The Meaning of “State” and the District of Columbia Problem.

In Hepburn v. Ellzey,1111 Chief Justice Marshall for the Court confined the meaning of the word “state” as used in the Constitution to “the members of the American confederacy” and ruled that a citizen of the District of Columbia could not sue a citizen of Virginia on the basis of diversity of citizenship. Marshall noted that it was “extraordinary that the courts of the United States, which are open to aliens, and to the citizens of every state in the union, should be closed upon them. But this is a subject for legislative, not for judicial consideration.”1112 The same rule was subsequently applied to citizens of the territories of the United States.1113

Whether the Chief Justice had in mind a constitutional amendment or a statute when he spoke of legislative consideration remains unclear. Not until 1940, however, did Congress attempt to meet the problem by statutorily conferring on federal district courts jurisdiction of civil actions, not involving federal questions, “between citizens of different States, or citizens of the District of Columbia, the Territory of Hawaii, or Alaska and any State or Territory.”1114 In National Mutual Ins. Co. v. Tidewater Transfer Co.,1115 this act was upheld in a five-to-four decision but for widely divergent reasons by a coalition of Justices. Two Justices thought that Chief Justice Marshall’s 1804 decision should be overruled, but the other seven Justices disagreed; however, three of the seven thought the statute could be sustained under Congress’s power to enact legislation for the inhabitants of the District of Columbia, but the remaining four plus the other two rejected this theory. The statute was upheld because a total of five Justices voted to sustain it, although of the two theories relied on, seven Justices rejected one and six the other. The result, attributable to “conflicting minorities in combination,”1116 means that Hepburn v. Ellzey is still good law insofar as it holds that the District of Columbia is not a state, but is overruled insofar as it holds that District citizens may not use federal diversity jurisdiction.1117

Footnotes

1111
6 U.S. (2 Cr.) 445 (1805). [Back to text]
1112
6 U.S. at 453. [Back to text]
1113
City of New Orleans v. Winter, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 91 (1816). [Back to text]
1114
54 Stat. 143 (1940), as revised, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d). [Back to text]
1115
337 U.S. 582 (1948). [Back to text]
1116
337 U.S. at 655 (Justice Frankfurter dissenting). [Back to text]
1117
The statute’s provision allowing citizens of Puerto Rico to sue in diversity was sustained in Americana of Puerto Rico v. Kaplus, 368 F.2d 431 (3d Cir. 1966), cert. denied, 386 U.S. 943 (1967), under Congress’s power to make rules and regulations for United States territories. Cf. Examining Bd. v. Flores de Otero, 426 U.S. 572, 580–597 (1976) (discussing congressional acts with respect to Puerto Rico). [Back to text]