals might well be actively sharing a file with one another, uploading and downloading pieces of the copyrighted work from the other members of the swarm. But AF Holdings has provided no reason to think that the Doe defendants it named in this lawsuit were ever participating in the same swarm at the same time.
The D.C. Circuit left the question of sanctions to the district court on remand.
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Corina D. Gerety and Brittany K.T. Kauffman, of The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, have published a Summary of Empirical Research on the Civil Justice Process: 2008-2013.
An explanation of its Scope provides, "This report provides a synthesis of the relevant empirical research on the civil justice process released from 2008 to 2013. In addition to IAALS research, it contains studies conducted by a variety of organizations and individuals, including the Federal Judicial Center, the National Center for State Courts, the RAND Corporation, and others. We, the authors, refer to 39 studies in total, representing a relatively even mix of case file/docket studies and surveys/interviews."
Thursday, May 22, 2014
The National Law Journal has made available in digital form 257 financial disclosure reports for federal appellate judges for the year 2012 (the last year available), which the Journal had to retrieve manually.
I clicked on the first name, Judge D. Brooks Smith, appointed to the Third Circuit in 2001. Judge Smith received over $23,000 from Penn State University Dickinson School of Law as an adjunct professor in the fall semester of 2012. He was also reimbursed for travel by two law school Federalist Society chapters in 2012 as a "speaker for education program."
The reports should prove interesting reading.
Monday, April 7, 2014
Today the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens (No. 13-719). Here is the question presented that appears in the cert. petition (like many cert. petitions these days, it includes a few paragraphs of prologue before the “question” is “presented”)…
A defendant seeking removal of a case to federal court must file a notice of removal containing “a short and plain statement of the grounds for removal” and attach only the state court filings served on such defendant. 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a). Consistent with that statutory pleading requirement, the First, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits require only that a notice of removal contain allegations of the jurisdictional facts supporting removal; those courts do not require the defendant to attach evidence supporting federal jurisdiction to the notice of removal. District courts in those Circuits may consider evidence supporting removal even if it comes later in response to a motion to remand.
Here, in a clean break from Section 1446(a)’s language and its sister Circuits’ decisions, the Tenth Circuit let stand an order remanding a class action to state court based upon the district court’s refusal to consider evidence establishing federal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) because that evidence was not attached to the notice of removal. (That evidence, which was not disputed, came later in response to the motion to remand.)
The question presented is:
Whether a defendant seeking removal to federal court is required to include evidence supporting federal jurisdiction in the notice of removal, or is alleging the required “short and plain statement of the grounds for removal” enough?
More information about the case is available at SCOTUSblog.
Thursday, March 27, 2014
I have recently posted on SSRN a draft of my paper, The Civil Caseload of the Federal District Courts, which is forthcoming in the University of Illinois Law Review. The paper examines many of the statistics available from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, and at the time of finishing the draft, the latest available annual statistics were from fiscal year 2012.
Naturally, within a week of my submitting the draft, the AO came out with the FY2013 statistics. I will be revising this draft to incorporate the latest figures, but for now, I would like to share the draft with the community. I welcome any comments, and feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) rather than commenting here on the blog.
In the fractious debate about the civil justice system, the dominant narrative of the Civil Rules Advisory Committee is that federal civil litigation takes too long and costs too much and that pretrial discovery is largely to blame. After repeatedly narrowing the federal discovery rules over the last thirty years, the Advisory Committee has recently proposed yet another round of rules amendments designed to limit discovery. These proposals have generated an unprecedented amount of passionate (and largely negative) public comment.
Strangely, to justify its position that civil litigation is subject to unacceptable delays, the Advisory Committee has not used the government's own caseload statistics – even those statistics that were instituted in 1990 for the very purpose of measuring "delay." Nor has the Advisory Committee examined caseload statistics to see whether the proportions of different types of civil cases have changed over time, or how those changes might be relevant to its proposed restrictions on discovery.
This article fills in those gaps. Examining the voluminous publicly-available statistics on the federal courts, I offer a radical interpretation: since 1986, instead of an "explosion" of the civil docket, the opposite has occurred: if not quite an implosion, at least stagnation. For example, the number of new civil cases filed since 1986 has increased a mere 1%, and the number of weighted civil filings per authorized district court judge has actually declined 1% since 1986. It is the criminal docket that has overwhelmed the civil docket, but it is civil litigation that has been the target of endless "reform" efforts.
