ArtIII.S1.6.4 State Court Jurisdiction to Enforce Federal Law

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.

Unless the federal courts possess exclusive jurisdiction over a matter, state courts may hear cases over which federal courts would have also had jurisdiction.1 However, it does not necessarily follow from the fact that state courts are authorized to hear claims arising under federal law that the state courts must agree to hear federal claims. In deciding multiple cases on this issue, the Supreme Court has ruled that state courts generally must hear federal law claims unless state law bars a state court from hearing a federal claim through a “neutral rule of judicial administration” that does not improperly burden claims arising under federal law.2

In the 1876 case Claflin v. Houseman, the Supreme Court held that state courts could hear cases arising under federal bankruptcy law.3 The Court reasoned:

The laws of the United States are laws in the several States, and just as much binding on the citizens and courts thereof as the State laws are. The United States is not a foreign sovereignty as regards the several States, but is a concurrent, and, within its jurisdiction, paramount sovereignty.4

The Court thus held that “the State courts have concurrent jurisdiction whenever, by their own constitution, they are competent to take it.” 5 While Claflin concerned when state courts may exercise jurisdiction over federal claims, a number of subsequent cases have cited Claflin when considering when state courts may validly decline jurisdiction over federal claims.

In several cases, the Supreme Court has upheld state courts’ refusal to hear federal claims, finding that state law provided a “valid excuse” to decline jurisdiction. For instance, In Douglas v. New York, N.H. & H.R. Co., the Court upheld a state law that allowed state courts to decline jurisdiction over both state and federal law claims when neither party was a resident of the State.6 The Supreme Court noted that there was nothing in the federal statute at issue “that purports to force a duty” to hear cases on state courts “as against an otherwise valid excuse.” 7 In Howlett v. Rose, the Court summarized cases like Douglas, where states had validly declined to hear federal claims, as involving “neutral rule[s] of judicial administration.” 8

By contrast, in Mondou v. New York, N.H. & H.R. Co., a Connecticut court declined to hear a case arising under federal law, in part because the state court held it was “at liberty to decline cognizance of actions to enforce rights arising under [the federal] act, because . . . the policy manifested by it is not in accord with the policy of the state.” 9 The Supreme Court rejected that proposition and held that the state court must hear the case. In so holding, the Court emphasized that the case did not involve “any attempt by Congress to enlarge or regulate the jurisdiction of state courts, or to control or affect their modes of procedure,” but only a question of when state courts must hear federal claims that fall within their “ordinary jurisdiction, as prescribed by local laws.” 10

Similarly, in Testa v. Katt, the Rhode Island Supreme Court declined to enforce a federal statute containing a punitive damages provision, finding that the law was penal in nature and the “state need not enforce the penal laws of a government which is ‘foreign in the international sense.’” 11 The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Rhode Island court must enforce the federal statute, and that a state policy of not enforcing penal statutes of other sovereigns was not a “valid excuse” under Douglas.12 Among other things, the Court explained that “[i]t cannot be assumed, the supremacy clause considered, that the responsibilities of a state to enforce the laws of a sister state are identical with its responsibilities to enforce federal laws.” 13

In the 2009 case Haywood v. Drown, the Supreme Court considered a state statute that divested New York state courts of jurisdiction over suits under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 seeking money damages from corrections officers, as well as similar state law claims against corrections officers.14 The Court held that the New York law violated the Supremacy Clause. Writing for the majority, Justice Stevens explained, “we have emphasized that only a neutral jurisdictional rule will be deemed a ‘valid excuse’ for departing from the default assumption” that state courts will hear federal claims.15 Although the New York statute removed jurisdiction over both state and federal claims, the Court held, “equality of treatment” between state and federal claims “does not ensure that a state law will be deemed . . . a valid excuse for refusing to entertain a federal cause of action.” 16 Rather, by distinguishing between Section 1983 claims against corrections officers and all other Section 1983 suits, New York undermined the federal policy of making relief under Section 1983 broadly available. The Court held that this was impermissible: “having made the decision to create courts of general jurisdiction that regularly sit to entertain analogous suits, New York is not at liberty to shut the courthouse door to federal claims that it considers at odds with its local policy.” 17

The question of state court enforcement of federal law is related to, but distinct from, the anti-commandeering doctrine.18 In Printz v. United States, the Supreme Court distinguished between federal control over state courts and commandeering of the political branches of state government. Justice Scalia’s majority opinion surveyed federal legislation from early Congresses that required state courts to take certain actions, such as recording applications for citizenship, but noted that state courts are bound by the Supremacy Clause, which expressly requires them to apply federal law. The Court thus concluded, “we do not think the early statutes imposing obligations on state courts imply a power of Congress to impress the state executive into its service.” 19

See, e.g., Claflin v. Houseman. 93 U.S. 130, 136 (1876); Charles Dowd Box Co. v. Courtney, 368 U.S. 502, 507 (1962); Gulf Offshore Co. v. Mobil Oil Corp., 453 U.S. 473, 477–84 (1981). back
Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356, 374 (1990). back
93 U.S. 130 (1876). Currently, federal law grants the federal courts exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases, 28 U.S.C. § 1334, but that was not true at the time of the events at issue in Claflin. back
93 U.S. at 136. back
Id. back
279 U.S. 377 (1929). See also Herb v. Pitcairn, 324 U.S. 117 (1945) (upholding state court’s application of state venue laws to dismiss for want of jurisdiction of an action brought under federal law because the cause of action arose outside the city court’s territorial jurisdiction); Missouri ex rel. Southern R. Co. v. Mayfield, 340 U.S. 1 (1950) (holding that a state’s application of the forum non conveniens doctrine to bar adjudication of a federal claim brought by nonresidents was constitutional as long as the policy was enforced impartially); Johnson v. Fankell, 520 U.S. 911 (1997) (holding that a state rule limiting interlocutory jurisdiction did not discriminate against federal claims). A related question is whether federal procedural rules apply in state courts when they hear federal claims. The Supreme Court rejected that proposition in Minneapolis & St. L. R. Co. v. Bombolis, in which it declined to apply the Seventh Amendment’s jury trial requirement to state courts enforcing a federal statute. 241 U.S. 211. The rule that state courts must entertain federal claims, the Court explained, did not imply that “for the purpose of enforcing the right, the state court was to be treated as a Federal court.” Id. at 222. back
279 U.S. at 388. back
496 U.S. 356, 374 (1990). back
223 U.S. 1, 55 (1912). back
Id. at 56–57. See also McKnett v. St. Louis & S.F. Ry. Co., 292 U.S. 230, 233–34 (1934) ( “[T]he Federal Constitution prohibits state courts of general jurisdiction from refusing to do so solely because the suit is brought under a federal law.” ). back
330 U.S. 386, 388 (1947). back
Id. at 393. back
Id. at 389. back
556 U.S. 729 (2009). back
Id. at 735. back
Id. at 738. back
Id. at 740. back
For further discussion of the anti-commandeering doctrine, see Amdt10.4.2 Anti-commandeering Doctrine. back
521 U.S. 898, 907 (1997). back