procedural law

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Law that establishes the rules of the court and the methods used to ensure the rights of individuals in the court system. In particular, laws that provide how the busines of the court is to be conducted. Examples may be pleading requirements, discovery rules, or standards of review.

In the U.S. federal court system, the Rules Enabling Act of 1934 gives the “Supreme Court of the United States shall have the power to prescribe, by general rules, for the district courts of the United States and for the courts of the District of Columbia, the forms of process, writs, pleadings, and motions, and the practice and procedure in civil actions at law.”  The result has been the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provide a comprehensive guide as to how federal courts should conduct the administration of justice. Note, however, that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure apply only in civil actions, and not to state rules of procedure. Each states follows its own system of civil procedure laws, many of which are modeled on or influenced by the federal rules.

The federal court system also has a system of rules of criminal procedure. Rules of criminal procedure differ from those of civil procedure in that they include rules governing preliminary proceedings specific to criminal proceedings, such as arrest; they include rules governing grand juries and indictment; arraignment and notices of defenses; and particular issues pertaining to criminal trials. 

While distinct from substantive rights, procedural law can nevertheless greatly influence a case. In his dissent in Sibbach v. Wilson, Justice Frankfurter highlighted the important difference between substantive and procedural law in stating, “a drastic change in public policy in a matter deeply touching the sensibilities of people or even thier prejudices as to privacy [i.e. substantive rights], ought not to be inferred from a general authorization to formulate rules for the more uniform and effective dispatch of business on the civil side of the federal courts.” In the Supreme Court’s landmark Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins decision in 1938, the court declared that federal courts must follow state substantive law, but that “no one doubts federal power over procedur[al law].”

However, the Court also admitted that “the line between procedural and substantive law is hazy,” and the Supreme Court has dealt with that difficult process of delineating substantive and procedural law ever since. For example, in Guaranty Trust v. York, in 1945, the court asked whether “the outcome of the litigation in the federal court should be substantially the same… as it would be if tried in a State court,” and decided to apply a state’s statute of limitations because it would have significantly altered the result of the litigation. In 1965, in Hanna v. Plumer the Supreme Court ruled that if there was a conflict with state procedural rules and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, then the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure should apply. Whether there is a conflict between state procedural rules and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is not entirely clear however, and in 1996, in Gasperini v. Center for Humanities, Inc., the Supreme Court tackled such a challenging question and found that the state law applied, since it could be reconciled with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and other compelling federal interests.

[Last updated in September of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]