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Federal Courts
University of Illinois School of Law
Sharpe, Jamelle C.

University of Illinois
Federal Courts
Professor Sharpe
Spring 2013
I.        The Judiciary Act of 1789 created the federal courts: (1) provided that the Supreme Court would have a Chief Justice and 5 other justices; (2) created two tiers of trial courts: District Courts and Circuit Courts (did not provide for dedicated circuit judges).
A.     In 1781, the Evarts Act replaced the Circuit Courts with the Court of Appeals to ensure uniformity of the law. Expanded the Supreme Court’s discretionary jurisdiction (created the power of certiorari).
II.     The Big Questions: (1) What is the proper allocation of powers between the three branches of government? (2) What is the proper relationship between the federal judiciary and state governments? (3) Should federal courts, state courts, or political actors be primarily responsible for protecting individual rights? (4) What legal tools has the Supreme Court developed for answering these questions?
III.   Judicial Review
A.     Interpretive Justification: the judicial function requires courts to identify, interpret, and apply the controlling law in the cases they decide (includes the Constitution).
1.      Courts have the power to declare legislation unconstitutional.
B.     Structural justification: the judiciary is the institution charged with ensuring that Congress does not overstep its boundaries.
1.      Framers did not intend for Congress to be omnipotent. Giving legal effect to laws that conflict with the constitution would make Congressional will the supreme law of the land.
C.     Separation of powers underlies both justifications.
D.     Marbury v. Madison – establishes the Court’s power of judicial review (Congress may not add to the Court’s original jurisdiction); a right without a remedy is only a right in theory.
1.      Facts: Marbury was the intended recipient of an appointment as justice of the peace. He applied directly to the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to compel Jefferson’s Secretary of State, Madison, to deliver the commissions. The Judiciary Act of 1789 had granted the Supreme Court original jurisdiction to issue writs of mandamus “…to any courts appointed, or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States.”
2.      Does Marbury have a right to the commission? YES. The order became effective when signed by President Adams.
3.      Does the law grant Marbury a remedy? YES. Having this legal right to the office, he has a consequent right to the commission, a refusal to deliver which is a plain violation of that right for which the laws of the country afford him a remedy.
4.      Does the Supreme Court have the authority to review acts of Congress and determine whether they are unconstitutional and therefore void? YES.
5.      Can Congress expand the scope of the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction beyond what is specified in Art. III? NO. Attempts to expand the Court’s original jurisdiction through legislation are constitutional violations. It is the province of the Court to tell others when they are acting in an unconstitutional manner.
6.      Does the Court have original jurisdiction to issue writs of mandamus? NO. They would have been able to issue it under appellate review but since Marbury didn’t ask for that, they can’t give it to him.
        I.            §1983 – BASIC FEATURES
a.       This is a “cause of action” statute, which allows plaintiffs to seek remedies for federal wrongs in state or federal court. Works in tandem with the 11th Amendment in governing the manner in which federal courts may supervise state officials.
b.      Plaintiff claims that defendant, by exercising state power, violated his constitutional rights. Can be a private person clothed in the authority of the state or a municipality.
c.       Doctrinal backdrop for Monroe – Home Telephone v. City of Los Angeles
                                                              i.      Suit for prospective equitable relief by telephone company against city, alleging service rates are set so low they deprive company of property in violation of 14th Amendment (substantive due process). Not a Section 1983 case.
                                                            ii.      City argues that the ordinance was not a state action because the state courts had not upheld it. Supreme Court rejects this argument.
1.      State action occurred at the time the rate was imposed; federal courts do not have to wait for state courts to decide legality under state law.
2.      Illegality under state law and availability of state remedies irrelevant to federal jurisdiction.
d.      Monroe v. Pape – police officers, in conducting an unreasonable search and seizure, committed an action under color of law and could be held liable individually under §1983. Congress intended §1983 to provide a supplementary remedy – available even if state law provided a means of redress.
                                                              i.      Facts: 13 CPD officers broke into Monroe’s home, made him and his family stand naked in the living room while they ransacked the house with no warrant. Monroe was taken into custody and interrogated for 10 hours before being released.
                                                            ii.      Holding (Douglas): Congress, in enacting §1983, meant to give a remedy to parties deprived of constitutional rights by an official’s abuse of his position.
1.      Court considers two definitions of “under color of state law:” (1) state authorized action; (2) misuse of power granted by the state. Adopts the 2nd.
2.      §1983 is available even if defendant violated a state law and/or plaintiff has a state remedy available. The federal remedy is supplementary to the state remedy. Court alludes to this in this case but states it explicitly in Patsy v. Board of Regents.
a.       Allows a plaintiff to bring §1983 cases without first exhausting state remedies. Following this logic, the Court later held that plaintiffs are not forced to exhaust administrative remedies (Congress crafted an exception for prisoners challenging conditions of confinement).
                                                          iii.      Concurrence (Harlan): finds the distinction between authorized and unauthorized state action problematic. There is nothing in the legislative history or reason to indicate Congress meant to make this distinction
                                                          iv.      Dissent (Frankfurter): an officer who acts outside the law loses his authority under the law; this makes a state tort claim against individual officers more appropriate. Believed that §1983 created a civil liability enforceable in federal court only in instances of injury for which redress was bared in the state courts.
1.      Judicial minimism
2.      Federalism: states are always the primary protectors of individual liberty, members of Congress would have known this. Unless they speak clearly and specifically, this stands. Wants to impose a “clear statement” rule.
e.       Two kinds of constitutional remedies:
                                                              i.      Defensive: assert a constitutional right as a defense to prosecution or civil liability.
