When a Case Arises Under.

The 1875 statute and its pres- ent form both speak of civil suits “arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States,”808 the language of the Constitution. Thus, many of the early cases relied heavily upon Chief Justice Marshall’s construction of the constitutional language to interpret the statutory language.809 The result was probably to accept more jurisdiction than Congress had intended to convey.810 Later cases take a somewhat more restrictive course.811

Determination whether there is federal question jurisdiction is made on the basis of the plaintiff ’s pleadings and not upon the response or the facts as they may develop.812 Plaintiffs seeking access to federal courts on this ground must set out a federal claim which is “well-pleaded” and the claim must be real and substantial and may not be without color of merit.813 Plaintiffs may not anticipate that defendants will raise a federal question in answer to the action.814 But what exactly must be pleaded to establish a federal question is a matter of considerable uncertainty in many cases. It is no longer the rule that, when federal law is an ingredient of the claim, there is a federal question.815

Many suits will present federal questions because a federal law creates the action.816 Perhaps Justice Cardozo presented the most understandable line of definition, while cautioning that “[t]o define broadly and in the abstract ‘a case arising under the Constitution or laws of the United States’ has hazards [approaching futility].”817 How and when a case arises ‘under the Constitution or laws of the United States’ has been much considered in the books. Some tests are well established. To bring a case within the statute, a right or immunity created by the Constitution or laws of the United States must be an element, and an essential one, of the plaintiff ’s cause of action. . . . The right or immunity must be such that it will be supported if the Constitution or laws of the United States are given one construction or effect, and defeated if they receive another. . . . A genuine and present controversy, not merely a possible or conjectural one, must exist with reference thereto. . . .818

It was long evident, though the courts were not very specific about it, that the federal question jurisdictional statute is and always was narrower than the constitutional “arising under” jurisdictional standard.819 Chief Justice Marshall in Osborn was interpreting the Article III language to its utmost extent, but the courts sometimes construed the statute equivalently, with doubtful results.820


28 U.S.C. § 1331(a). The original Act was worded slightly differently. back
Osborn v. Bank of the United States, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 738 (1824). See also Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264, 379 (1821). back
See Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. v. Manning, 578 U.S. ___, No. 14–1132, slip op. at 9–10 (2016) (“This Court has long read the words ‘arising under’ in Article III to extend quite broadly, to all cases in which a federal question is an ingredient of the action . . . In the statutory context, however, we . . . give those same words a narrower scope in the light of § 1331’s history, the demands of reason and coherence, and the dictates of sound judicial policy.”) (internal brackets, citations, and quotations omitted). back
See generally Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804 (1986); Franchise Tax Bd. v. Construction Laborers Vacation Trust, 463 U.S. 1 (1983). back
Newburyport Water Co. v. City of Newburyport, 193 U.S. 561, 576 (1904); Levering & Garrigues Co. v. Morrin, 289 U.S. 103, 105 (1933); Binderup v. Pathe Exchange, 263 U.S. 291, 305–308 (1923). If the complaint states a case arising under the Constitution or federal law, then federal jurisdiction exists even though on the merits the party may have no federal right. In such a case, the proper course for the court is to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted rather than for want of jurisdiction. Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. 678 (1946). Of course, dismissal for lack of jurisdiction is proper if the federal claim is frivolous or obviously insubstantial. Levering & Garrigues Co. v. Morrin, 289 U.S. 103, 105 (1933). back
Louisville & N.R.R. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149 (1908). See Skelly Oil Co. v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 339 U.S. 667 (1950); Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 415 U.S. 125 (1974). back
Such was the rule derived from Osborn v. Bank of the United States, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 738 (1824). See Franchise Tax Board v. Construction Laborers Vacation Trust, 463 U.S. 1 (1983); Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804 (1986). back
American Well Works Co. v. Layne & Bowler Co., 241 U.S. 257, 260 (1916). Compare Albright v. Teas, 106 U.S. 613 (1883), and People of Puerto Rico v. Russell & Co., 288 U.S. 476 (1933), with Feibelman v. Packard, 109 U.S. 421 (1883), and The Fair v. Kohler Die & Specialty Co., 228 U.S. 22 (1913). back
Gully v. First National Bank in Meridian, 299 U.S. 109, 117 (1936). back
299 U.S. at 112–13. Compare Wheeldin v. Wheeler, 373 U.S. 647 (1963), with Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). See also J. I. Case Co. v. Borak, 377 U.S. 426 (1964); Smith v. Kansas City Title & Trust Co., 255 U.S. 180 (1921). back
For an express acknowledgment, see Verlinden B. V. v. Central Bank of Nigeria, 461 U.S. 480, 495 (1983). See also Shoshone Mining Co. v. Rutter, 177 U.S. 505 (1900); Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354, 379 n.51 (1959). back
E.g., Pacific R.R. Removal Cases, 115 U.S. 1 (1885); see also id. at 24 (Chief Justice Waite dissenting). back