Moreover, five of the six largest categories of federal civil case types today are those that are typically brought by the "have-nots" of society: individuals pressing tort, prisoner, civil rights, labor, and Social Security claims. Contract cases, the only large category primarily brought by organizations, have fallen to only 9% of civil case filings. Of all litigants in the top three categories of cases, civil rights litigants have the most to fear from the proposed discovery amendments: most federal tort litigation is already under coordinated pretrial discovery in conjunction with multidistrict litigation, and there is little discovery in prisoner litigation. Policy discussions about civil litigation should explicitly consider how proposals would impact the majority of individuals seeking relief in the federal courts.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
The Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision today in Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc. It’s principally a Lanham Act case, but Justice Scalia’s opinion has some interesting discussion on Article III standing, prudential standing, and whether Congress has (or has not) authorized a cause of action [See Part II, pp.6-9]. Justice Scalia recognized that the plaintiff in Lexmark had Article III standing based on its “allegations of lost sales and damages to its business reputation.” [p.6] Although the parties had “treat[ed] the question on which we granted certiorari as one of ‘prudential standing,’” he found this “misleading.” [p.6] Instead, he explained [p.9]:
[T]he question this case presents is whether Static Control falls within the class of plaintiffs whom Congress has authorized to sue under §1125(a). In other words, we ask whether Static Control has a cause of action under the statute.4 That question requires us to determine the meaning of the congressionally enacted provision creating a cause of action. In doing so, we apply traditional principles of statutory interpretation. We do not ask whether in our judgment Congress should have authorized Static Control’s suit, but whether Congress in fact did so. Just as a court cannot apply its independent policy judgment to recognize a cause of action that Congress has denied, see Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 286–287 (2001), it cannot limit a cause of action that Congress has created merely because “prudence” dictates.
Footnote 4 states:
We have on occasion referred to this inquiry as “statutory standing” and treated it as effectively jurisdictional. See, e.g., Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better Environment, 523 U.S. 83, 97, and n. 2 (1998); cases cited id., at 114–117 (Stevens, J., concurring in judgment). That label is an improvement over the language of “prudential standing,” since it correctly places the focus on the statute. But it, too, is misleading, since “the absence of a valid (as opposed to arguable) cause of action does not implicate subject-matter jurisdiction, i.e., the court’s statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate the case.’ ” Verizon Md. Inc. v. Public Serv. Comm’n of Md., 535 U.S. 635, 642–643 (2002) (quoting Steel Co., supra, at 89); see also Grocery Mfrs. Assn. v. EPA, 693 F.3d 169, 183–185 (Kavanaugh, J., dissenting), and cases cited therein; Pathak, Statutory Standing and the Tyranny of Labels, 62 Okla. L. Rev. 89, 106 (2009).
There’s also a footnote that mentions Iqbal [footnote 6, on p.15]:
Proximate causation is not a requirement of Article III standing, which requires only that the plaintiff ’s injury be fairly traceable to the defendant’s conduct. Like the zone-of-interests test, see supra, at 8–9, and nn. 3–4, it is an element of the cause of action under the statute, and so is subject to the rule that “the absence of a valid (as opposed to arguable) cause of action does not implicate subject-matter jurisdiction.” Steel Co., 523 U.S., at 89. But like any other element of a cause of action, it must be adequately alleged at the pleading stage in order for the case to proceed. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678–679 (2009). If a plaintiff ’s allegations, taken as true, are insufficient to establish proximate causation, then the complaint must be dismissed; if they are sufficient, then the plaintiff is entitled to an opportunity to prove them.
Thursday, March 13, 2014
Friday, February 14, 2014
The NBA starts its all-star break today. The U.S. Supreme Court is on break as well, and it too is right at the midpoint of the season. The Term has already been quite active on the civil procedure and federal courts front, with decisions on personal jurisdiction, Younger abstention, transfer of venue, the Class Action Fairness Act, and appellate jurisdiction. And there’s more on the horizon:
- Walden v. Fiore (venue and personal jurisdiction);
- Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund (class actions);
- Wood v. Moss (on qualified immunity and, perhaps, pleading standards more generally);
- Highmark v. Allcare and Octane Fitness v. Icon Health (two cases on awarding attorneys’ fees in patent cases);
- Petrella v. MGM (laches in civil copyright claims)
- Executive Benefits Insurance Agency v. Arkison (Article III and bankruptcy proceedings);
- UBS Financial Services v. Union de Empleados de Muelles (Rule 23.1’s pre-suit demand requirement)
Why do we pay so much attention to these cases? For most court-watchers, it’s not because there is a strong interest in whether a Massachusetts gravel supply company underpaid its benefit fund obligations. Rather, it’s because of what the Supreme Court’s decisions mean going forward. Because of stare decisis, judicial decisions can prospectively bind future courts just as an Act of Congress or a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure can. In many areas of procedure, Supreme Court decisions may be the most significant lawmaking acts we’re going to see.
