Standing in Good Stead: State Courts, Federal Standing Doctrine, and Reverse-Erie Analysis

By Katz, Paul J. | Northwestern University Law Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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Standing in Good Stead: State Courts, Federal Standing Doctrine, and Reverse-Erie Analysis


Katz, Paul J., Northwestern University Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

While state courts are obligated to hear federal question cases under the Supremacy Clause,1 they currently need not abide by the constitutional2 and prudential3 standing requirements of federal courts. Accordingly, states are increasingly enacting statutes allowing plaintiffs to litigate complaints based on federal law, even though the plaintiffs do not satisfy the injury-infact requirement of Article III.4 This asymmetry has at times placed the U.S. Supreme in a strange predicament: the Court will lose its appellate jurisdiction over state supreme court decisions on federal law.5 While both the Court and commentators have tackled this strange departure from the High Court's normal jurisdiction,6 a fragmented landscape of standing requirements also presents a subtle but precarious challenge for Congress. This Article discusses how diverse state standing requirements can distort how state courts enforce federal substantive rights on a systemic level.

By enacting a new cause of action, Congress intends to shift the rights and duties of potential plaintiffs, defendants and the courts to a new equilibrium more in line with its policy objectives. This policy contemplates what type of harm Congress wants to redress, what types of people it wants to benefit and punish, and the appropriate level of enforcement necessary to achieve the policy's goal. Preset federal standing requirements normally cabin this balancing process by identifying to Congress what types of (and perhaps how many) plaintiffs could bring suit under the new cause of action. In other words, Congress will know ahead of time that all future plaintiffs will have been injured-in-fact and will represent the enforcement interests that Congress had in mind when drafting the bill. This predictability aids Congress in selecting the desired level of enforcement that achieves the statutory purpose but does not unduly burden potential defendants' rights or the decisionmaking capacity of the courts.

When Congress faces state courts with a variety of standing requirements, however, its statutory policy will receive a different level of enforcement (resulting in attendant costs) depending on the jurisdiction. A state with more restrictive standing will impede potential plaintiffs that Congress wished to help. In contrast, a state with a loose standing requirement will invite a flood of plaintiffs that may over-enforce a statute and hinder both defendants' legitimate activities and the state courts' ability to apply the law faithfully to the facts. The Constitution contemplates that federal and state courts must be partners in realizing the uniform policy of Congress when enforcing the law through decisions.7 While a standing requirement on a case-by-case basis may not tinker with the substantive goals of Congress, it can frustrate equal enforcement of the law on a systemic level.

A reverse-Erie analysis asks to what extent a state court must forego its normal state court rules when adjudicating federal substantive law.8 On one extreme, the Supremacy Clause dictates that a substantive federal policy always displaces any contrary substantive state law. On the other extreme, a state court has the right to employ distinct procedural rules that have no effect on the federal law it is adjudicating. The federal standing requirements, both constitutional and prudential, fall uncomfortably into the middle. As is the case with substantive law, Congress's strong interest in the uniform enforcement of its laws militates toward a single standing threshold. The states within our federalist system, however, have the sovereign right to organize their courts as they see fit.9 Moreover, Congress confounds the issue because it rarely contemplates standing when it creates a cause of action, accepting the federal standards as given by the Constitution and the Supreme Court. This Article ultimately suggests that state courts should abide by federal standing requirements to enforce federal causes of action consistently with federal courts.

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