                                                            ii.      Offensive: the cause of action authorized by §1983 puts the constitutional claimant in the role of the plaintiff seeking some relief for past, present, or threatened harm.
1.      The point is to provide compensation and deterrence.
f.       Ex Parte Young – made available a federal offensive remedy for persons seeking to stop present or future unconstitutional acts by state officers. Applied only to suits for injunctive relief (later the Court extended it to embrace suits seeking injunctive/declaratory relief).
                                                              i.      Facts: Minnesota railroad laws capped rates and imposed heavy penalties for noncompliance. Railroad SH sued state AG to enjoin enforcement.
                                                            ii.      Holding: even though identified b/c of his official position, Young was “stripped” of his affiliation with the state and treated as a private citizen for the purposes of the 11th Amendment bar.
                                                          iii.      Young did not rely on §1983 so it remained dormant for 90 years.
                                                          iv.      Lower courts had often read the statutory “under color of” language like the Monroe dissent. Some courts applied a stringent “official immunity.”
                                                            v.      Ex Parte Young and Monroe signaled the rise of offensive remedies in the federal courts. This also changed their role:
1.      In the past, they conceived of their role primarily as that of resolving disputes between the parties. Under this “dispute resolution” or “private rights” model, unnecessary constitutional decisions should be avoided.
2.      The expansion of offensive remedies coupled with the proliferation of newly-recognized constitutional rights and growth of government, gave rise to a new form of litigation in constitutional and public law disputes.
a.       Suit could include multiple parties on both sides and the parties on each side could have a variety of disparate interests.
b.      Claims may include diffuse harms to interests held in common by large numbers of persons.
c.       Role of the federal courts is to face constitutional issues squarely as they confront systemic social problems.
g.       Monell v. Department of Social Services – plaintiffs may bring §1983 suits against local governments for damages or declaratory/injunctive relief, for an action taken pursuant to a policy or custom; overrules the part of Monroe that says municipalities have full immunity
                                                              i.      Facts: female employees brought a §1983 suit against Department for injunctive relief and backpay. They alleged that the Department had an official policy of compelling pregnant employees to take unpaid leaves of absence before they were required for medical reasons.
                                                            ii.      District court denies backpay claim because Monroe bars damages suits against municipalities. Supreme Court reverses and overrules Monroe.
1.      Municipalities are “persons” under §1983 but are not responsible for employee torts unless pursuing an official “policy” or “custom.” Limits its holding by prohibiting the use of respondeat superior in §1983 suits.
a.       Would creating a federal law of respondeat superior be a good idea? It could reduce accidents if employers had to bear the cost (no matter how blameless); should the cost of accidents be spread to the community as a whole on an insurance theory?
h.      What does “under color of” oblige the plaintiff to establish?

” is determined by “clearly established law.”
b.      Harlow v. Fitzgerald – first case to determine that qualified immunity is available to senior aides and advisers of the President. Imposes liability when the official knew or should have known of the constitutionally violative effects of his actions.
                                                              i.      Facts:  Two aides to the President were sued in a private civil matter for activities undertaken while in their positions.  The suit stated that the two aides conspired while in their official; lower courts did not acknowledge their claim of immunity.
                                                            ii.      A “special functions” rationale does not warrant a blanket recognition of absolute immunity for all Presidential aides in the performance of all their duties. For aides entrusted with discretionary authority in sensitive areas like national security or foreign policy, absolute immunity might be justified.
1.      Aide must first show that the responsibilities of his office embraced a function so sensitive as to require a total shield from liability. He then must demonstrate that he was discharging the protected function when performing the act for which liability is asserted.
c.       Current Test for Qualified Immunity (from Harlow): government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.
If the official pleading the defense claims extraordinary circumstances and can prove that he neither knew or should have known of the relevant legal standard, the defense should be sustained.
                                                              i.      This test focuses on the objective legal reasonableness of an official’s act.
d.      To this day, the Court has not yet identified any executive official who may fall into the “special functions” category, nor has it repudiated the notion that it may exist.
                                                              i.      Discretionary functions are those that require the exercise of judgment, while ministerial ones do not. In Harlow, the Court ruled that the immunity of federal officials extends only to their discretionary actions.
                                                            ii.      The Court has always declined to accord executive officers any immunity from prospective relief. No clear holding as to whether president may be enjoined.
e.       The “order of the battle” refers to the order in which the Court addresses the two issues present in qualified immunity cases: (1) whether the defendant committed a constitutional violation; and (2) whether the right violated was “clearly established”
f.       Hope v. Pelzer – the Court held that the defense of qualified immunity was precluded at the summary judgment phase of Hope's trial. The Court concluded that a reasonable officer would have known that using a hitching post as Hope alleged was unlawful.
                                                              i.      Facts: a prison inmate was handcuffed to a hitching post twice for disruptive conduct. Both times they handcuffed him above shoulder height and when he tried moving his arms, the cuffs would cut into his wrists. During the second incident, they made him take off his shirt and spend 7 hours on the post in the sun, he wasn’t given any bathroom breaks and only had 1 or 2 water breaks.
                                                            ii.      The Court states that this is a constitutional violation and that qualified immunity is not available. “The violation was so obvious that our own Eight Amendment cases gave respondents fair warning that their conduct violated the Constitution.”
                                                          iii.      Dissent argues that federal courts in the state had repeatedly arrived at the opposite conclusion so respondents should not have been expected to realize that those courts had failed to grasp the “obvious”
g.       In order to determine whether a right is “clearly established,” one must examine the legal materials extant at the time the official acted. The two most important sources are Supreme Court decisions and decisions of the Circuit Court in which the violation took place.