Substance, Procedure, and the Rules Enabling Act

66 Pages Posted: 24 Jul 2018 Last revised: 15 Aug 2019

See all articles by A. Benjamin Spencer

A. Benjamin Spencer

Harvard Law School; University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: March 1, 2019

Abstract

The Supreme Court promulgates rules of procedure (based on the proposals of subordinate rulemaking committees) pursuant to the Rules Enabling Act. This statute empowers the Court to prescribe “general rules of practice and procedure,” with the caveat that “[s]uch rules shall not abridge, enlarge or modify any substantive right.” The Act is supposed to stand as a real constraint on what rules or alterations thereof the subordinate rulemaking bodies will consider or propose, as well as on how the Court will choose to interpret any given codified Federal Rule. However, the Act has no — to date — been employed to invalidate a promulgated Federal Rule, leading one to wonder whether the Act’s admonitions have any real purchase beyond keeping the judiciary from crafting rules that regulate primary conduct. But just how far can the Federal Rules go? Does the fact that none have been invalidated mean that the rulemakers and the Court have managed to adhere successfully to the Act’s strictures? This Article suggests that the answer to that latter question is no. No rule has been invalidated because the Court has not yet been confronted with a live controversy over a rule that challenges its ability to avoid the issue by a saving interpretation. As a result, the Court has not had the opportunity to crystallize the precise contours of what kind of rules the Act does and does not allow it to prescribe.

This Article takes up that enterprise, articulating an understanding of the Rules Enabling Act that will equip the Supreme Court with the ability to judge a rule’s validity — and give the rulemakers much clearer guidance regarding the outer boundaries of their remit. Once such an understanding is in hand, a clear candidate for invalidation — Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (FRCP) 15(c)(1)(C)— comes to the fore. That rule — which (in some jurisdictions) eviscerates defendants’ protection from liability, thereby disturbing their vested repose — alters substantive rights in ways the Act, properly understood, will not countenance. Other rules, such as FRCP 4(k) and 4(n), also fall afoul of the Rules Enabling Act if they are analyzed with a proper understanding of the Act’s strictures.

Keywords: Rules Enabling Act, Civil Procedure, Federal Rules, Erie, Hanna, Shady Grove, Amendment, Personal Jurisdiction

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K19, K4, K40, K41, K49

Suggested Citation

Spencer, A. Benjamin, Substance, Procedure, and the Rules Enabling Act (March 1, 2019). 66 UCLA Law Review 654 (2019); Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2018-37. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3215901

A. Benjamin Spencer (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1525 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

HOME PAGE: http://https://hls.harvard.edu/faculty/directory/11916/Spencer

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
434.924.3572 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.law.virginia.edu/lawweb/faculty.nsf/FHPbI/2299812

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