Institutions, Interests, and Judicial Outcomes: The Politics of Federal Diversity Jurisdiction

By Curry, Brett | Political Research Quarterly, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Institutions, Interests, and Judicial Outcomes: The Politics of Federal Diversity Jurisdiction


Curry, Brett, Political Research Quarterly


Since 1789, diversity of citizenship jurisdiction has been a staple of the American judicial system. After presenting a general theory of jurisdictional change and reviewing diversity jurisdiction's development, the author undertakes a quantitative analysis of congressional activity vis-à-vis diversity jurisdiction. That analysis provides evidence that both administrative concerns and attention to federal judicial outcomes have impacted legislative decisions concerning the scope of diversity jurisdiction. These findings also suggest that members of Congress are selective in dealing with the jurisdiction of federal courts and that approaches to jurisdictional oversight vary in response to the salience of the legal issues at hand.

Keywords: jurisdiction; courts; Congress; diversity of citizenship

Congress has the capacity to supervise numerous aspects of the federal courts. The Senate's role in advising and consenting to federal court nominations (e.g., Epstein and Segal 2005; Giles, Hettinger, and Peppers 2001; Rowland and Carp 1996; Scherer 2005) and Congress's ability to create additional federal judgeships (e.g., Bond 1980; Zuk, Gryski, and Barrow 1993; Barrow, Zuk, and Gryski 1996; deFigueiredo and Tiller 1996; deFigueiredo et al. 2000) allow legislative input into the composition of the federal bench. Investigations into the frequency and determinants of congressional reactions to individual court decisions (see Eskridge 1991a; Hausegger and Baum 1999; Ignagni and Meernik 1994; Solimine and Walker 1992; Hettinger and Zorn 2005) have similarly focused attention on the ways in which Congress can impact the courts by targeting decisions in actual cases. However, with two important and recent exceptions (Smith 2005, 2006), little attention has been devoted to Congress's power of jurisdictional adjustment and its importance as a tool of judicial oversight.

This article responds to that lack of attention and represents an early step toward isolating the motivations that lead Congress and its members to advocate changes in federal jurisdiction. The article briefly discusses the role of organized interests in the evolution of federal diversity jurisdiction - one of federal jurisdiction's most historically persistent areas of debate - and then tests the impact that institutional pressures and a measure of the federal judiciary's decisional trends have had on that jurisdiction's statutory development. After analyzing congressional activity within that specific area, the article concludes by discussing the empirical findings and their larger implications for the relationship between the federal courts and Congress.

An Overview of Diversity Jurisdiction

Ever since the Judiciary Act of 1789 authorized federal jurisdiction in cases where the " 'matter in dispute' exceeded the sum or value of five hundred dollars and . . . the suit was between a citizen of the state where the action was brought and a citizen of another state," diversity jurisdiction has been controversial (Fallón, Meltzer, and Shapiro 1996, 1521; Purcell 1992). Likely established to safeguard commercial interests from the state courts (see Arnold 1995), the jurisdiction's controversy has stemmed from its enlistment of federal judicial power over state cases.1

Diversity jurisdiction involves federal adjudication of state cases that are based entirely upon provisions of state law. In practice, diversity allows civil defendants to remove cases filed in state court to federal court - provided the case meets the preconditions set forth in the United States Code.2 The jurisdiction remained unaltered until the 187Os. But as industrialization began to impact the types of cases brought to the federal courts via diversity, the jurisdiction took on socioeconomic overtones (see Purcell 2000, 1992). Wealthy out-of-state defendants, usually corporations, preferred to litigate in the probusiness federal courts, while individual plaintiffs generally sought refuge in the state courts. …

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