With that in mind, I thought I would share a link to my recent article, To Say What the Law Is: Rules, Results, and the Dangers of Inferential Stare Decisis, 99 Virginia L. Rev. 1737 (2013). The article was driven in part by the struggle to figure out the precedential effect of controversial Supreme Court decisions like Wal-Mart and Iqbal. But I try to tackle more generally the question of what parts of a judicial decision should actually create binding law, and in what way. Here’s the abstract:
Judicial decisions do more than resolve disputes. They are also crucial sources of prospective law, because stare decisis obligates future courts to follow those decisions. Yet there remains tremendous uncertainty about how we identify a judicial decision’s lawmaking content. Does stare decisis require future courts to follow the rules stated in a precedent-setting opinion? Or must future courts merely reconcile their decisions with the ultimate result of the precedent-setting case? Although it is widely assumed that a rule-based approach puts greater constraints on future courts, two recent Supreme Court decisions — Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes and Ashcroft v. Iqbal — turn this conventional wisdom on its head. In both cases, what the Court said about the governing rules was not inherently controversial, and would leave courts with considerable flexibility going forward. But what the Court did in applying those rules — the ultimate results in Wal-Mart and Iqbal — could be very destabilizing if stare decisis mandates consistency with those results in future cases.
This article assesses competing approaches to stare decisis, and argues that the lawmaking content of a judicial decision should be only the rules that the court states in deciding the case. While the end result may be instructive, enlightening, or valuable for any number of reasons, it should not create binding obligations on future courts as a matter of stare decisis. A rules-only approach is an unconventional position (even those who favor rule-based stare decisis typically presume that consistency with results is also required). But it strikes the optimal balance. To infer binding obligations from results alone creates a risk that — as with Wal-Mart and Iqbal — future courts will be forced to intuit more radical legal changes than the precedent-setting court actually embraced. Put simply, a judicial decision should create binding law only to the extent that it says what the law is. Unless and until new legal rules are declared (whether by the judiciary in later cases or by legislation), courts should be free to operate within the existing legal framework, without being required to reconcile their decisions with the mere results of earlier ones.
Thanks again to the editors at the Virginia Law Review, who did a fantastic job on the article, and to the many colleagues who gave me such terrific feedback and suggestions.
Thursday, February 6, 2014
Prof. Ernest Young (Duke) has posted on SSRN his article, A General Defense of Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 10 J. Econ. L. & Pol’y 17 (2013). Here’s the abstract:
Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins was the most important federalism decision of the Twentieth Century. Justice Brandeis’s opinion for the Court stated unequivocally that “[e]xcept in matters governed by the Federal Constitution or by acts of Congress, the law to be applied in any case is the law of the state. . . . There is no federal general common law.” Seventy-five years later, however, Erie finds itself under siege. Critics have claimed that it is “bereft of serious intellectual or constitutional support” (Michael Greve), based on a “myth” that must be “repressed” (Craig Green), and even “the worst decision of all time” (Suzanna Sherry). Other scholars, such as Caleb Nelson and Michael Green, have been less damning in their conclusions but nonetheless raised serious questions about Erie’s reasoning. Out in the real world, Erie’s restrictive vision of federal lawmaking has been undermined and circumvented by unfettered executive lawmaking and expansive theories of federal common law.
This article undertakes to rescue Erie from its critics. Rather than reinventing the case’s rationale, I argue that Justice Brandeis’s reasoning was fundamentally sound. Although the case Erie overruled — Swift v. Tyson — was surely correct when decided, Justice Brandeis rightly read the Rules of Decision Act to foreclose the broad practice of “general federal common law” that had arisen by the end of the nineteenth century. And Brandeis was right to worry about divergence between the law applied in state and federal courts sitting within the same jurisdiction. Most important, Erie announced a constitutional principle of judicial federalism — that federal courts may not make law on their own, even in areas where Congress could legislate. This principle forms the intellectual core of modern federalism doctrine, which is primarily concerned with procedural and political limits on national lawmaking.
More ambitiously, I hope that by shoring up Erie’s intellectual foundations this essay may lend support to the vision of limited federal lawmaking that Erie embodied — that is, one in which the federal separation of powers reinforces federalism by limiting the occasions on which federal lawmaking may displace state law. That vision is of more than theoretical import. Its implications may govern practical controversies ranging from the domestic force of customary international law to the preemptive effect of federal regulatory policies on state tort law. Likewise, in an era of resurgent dynamism at the state level, Erie’s respect for the preservation of state prerogatives in the absence of a federal legislative consensus takes on renewed importance.