Pushing the Limits of the Judicial Power: Tolling State Statutes of Limitations under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1367(d)

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Pushing the Limits of the Judicial Power: Tolling State Statutes of Limitations Under 28 U.S.C. (sec) 1367(d)^

[N]o one expects Congress to obliterate the states, at least in one fell swoop. If there is any danger, it lies in the tyranny of small decisions-in the prospect that Congress will nibble away at state sovereignty, bit by bit, until someday essentially nothing is left but a gutted shell.1

I. Introduction

It is axiomatic that the lower federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.2 The limits on their jurisdiction are both constitutional and statutory; the constitutional limits are imposed by Article III,3 and the statutory limits are created by Congress.4 The lower federal courts are powerless without the proper authorization.

Problems arise, however, when one attempts to delimit the precise scope of federal jurisdiction. Congress's Article III powers are extremely difficult to determine with any degree of certainty. This creates the distinct possibility that Congress will occasionally overstep the constitutional bounds of Article III jurisdiction.5

Additionally, to augment this jurisdictional confusion, the federal courts often preside over claims that are entirely the product of state law.6 In such situations, the court must determine which law governs the claims, and this decision is often very difficult. To aid the courts in choosing the proper law, the Supreme Court drew a distinction between "substantive" and "procedural" law and held that federal courts are required to apply substantive state law to claims that are based on state law.7 The Supreme Court also held that federal courts are free to apply their own procedural law to claims based on substantive state law.8 The substance-procedure dichotomy has become something of a canard and provides little or no objective guidance as to which laws are substantive and which are procedural. As Justice Scalia explained in Sun Oil Co. v. Wortman,9 "[T]he terms 'substance' and 'procedure' precisely describe very little except a dichotomy, and what they mean in a particular context is largely determined by the purposes for which the dichotomy is drawn."10 In the choice-of-law context, for example, the primary reason for the distinction between substantive and procedural law is to preserve the sovereignty of the states and "delimit spheres of state legislative competence."11 In the context of Erie jurisprudence,12 the purpose for the distinction is to "establish. . . substantial uniformity of predictable outcome between cases tried in a federal court and cases tried in the courts of the [s]tate in which the federal court sits.13

To further complicate this jurisdictional mess, the Supreme Court has held that the same law may be substantive for one purpose and procedural for another.14 For example, a statute of limitations can be substantive for Erie purposes and procedural for choice-of-law purposes.15

Perhaps a system of dual sovereignty invites such complications. In any event, while many jurisdictional statutes are not controversial, whenever Congress expands the scope of federal jurisdiction or enacts laws that implicate or interfere with the sovereignty of the states there is the potential to create important issues of constitutional significance. Further, if the Supreme Court is confronted with a jurisdictional law that expands the scope of the federal jurisdiction, a decision to strike down or uphold the law can have consequences that reach beyond the particular statute at issue. Laws that push the limits of federal jurisdiction have strong precedential force, and it is these laws that delimit the outer boundaries of the federal jurisdiction. As a result, every federal statute that presses the limits of federal jurisdiction should be carefully scrutinized. This Note scrutinizes one such statute.

II. Tolling State Statutes of Limitations

The problem addressed in this Note is created by 28 U. …