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Federal Courts
Villanova University School of Law
Samahon, Tuan N.

Federal Courts, Samahon, Fall 2012, 43 pages


Art III – 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philly to amend Articles of Confederation

(End of Rev war = economic growth followed by downturn in 1780)

Pblms with Articles – weak govt, art didn’t set up govt, pblms enforcing Treaty with Great Britain, states violated treaty related to debts owed, increased debts created debtor/creditor pblms.

– New Constitution created – gave fed govt power over individual, not just states

Judiciary Act of 1789: 1st Congress – established jurisdiction of sup ct and created lower fed cts.

Power given to Fed Judicial Branch:

1) fed judiciary power of states and individuals

2) Mandatory supreme ct and discretionary inferior courts established by Congress (Madisonian compromise – Fed wanted strong national govt, Antifeds feared national govt and opposed lower courts.

3) fed judiciary = independent

4) can decide constitutionality of fed/state legislation

5) 9 classes of cases and controversies

6) Sup ct = a) original (impeachment, ambassadors, public ministers, state as a party), and b) appellate juris – only with questions of law, to decide validity or construction of laws

– over fed lower courts (civil w/in certain $ amount and criminal only habeas corpus), and

– over highest state courts

– Judges appointed by executive with advice/consent of senate.

– Supremacy Clause – when in conflict, fed law is supreme law of land and trumps state.

– Sovereign Immunity – fed/states can only be sued in limited circumstances.

Types of Cases/Controversies:

(first two are cases – based on subject matter)

1) federal authority – fed ques and where US is party

2) foreign affairs – admiralty, treaties, foreign nations

(second two are controversies – involving party disputes)

3) interstate umpire – state suits, land grants

4) challenging state verdicts with diversity of citizenship, and suits involving non-citizens and aliens

Fed courts can hear if:

1) diversity

2) fed quest

3) US govt is party

Statutory reforms to the fed courts overtime:

– Court helpers – magistrates, bankruptcy judges, special stand alone courts, etc

– Jud Act of 1875 – conferred on the fed judiciary general jurisdiction over all civil cases arising under federal law (fed quest).

– 1891 – creation of Circuit Courts of Appeal and discretionary review by Sup ct w/ writ of cert rather than right of appeal (due to docket pressures from increased grants of juris and population growth)

Art 3 Courts today:

1) District: 94 dist cts (each state = 1-4 districts)

2) Circuit Courts of Appeal: 13 (PA=3) (AR=8) (11 states + fed + DC), reviews final decisions of dist courts, 3 judge panels or en banc (entire court)

3) Sup ct


1) Separation of Powers:

– expansive rulings (address merits, then holding),

– jurisdiction stripping

2) Federalism:

– comity – fed cts granting deference to state cts on certain issues

– parity – will state cts uphold fed laws?

– habeas corpus – procedural protections + conviction

Judicial Review: expressly granted in case law, inferred by Constitution:

Marbury v Madison: grants judicial review of laws and executive acts to strike as unconstitutional (case authorized judicial review but held no juris to decide case)

If CJ Marshall (Federalist) had ruled for the Republicans to deliver the commissions, they would have refused. SO, he first discusses the merits (Marbury has a right to his commission and should be afforded a remedy) but then says the court has no jurisdiction to decide the case bc the Jud Act of 1789 (sect 13) that gave SCOTUS original juris to issue a mandamus is in opposition to the Constitution, which did not specifically grant orig juris to SCOTUS in this case. SCOTUS would only have appell juris here.

Alternate Interp: original juris may not be reduced by congress less than what is specifically stated in Art 3, but congress may supplement juris.

Another issue: Constitution is binding, but does the judiciary have power to bind other branches when it interprets the Constitution differently?

Dispute Resolution Power:

Authority to grant relief against a senior executive officer to give another private relief

v. Law Declaration Power:

Authority to invalidate Acts of Congress – declare/enforce rules of law = special function of fed cts

– Law Decl power incidental to resolution of concrete disputes.

SCOTUS should only decide constitutionality when necessary to resolve the dispute:

– Narrowest possible grounds – opinion should not be broader than required by the facts.

– Last Resort Rule: when no other legal option in disposing of the case.

