December 14, 2006
Erie & Statutory Interpretation
The post below got me pondering this more: suppose a state enacts a statute, as many have, that codifies how courts of that state are to construe state statutes. Clearly, state courts must follow that statute (assuming it withstands a separation of powers challenge, etc.).
What about a federal court sitting in diversity? Is it procedure, or substance?
What if, instead of a statute, the state supreme court has issued opinions, as many have done, laying out the "rules" of statutory interpretation. Same or different result?
I ran some quick searches, and the issue has been examined a couple of times, but not at any length. An interesting query, it seems to me!
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This is an interesting question. In some cases, it seems pretty clear to me that the fed ct should follow the state statutory construction statute (SCS). Consider, for example, situations where the SCS simply provides definitions ("person" includes government entities) or gives various substantive canons (waivers of immunity must be clear, etc.) or says to defer to state agency rules, etc. In those cases, we could imagine that the same text was just written at the bottom of every provision of the state code, and if it were, wouldn't it be clear that the fed ct should follow those?
Trickier are situations where the SCS gives more general instructions about approach -- e.g., you should look at floor debates. What if the fed ct just thinks it is a big pain and an imposition on it to find and locate that stuff, especially when the fed ct is in a different state?
Anyway, just my initial impressions. But certainly worth pondering.
Posted by: Aaron | Dec 15, 2006 2:05:52 PM
The Fifth Circuit and I believe that state rules of statutory interpretation are substantive, so that a federal court, sitting in diversity and interpreting a state statute, must apply the (common law or statutory) rules of statutory interpretation of that state. See McNeil v. Time Ins. Co., 205 F.3d 179, 183 (5th Cir. 2000) ("Our analysis of this Texas law begins with statutory construction, a process we approach as a Texas court would.); Gen. Elec. Capital Corp. v. Southeastern Health Care, Inc., 950 F.2d 944, 950 (5th Cir. 1991) ("When this court's jurisdiction is based on diversity and the applicable substantive law is that of Louisiana, we are bound to dispatch our duty of legal interpretation as would a court of Louisiana, relying primarily on Louisiana's Revised Civil Code of 1870 ... and other statutory law, including rules of interpretation contained therein."); Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, Federal Rules of Statutory Interpretation, 115 Harv. L. Rev. 2085, 2152 (2002) ("state statutes arrive in federal court with their own homegrown interpretive methodology (whether common law or statutory), which must govern in federal courts").
Posted by: Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz | Dec 15, 2006 6:35:48 PM
Thank you so much! I ran into the General Electric case when I ran the quick research, and found a few other cases where the courts sort of wondered aloud about the issue without addressing it.
I wonder if it's as strraightforward as the Fifth Circuit seemed to think. I haven't studied Erie in a long time, but instinctively the word "substance" doesn't seem to cover the "procedure" of how to interpret law. I don't know, but it intrigues me still.
Posted by: David Hricik | Dec 16, 2006 3:15:33 AM
Aaron - my paradigm would be one where the state rules say "consider everything" but a bench full of Justice Scalias and Thomases are deciding the case, and the text is completely contradicted by all other sources. What controls, their view of how to interpret, or the state's approach?
It is interesting, isn't it? We got any Erie scholars out there who know the nooks & crannies of the boundaries between process and substance?
I'm guessing that Nicholas is right, but there's something troublesome about calling it "substance." It also may reveal more about statutory interpretation -- what it really is!
Posted by: David Hricik | Dec 16, 2006 3:19:15 AM
David -- In your hypo, I think I'd be inclined to say the judges have to follow the state directives. The judges can't have any formalist complaints (e.g., only the text is law), I wouldn't think, because the state says consulting the legislative history is just fine as a matter of state constitutional law.
And as for more practical complaints (e.g., the text is the most reliable indicator of intent), there are equally or more pressing considerations on the other side, such as the fact that state law is going to develop differently in the two systems, which is bad as a practical matter and, perhaps, as a constitutional matter under Erie.
And, apart from all that, I'd be inclined to agree with NQR since he has looked into this! (I didn't realize his neat article touched on this point.)
Posted by: Aaron | Dec 16, 2006 3:09:51 PM
Good points, and pragmatic ones. I honestly don't know the answer, but let me press it: why should a state court's pronouncement of how it thinks it's best to determine what a statute means govern a federal judge? I agree that you want consistency between systems, but does that mean its required by Erie, or that it's suggested by pragmatism?
Posted by: David Hricik | Dec 17, 2006 8:14:39 AM
Intriguing post! A line of reasoning occurs to me ...
The federal court sitting in diversity court is obliged to follow the state's substantive law. In practical terms, if there's a state supreme court decision that resolves the legal question on indistinguishable facts, the federal court is obliged to follow that decision. If, however, there's *not* a state supreme court decision that resolves the legal question on indistinguishable facts, the federal court is obliged to predict as best it can how the state supreme court would rule on the question. In making that prediction, isn't the most accurate - and thus the obligatory - course to use the same interpretive rules and standards that the state supreme court in question would use? If yes, the same reasoning would seem to apply both to a state law that codifies interpretation methods and a state supreme court decision authoritatively adopting an interpretive method. Also, this analysis is confirmed by thinking, in the alternative, about a certification procedure: if the federal court certifies a question to the state supreme court, that state supreme court will answer the question using its own interpretation rules and standards.
My line of reasoning, if it has merit, indicates that the federal court is obliged (not merely pragmatically encouraged) to use the state's interpretation rules and standards.
Posted by: Joe Miller | Dec 22, 2006 7:20:40 AM
Joe, love it. I wonder if that's how it's being done? Seems to me there's an article here.
Posted by: David Hricik | Dec 22, 2006 1:01:16 PM