• Video

Can Federal Courts Dictate State Law?

Can federal courts dictate state law? Judge Jeffrey Sutton explores the difference in jurisdiction between federal courts and state courts, giving an overview of the kinds of cases that each court decides. In addition, in American Constitutional Law, a state court and a federal court can construe the text of the same statute in different ways. https://youtube.com/watch?v=lBSNthA1XZs


The federal courts, ah, the key power they authorize, the key ‘who decides’ question they're presented with is the meaning of federal law. So if there's an interpretation of a federal statute, the Federal Constitution, that's the leading role of the federal courts, from the Federal District Court, to courts like mine, the intermediate Federal Courts of Appeals up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Congress is also authorized the federal courts to interpret state law in diversity cases and in cases presenting pendant collateral state law claims. So the state courts are truly the courts of general jurisdiction. Ah they really can hear everything. You have to meet certain requirements to get those cases into federal court. But all states have trial courts of general jurisdiction and they can hear state law questions, federal law questions, statutory questions under federal or state law, common law questions under state law. Ah they truly are the key decision makers. Federal courts can decide federal and state questions. They even can decide state constitutional law questions. When it comes to state law questions the key limit is they're not the final decision makers. Ah even a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the meaning of a state law or a state constitution would not bind the state court that's responsible for that particular state guarantee. The state constitutions can mean whatever a state court wants them to mean. They obviously can't be construed to violate the U.S. Constitution, but that doesn't mean that they have to mean the same thing as the Federal Constitution. They can mean less, they can mean more. One of the remarkable things ah that one has to come to appreciate in American Constitutional Law is that you can have two guarantees with exactly the same words, letter for letter, and yet a state court can construe them to mean one thing, a federal court could construe them to mean another. There's nothing wrong with that. So think of unreasonable searches and seizures. What's unreasonable can quite uneasily lead to disagreement and reasonable disagreement between people on one court or between people on different courts. Sometimes that language is construed differently because the history of the enactment, or the history of that particular state. One good example of this is the free exercise of religion. So, think about a state like Utah, Rhode Island, or Maryland. These are states that were founded by religious dissenters very sensitive to being a minority practitioner of a faith and having to deal with the problem of interacting with the majority that practiced a different faith. It shouldn't surprise anyone if the state courts in those three states construe free exercise liberty protection guarantees more robustly than another state might, or than the U.S. Supreme Court might. That's really quite appropriate, even though they might share exactly the same language as another state constitution or as the U.S. Constitution. That that's federalism in a nutshell.

Related Content