Debate Rekindled over What Cases Federal Judges Should Hear

By Driskill, Matt | THE JOURNAL RECORD, June 18, 1988 | Go to article overview

Debate Rekindled over What Cases Federal Judges Should Hear


Driskill, Matt, THE JOURNAL RECORD


The year was 1809, and Chief Justice John Marshall, explaining why federal courts should be able to hear cases involving state law, said that the Constitution "entertains apprehensions" that local courts are biased in favor of local citizens.

Marshall's words were not the last on the subject. Earlier this month, a U.S. House subcommittee rekindled the old debate over what cases should be heard by federal judges. By a 9-6 vote, the House Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties and Administration moved to eliminate a rule that allows federal courts to decide cases where only state law applies.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., would sharply curtail a rule that last year permitted the federal courts to hear more than a quarter of their caseload. Known by lawyers and judges as diversity jurisdiction, the rule gives federal judges the authority to decide any case where the parties are from different states and the dispute amounts to more than $10,000.

If it became law, the immediate impact of the Cardin Amendment would be to move to the state courts a substantial percentage of the federal cases involving commercial disputes, routine accident cases and product liability lawsuits.

The battle over diversity jurisdiction has the American Bar Association squared off against the Judicial Conference, an administrative arm of the federal judiciary headed by the chief justice of the United States and composed of the chief judges of each circuit and representatives from the district courts.

The bar has lobbied intensely to retain the rule, which gives its membership more tactical options during litigation. On the other hand, the Reagan administration and the Judicial Conference have asked Congress to eliminate it.

Critics charge that the federal courts are overwhelmed with routine commercial and accident suits, so the logical area to lighten the load is by diminishing the role of federal judges in such state-related cases.

"Diversity jurisdiction ought to be eliminated completely because the reason for it has disappeared," said Wilfred Feinberg, the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, with jurisdiction in New York, Connecticut and Vermont. "The federal courts cannot stand the luxury of diversity. There are larger national issues which are getting crowded out of the courts."

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reports that 67,071 cases filed in the federal courts last year were based on diversity jurisdiction out of a total of 238,982 suits.

"The elimination of diversity would certainly help federal judges, who are struggling mightily with an average annual caseload of about 400 cases per judge," said Maurice Rosenberg, a professor of civil procedure at the Columbia Law School.

Lessening the federal docket, however, does not automatically translate into speedier justice. Richard D. Raven, the president-elect of the American Bar Association, said that it already takes five years to bring a case to a state jury in Los Angeles and moving more cases to such courts would only make matters worse.

"We view it as a federalism question," said Stephen J. Markman, an assistant attorney general. "These are issues of state law and who better to decide them than the state courts?

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