A Critical Guide to Erie Railroad Co. V. Tompkins

By Nelson, Caleb | William and Mary Law Review, February 2013 | Go to article overview

A Critical Guide to Erie Railroad Co. V. Tompkins


Nelson, Caleb, William and Mary Law Review


TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

I. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN STATE AND
   FEDERAL COURTS BEFORE ERIE
   A. The Bottom Line
   B. Were People Crazy Then?
      1. The Nature and Sources of Unwritten Law
      2. Who Should Defer to Whom About What?
         a. Deference on Questions of "Local" Law
         b. Non-Deference on Questions of "General" Law

II. JUSTICE BRANDEIS'S ARGUMENTS IN ERIE
    A. Justice Brandeis's Historical Argument
    B. Justice Brandeis's Practical Arguments
       1. The Murkiness of the Distinction Between
          "General" and "Local" Law
       2. Disuniformity and Forum Shopping
       3. "Discrimination" Against Citizens of the
           Forum State
    C. Constitutional Arguments

CONCLUSION

Introduction

No informed observer has ever been in doubt about the importance of Justice Brandeis's opinion in Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins. (1) Almost as soon as it was issued, the cognoscenti were calling it a "transcendently significant opinion," (2) a "thunderclap decision," (3) and "one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the Supreme Court." (4) Seventy-five years later, Erie remains an "iconic case[]"--one that "every lawyer knows ... by name" and that "is thought to express something basic about the United States legal system." (5) Above and beyond its immediate holding (which is obviously important in its own right), Erie has become the starting point for many modern arguments about federalism and the separation of powers.

Unfortunately, Erie is a shaky foundation for legal reasoning. From the standpoint of technical, lawyerly craftsmanship, Justice Brandeis's opinion has many vices. It relies on contestable premises that it does not make explicit. It delivers grand statements that are misleading in the absence of careful qualification (which it does not supply). Upon close examination, some of the arguments that it endorses fall apart entirely, and others are--at best--much more complicated than it acknowledges. Insofar as it purports to rest on the Constitution, moreover, it advances arguments so cavalierly and impressionistically as to impede responsible analysis. In the words of a contemporaneous student note, "The opinion in Erie Railroad v. Tompkins lacks much of the precision which an important reexamination of constitutional distribution of power might be expected to contain." (6)

None of this means that Erie's bottom line is necessarily wrong. But lawyers and law professors who seek to extend Erie's analysis need to recognize the shoals concealed in Justice Brandeis's opinion. It is easy to overread Erie, and it is also easy to find apparent support in Erie for propositions that are false.

Precisely because Erie is so iconic, of course, it has been analyzed exhaustively. In recent years, revisionist scholars have made great strides in understanding both Erie and what came before Erie. To criticize Justice Brandeis's opinion in light of this new learning is surely unfair. But it is still worth doing, because Erie's status in our legal firmament makes it crucial to understand exactly what Erie held and how that holding might be supported.

Erie addressed one of the recurring questions of American federalism: What is the status in federal court of precedents established by the courts of a particular state? Throughout our history, the answer has depended on what the precedents are about; federal courts have always felt more need to defer to a state's highest court about certain aspects of the state's own law than about the law of other sovereigns. Before Erie, however, federal courts drew the crucial lines in different places than they do now.

As background for analysis of Justice Brandeis's opinion, Part I of this Article provides a brief account of the doctrine that prevailed before Erie. Part II then evaluates each of the main arguments--historical, practical, and constitutional--that Justice Brandeis advanced in support of his claim that federal law required a different doctrine. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Critical Guide to Erie Railroad Co. V. Tompkins
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.