Monday, March 21, 2005

Life is like a Fed Jur hypo

Preemptive apologies to anyone bored by nerdy law-type analysis.

I'm sure everyone's heard about the recent developments in the Terri Schiavo case. Congress has passed a bill, and President Bush has signed it into law, conferring jurisdiction upon a federal court in Florida to hear a suit brought by Mrs. Schiavo's parents seeking to have her feeding tubes reinserted. A federal judge in Florida will hear the case in just a few hours.

This sounds like one of those crazy law school hypotheticals, the kind that make law students feel really smart discussing in class, but that often have very little practical application. Here, the hypothetical would likely follow from a discussion about the outer limits of Congress' power to confer federal jurisdiction on the courts. If you've had a course in federal jurisdiction (or for some masochistic reason decided to educate yourself on some of the finer points of the law in this area), then you know that Congress' power to grant jurisdiction comes from Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The statute perhaps most commonly invoked when a party seeks a federal forum is 28 U.S.C. sec. 1331. Here's the interesting thing: Article III and 1331 use identical language to signify over which sorts of cases federal courts may have jurisdiction, but they're interpreted to mean different things. In short, the Supreme Court has held that Article III grants Congress power to confer much broader jurisdiction than it apparently has conferred. Much discussion over this incongruency in the Court's jurisprudence took place in my recent class.

Strictly speaking, yesterday's statute is probably constitutional. Since it applies to a federal issue that could conceivably be raised, it falls within the Court's test for statutory constitutionality. It's an open question, however, how comfortable the Court is with allowing Congress to pass a statute providing for federal intervention in what is, essentially, entirely a state issue. In our discussions about Article III vs. 1331, one possible explanation we thought of for the Court's different treatment of the identical language was that, when it comes down to an actual statutory grant of federal jurisdiction, the Court may favor a more determinate dividing line between cases federal courts can hear and those they can't. Perhaps the Court is comfortable saying, conceptually we could allow virtually any case to be heard, but when it comes down to actually granting jurisdiction we don't want parties appealing to so broad and nebulous a principle. On the other hand, perhaps the Court simply wants a more clear statement of intent from Congress -- if Congress clearly intended for a certain case to be heard by federal courts, and it falls within the reach of Article III, it's a permissible grant of jurisdiction.

The Schiavo case has made me think about federal jurisdiction and whether Congress' recent actions are constitutional (to say nothing of their general desirability). The Supreme Court has already once passed on this case, which indicates it would prefer not to get involved. Congress, however, has all but forced the Court to get involved. If the case is appealed, as it almost certainly will be, the Supreme Court will most likely be faced with a petition to hear the case. The Supreme Court could simply decline to hear the case, effectively allowing a circuit court to have the final word on the constitutionality of the statute (and, the bill's stated intent notwithstanding, this will have the effect of setting a powerful precedent for future congressional actions). Or the Supreme Court could hear the case and be faced with making a decision that will have powerful implications for the extent to which Congress may take the final determination of what are essentially state concerns away from the states. It's hard to say what the Court will do -- the statute is very likely constitutional under existing Supreme Court precedent, and yet it cuts against the Court's clear reluctance to allow federal jurisdiction over issues that, at their core, have very little to do with the Constitution and laws of the United States.

And now I'm wondering if I could send my professor the url for this post and get extra credit... hmmm...


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