The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are a body of 86 rules that govern procedural law, in contrast to substantive law, for civil proceedings in U.S. federal courts. Find the full text here. Their scope and purpose, as laid out in Rule 1, is to “govern the procedure in all civil actions and proceedings in the United States district courts,” and instructs that they should be construed to “secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding.” More specifically, the rules govern the procedure of, among others: pleading requirements, motions to dismiss, amendments, joinder, class actions, discovery, trials, injunctive relief, and the issuance of judgments and orders. The Rules do not govern civil procedure in state court, criminal procedure (see Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure), evidentiary rules (see Federal Rules of Evidence), or appeals (see Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure).
Federal courts did not always have a uniform set of rules to govern civil procedure. In the founding days of the republic, rules of procedure centered around the common law distinction between actions in courts of equity and courts of law. For actions in courts of law, Chapter XXI, Section 2 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 provided that the procedural rules for such actions in federal court “shall be the same in each state respectively as are now used or allowed in the supreme courts of the same.” That is, the 1789 Act established no uniform procedural rules for actions at law, but rather required federal courts to adopt the procedural rules of the state in which they were located. Furthermore, the language “as are now used” required federal courts to adopt procedural rules as they existed in 1789. So, for example, ten years after the 1789 Act, the state procedural laws of 1789 would still govern procedural law in federal courts in that state, even if the state procedural laws changed since the 1789 Act. For states admitted into the union after 1789, Chapter LXVIII, Section 1 of the 1828 Act provided that federal courts adopt the state procedural rules as they existed at the time of admittance to the union. This principle of requiring federal courts to adopt and conform to state procedural rules as they existed at the time of adoption is known as statis conformity. In 1872, Congress passed a new Conformity Act that provided for dynamic conformity for actions at law, meaning that federal courts followed the contemporary state procedural laws.
Contrarily, Congress provided for uniform rules for actions in equity in federal courts. In the Process Act of 1792, Congress delegated to the Supreme Court the power to regulate procedural rules for cases in equity and admiralty. Section 2 provides that, in cases of equity and admiralty, federal courts are subject “to [procedural] regulations as the supreme court of the United States shall think proper from time to time by rule to prescribe to any circuit or district court concerning the same.” In summary, Congress delegated the power to create procedural rules for federal cases in equity or admiralty to the U.S. Supreme Court. In contrast, for federal cases at law, Congress at first required federal courts to follow state procedural rules, as they existed in 1789 or at the time of admittance to the union, but in 1872 required federal courts to follow state procedural laws as they currently then existed.
In the early 20th century, legal commentators and jurists, with the American Bar Association (ABA) leading the way, began to push for uniformity of federal procedure in cases at law. One main grievance about the system established by the Act of 1789 and its progeny was that under it, federal courts often followed the states’ rigid, statutory systems of pleading. In 1915, the American Bar Association Committee on Uniform Judicial Procedure released a report lamenting that, under the current system, “the judge is often helpless to prevent injustice being done in his very presence,” and the lawyer “is compelled to take advantage of technicalities.” The report suggested that “rules prepared and promulgated by the federal Supreme Court” would be the best way to “do away with rigid statutes.”
For years, reform stalled until Congress passed the Rules Enabling Act of 1934. The Act embodied the desires of the reformers by granting to the Supreme Court the power to promulgate procedural rules for federal courts. Specifically, the Act, currently 28 U.S.C. § 2072, provides that “(a) [t]he Supreme Court shall have the power to prescribe general rules of practice and procedure and rules of evidence” for federal courts; and that “(b) [s]uch rules shall not abridge, enlarge or modify any substantive right.” The issue of whether Congress could constitutionally delegate rulemaking power to the Supreme Court to prescribe procedural rules for federal courts was resolved by the Supreme Court in 1941 in Sibbach v. Wilson, which ruled that Congress could do so.
While the Rules Enabling Act of 1934 granted the Supreme Court the power to create procedural rules for federal courts, the Act itself did not create such rules. Instead, the Supreme Court appointed an Advisory Committee in 1935 to solicit input from judges and practitioners and submit suggestions of rules. After solicitation and consideration, the Supreme Court approved the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in 1938. One of the first major changes was the unity of courts of equity and law. Previously, as illustrated by the divergent treatment of procedural rules for federal courts serving as courts of equity in the Process Act of 1792 and for federal courts serving as courts of law in the Judiciary Act of 1789, the two were separate. Also, as a 1935 article in Yale Law Journal by Charles Clark and James Moore persuasively argued, many believed that any ultimate attempt to create a uniform system of procedural rules for federal courts would fail if equity and law were not united. The Advisory Committee and the Supreme Court would ultimately agree, and the new procedural rules unified the federal court’s heretofore separate roles as courts of equity and courts of law.
Another major reform was the simplification of pleading requirements. Previously under the traditional formalistic common law method of pleading, as an article in Yale Law Journal by Charles Clark, History, Systems and Functions of Pleading, explains, a trial would not proceed until the parties reached a stage where one party affirmed and the other denied a single material point of contention to be ruled upon. This required extensive and technical pleading, which led to many of the miscarriages of justice that the ABA objected to in their push for reform. The reformed rules abandoned this system of pleading and allowed parties to hale their claims to court with simplified statements of their claims, and a streamlined process of objecting to and amending pleadings. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 8 lays out the general rules of pleading, and only requires a plaintiff to make a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. . . and a demand for the relief sought.” Rule 12 lays out when and how defenses and objections can be presented, and overall allows only certain objections to be raised past the pleading stage to ensure that the court can speedily address the dispute in contention. Commentators, jurists, and practitioners generally considered the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to be a success. Charles Clark, a leading commentator on the reform, stated in his Yale Law Journal article, The Influence of Federal Procedural Reform, that “the universal chorus of approval is quite phenomenal.” Although the Rules have been amended many times in subsequent years, the core of original 1938 rules is still by-and-large intact.
[Last updated in April of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]