Vanderbilt Law Review


Ann Althouse

First Page



Supreme Court opinions about federal jurisdiction usually feature painstaking analysis of the text of statutes and constitutional clauses and the intentions of those who authored them, or they are based on long-standing traditions of equity jurisprudence. But, as the Court's many divided decisions attest, these materials are scarcely clear enough to determine all outcomes. Thus, the Justices often seem to weigh various interests when they draw the lines around federal jurisdiction. The Court sometimes openly acknowledges this interest weighing, referring to "state interests" and "federal interests."

Justice Stevens has taken exception to this process. He has ob- served that much of the Court's complicated doctrinal meandering reflects a balancing of state and federal interests." He has criticized this balancing approach on the ground that the "federal courts 'have a primary obligation to protect the rights of the individual that are embodied in the Federal Constitution' [and] generally should not eschew this responsibility based on some diffuse, instrumental concern for state autonomy."' If one conceives of the relevant state interests as some vague claim to a separate sphere-a sort of right of privacy possessed by a governmental entity-and the federal interest as the enforcement of individual rights embodied in the Federal Constitution, this balancing approach indeed seems intolerable. Only hostility toward the constitu- tional rights at stake explains deference to state interests. This Article accepts interest analysis as inevitable, and sympathizes with Justice Stevens's belief in the preeminence of rights and the inappropriateness of allowing state interests to diminish those rights. It reviews federal jurisdiction with an eye toward understanding the interests that explain the Court's doctrinal choices.

Even if one rejects the notion that individual rights should yield to state autonomy interests, the interests at stake in federal jurisdiction remain surprisingly complex. First, state courts have some capacity to enforce federal rights. Even if they do not equal the federal courts in expertise about federal law and their enthusiasm for federal rights, state courts do have an obligation to enforce federal law, and they vastly outnumber the federal courts. Moreover, questions of federal rights often arise in state proceedings. Those rights are most expeditiously enforced by requiring state courts to field them at that time. Allowing state courts to decide some federal rights cases, therefore, could enhance the enforcement of rights, at least in the first instance, subject to later review by the Supreme Court or perhaps a lower federal court on habeas. This deference to state courts is not really deference at all, but exploitation, pushing the state courts to fulfill their responsibilities under the supremacy clause. To the extent that federal courts stand ready to correct state court errors, the state courts have not won a form of autonomy premised on their own interests. Rather, they have received a required task and remain subject to federal court intrusion to the extent they fall to perform it.