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Overvaluing Uniformity

Amanda Frost

American University - Washington College of Law


Virginia Law Review, Vol. 94, p. 1567, 2008
American University, WCL Research Paper No. 08-57

Providing for the uniform interpretation of federal law has long been viewed as a primary goal of the federal court system, and the claimed need for uniformity has shaped the structure of the courts and the scope of their jurisdiction. For example, uniformity has been cited as grounds for broad federal question jurisdiction and for the creation of specialized federal courts. Most visibly, harmonizing interpretation of federal law has become an essential factor in the Supreme Court's selection of cases for review; 70% of the Supreme Court's docket is devoted to resolving disagreements over the meaning of federal law.

This Article questions whether uniformity in and of itself has inherent value, and whether the benefits of eliminating moderate disuniformity in the interpretation of ambiguous federal statutes are worth the costs. Proponents of uniformity claim that divergent interpretations of federal law are unfair to litigants, undermine the legitimacy of federal law, create intolerable conflicts for interstate actors, and lead to forum shopping. The Article explores each argument in turn and finds none to be a compelling reason for federal courts to devote considerable time and resources to maintaining uniformity. For instance, litigants have no basis to claim they were treated unfairly when courts reach different conclusions about the meaning of an ambiguous statute as long as each interpretation is reasonable. Nor is the legitimacy of federal law called into question when judges disagree about the best way to fill gaps or resolve vague provisions in the statutes they construe. Indeed, the doctrine of Chevron deference recognizes, and even promotes, the possibility that ambiguous federal statutes can be construed in a variety of ways. Interstate actors are already forced to comply with the varied legal regimes of the fifty states, so requiring them to follow divergent interpretations of federal law is not a significant additional burden. And if forum shopping is truly a problem (which is questionable), a better solution might be to tighten venue rules rather than expend significant federal judicial resources on standardizing federal law.

Furthermore, even in the relatively rare cases when uniformity is essential, the federal courts are not the ideal institution to provide it. Congress is responsible for enacting ambiguous laws that produce conflicting judicial interpretations, and Congress is better situated to determine when the benefits of uniformity outweigh the costs of achieving it. Accordingly, this Article contends that courts should avoid expending resources to standardize federal law, and should instead rely on Congress to legislate uniformity when needed.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 73

Keywords: federal courts, jurisdiction, uniformity, statutory interpretation, supreme court, certiorari

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Date posted: March 10, 2008 ; Last revised: July 2, 2010

Suggested Citation

Frost, Amanda, Overvaluing Uniformity (2008). Virginia Law Review, Vol. 94, p. 1567, 2008; American University, WCL Research Paper No. 08-57. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1104469

Contact Information

Amanda Frost (Contact Author)
American University - Washington College of Law ( email )
4801 Massachusetts Avenue N.W.
Washington, DC 20016
United States
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