– Modern Avoidance: If can avoid discussing constitutionality based on a statutory construction, then should

– if party has a state/fed statute based claim, decide on this rather than the constitutional claim (pblm – invites judges to misconstrue statute rather than resolving ambiguity)

Principal: People

Agent: Congress (the constitution represents the people) So, with unconstitutional legislation, the agent has disobeyed the principal.

(No bills of attainder – legislation directed a one person or group.)

Justiciability: Greatest limitation of fed judicial power (these doctrines were created and articulated by SCOTUS/none expressly mentioned in Constitution)

Is there a just case/controversy? If yes, consider the merits.

– Standing: proper P?

– Ripeness: premature? (must be immediate and concrete)

– Mootness: is the issue gone?

– Political Questions: constitution leaves these for another branch

– No advisory opinions: actual case/controversy

– Requirement of finality:

– No feigned or collusive suits: two adversaries

(some of these are derived from Art III, Sec II and others are prudential judicial administration, so Congress can override the prudential but not constitutional restrictions)

Reasons for Justiciability Doctrines:

1) separation of powers

2) conserving judicial resources

3) only concrete controversies best suited for judicial resolution

4) fairness, especially to those who are not parties to the suit

No Advisory Opinions: underlying actual case or controversy required

i. Separation of Powers: Bc we need separation lines among the branches and checks on each (keep courts out of the legislative process)

ii. conserve court’s resources (too many unneeded adv opinions)

iii. specific, not hypothetical disputes

SCOTUS considers the following to be examples of advisory opinions:

a) judgment that is subject to review by another branch (constitutional bar)

b) advice to a branch prior to their action (constitutional bar)

c) review of state judgment when adequate state grounds exist (SCOTUS discretion)

d) dicta – opinion that is not necessary to the holding (SCOTUS discretion)

e) decision issued where: moot, not ripe, or no standing (SCOTUS discretion)


1) Actual dispute between adverse litigants

2) Substantial likelihood that a decision in favor of a claimant will bring about some effect

Adv Op examples from history –

Thomas Jefferson sough legal advice on foreign affairs and court r

: Baird was prosecuted for illegally distributing contraceptives to unmarried and he defended based on the rights of the individuals receiving contraceptives (ok, bc they weren’t subject to prosecution under the law and therefore could not sue)

b) Close relationship between P and 3rd party

c) Overbreadth Doctrine in 1st amd cases

2) No generalized grievances – Can’t sue as a taxpayer that shares a grievance in common with all other taxpayers or citizen suits (this does not apply if the P is alleging a constitutional right is being abridged against a large group) (cant sue as a taxpayer interested in having the govt follow the law)

3) P must raise a claim within the zone of interests protected by the statute in question – if suing pursuant to a statutory provision, in order to have standing, the P must be apart of the group intended to benefit from the law. (Argued that this only applies with challenges to admin agency decisions)

Allen v Wright:

Parents of black public school children sued IRS claiming that continuing to give tax exempt status to discriminatory private schools interfered with their child’s ability to get an integrated education.

Court held no standing. The right to have the govt act in accordance with the law is not sufficient. No direct tie between the harm and the D’s action. No evidence that giving the requested relief would cure the harm.

If allowed, black people in Hawaii could challenge tax exemption in Maine.

Sources of Doctrine:

1) Constitution – case/controversy (can’t be overridden by statute)

2) Prudential – wise policy adopted by judges

Policies Supporting the requirement of Standing: (same as with justiciability)

1) Separation of Power – defining and limiting judicial role

2) conserving judges resources

3) improves decision making by requiring concrete controversy

4) promotes fairness to those not before the court

Lujan v Defenders of Wildlife: Can Congress create standing? no

Conservationists lacked standing to challenge regulations regarding what geographic region the Endangered Species Act applied to bc US was funding projects that could harm endangered species in these areas.

Ps must suffer a concrete, discernible injury—not a “conjectural or hypothetical one”—to be able to bring suit in federal court. It, in effect, made it more difficult for plaintiffs to challenge the actions of a government agency when the actions don’t directly affect them.

Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia stated that Defenders had failed to satisfy Constitutional requirements for “injury in fact” that would grant standing under the Endangered Species Act. He wrote that the Court rejected the view that the citizen suit provision of the statute conferred upon “all persons an abstract, self-contained, non-instrumental ‘right’ to have the Executive observe the procedures required by law.” Rather, he explained, an American citizen plaintiff must have suffered a tangible and particular harm.