ArtIII.S1.6.3 Doctrine on Federal and State Courts

Article III, Section 1:

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

By specifying the extent of the “judicial Power,” the Constitution authorized the creation of federal courts with limited subject matter jurisdiction. Article III identifies several categories of cases over which the Supreme Court possesses original jurisdiction.1 In addition, the Constitution generally authorizes federal courts to hear “all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority,” as well as admiralty cases, cases between citizens of different states, and cases between citizens of a state and a foreign state or its citizens.2

Within those broad categories, Congress has traditionally been understood to exercise significant discretion to decide which cases particular federal courts have jurisdiction to hear. The Constitution sets the maximum possible extent of federal court jurisdiction. Congress cannot expand such jurisdiction beyond the applicable constitutional limits, but is free to grant the federal courts authority over only a subset of constitutionally permissible cases. In practice, Congress has always granted the federal courts less expansive jurisdiction than the Constitution authorizes.3 The first Judiciary Act granted the federal courts exclusive jurisdiction over matters including federal criminal cases, admiralty cases, and certain cases involving seizures of property under federal law.4 The Act also granted the federal and state courts concurrent jurisdiction over other classes of cases, including certain tort suits brought by foreign nationals and common law suits brought by the United States government.5 Since that time, Congress has periodically expanded the scope of federal court jurisdiction,6

, 110 Stat. 3847 (raising amount in controversy requirement from $50,000 to $75,000). but has never provided for federal court jurisdiction in all possible cases that would be authorized under the Constitution’s jurisdictional limits.7

In contrast to the federal system, the states operate courts of general jurisdiction, which are not subject to the constitutional jurisdictional limits placed on federal courts.8 As part of such general jurisdiction, state courts have concurrent jurisdiction to hear most cases that raise issues under the Constitution or federal law.9 Congress may enact legislation providing that certain claims arising under federal law may only be heard in federal court.10 However, unless Congress provides for exclusive federal court jurisdiction, a case raising federal law claims may proceed in either state or federal court.11

If a plaintiff files in state court a case over which the federal courts could exercise jurisdiction, the defendant may elect to remove the case to federal court pursuant to federal statute.12 In addition, a party may seek Supreme Court review of a decision of a state’s highest court in cases where a state law, executive action, or judicial interpretation allegedly conflicts with the Constitution or a federal law or treaty.13

As the following sections discuss in more detail, other interactions between federal and state courts may occur as cases move through the judicial system. For example, because the federal Constitution, statutes, and treaties are the “the supreme Law of the Land,” and federal courts are the final authority on the interpretation of federal law, state courts applying federal law are bound by controlling decisions of the federal courts.14 Relatedly, federal courts may sometimes enjoin proceedings in state court,15 and federal courts can hear challenges to state criminal convictions pursuant to petitions for a writ of habeas corpus.16 By contrast, state courts have much more limited power to enjoin or otherwise affect federal proceedings.17 Nonetheless, as a matter of federal-state comity,18 federal courts will sometimes abstain from hearing cases raising novel questions of state law, and in some cases may require litigants to exhaust available remedies under state law before filing suit in federal court.19

U.S. Const. art. III, § 2, cl. 1. back
Id. back
See, e.g., Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804, 807 (1986) ( “Although the constitutional meaning of ‘arising under’ may extend to all cases in which a federal question is ‘an ingredient’ of the action, . . . we have long construed the statutory grant of federal-question jurisdiction as conferring a more limited power.” ) (internal citation omitted). back
1 Stat. 73, 77. back
Id. back
For example, Congress amended the current federal question statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1331, in 1976 and 1980 to eliminate the jurisdictional amount requirement. Act of Oct. 21, 1976, Pub. L. No. 94-574, 90 Stat. 2721; Federal Question Jurisdictional Amendments Act of 1980, Pub. L. No. 96-486, 94 Stat. 2369. On the other hand, Congress has also limited federal court jurisdiction by periodically raising the amount in controversy requirement for diversity suits. See, e.g., Federal Courts Act of 1996, Pub. L. No.
, 110 Stat. 3847
(raising amount in controversy requirement from $50,000 to $75,000). back
For further discussion of the jurisdiction of the federal courts, see ArtIII.S2.C1.16.1 Overview of Diversity Jurisdiction. back
Court of General Jurisdiction, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019) ( “A court having unlimited or nearly unlimited trial jurisdiction in both civil and criminal cases.” ). States may also establish specialty courts with limited jurisdiction, such as family courts or land courts, but each state also has courts of general jurisdiction. back
E.g., Claflin v. Houseman. 93 US 130, 136 (1876) ( “[I]f exclusive jurisdiction be neither express nor implied, the State courts have concurrent jurisdiction whenever, by their own constitution, they are competent to take it.” ); Charles Dowd Box Co. v. Courtney, 368 U.S. 502, 507 (1962) ( “We start with the premise that nothing in the concept of our federal system prevents state courts from enforcing rights created by federal law.” ). back
See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 3231 (granting the federal district courts “original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States,” over federal criminal proceedings); 28 U.S.C. § 1334 (granting district courts jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases); id. at § 1337 (granting district courts jurisdiction over antitrust cases). back
See Gulf Offshore Co. v. Mobil Oil Corp., 453 U.S. 473, 477–84 (1981); Tafflin v. Levitt, 493 U.S. 455 (1990); Yellow Freight Sys., Inc. v. Donnelly, 494 U.S. 820 (1990). Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over the federal antitrust laws, even though Congress has not spoken expressly or impliedly. See Gen. Inv. Co. v. Lake Shore & Mich. S. Ry., 260 U.S. 261, 287 (1922). For discussion of when state courts must hear federal claims, see ArtIII.S1.6.4 State Court Jurisdiction to Enforce Federal Law. back
28 U.S.C. § 1441. See also ArtIII.S2.C1.11.5 Removal from State Court to Federal Court. back
28 U.S.C. § 1257. back
See ArtIII.S1.6.4 State Court Jurisdiction to Enforce Federal Law. back
See ArtIII.S1.6.7 Federal Non-Interference with State Jurisdiction and Abstention. back
See ArtIII.S1.6.9 Habeas Review. back
See ArtIII.S1.6.6 Limits on State Court Control of Federal Proceedings. back
Comity is a self-imposed rule of judicial restraint whereby independent tribunals of concurrent or coordinate jurisdiction act to moderate the stresses of coexistence and to avoid collisions of authority. The Supreme Court has explained that comity is not a binding rule of law but “one of practice, convenience, and expediency,” which persuades but does not command. Mast, Foos & Co. v. Stover Mfg. Co., 177 U.S. 458, 488 (1900). back
See ArtIII.S1.6.7 Federal Non-Interference with State Jurisdiction and Abstention; ArtIII.S1.6.8 Exhaustion Doctrine and State Law Remedies; ArtIII.S1.6.9 Habeas Review. back