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The Increasingly Unflagging Obligation: Federal Jurisdiction after Saudi Basic and Anna Nicole

35 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2006  

Stephen I. Vladeck

University of Texas School of Law


The tension inherent in the study of federal jurisdiction and the federal courts is perhaps best understood as the result of attempts to effectuate two often irreconcilable commands: First, that federal courts are courts of limited subject-matter jurisdiction; second, that they nevertheless have a virtually unflagging obligation . . . to exercise the jurisdiction given them. Increasingly, in recent years, this tension has manifested itself as a sharp divide between the U.S. Supreme Court and the lower federal courts over the scope of various explicit (or implicit) doctrinal and statutory exceptions to the federal jurisdiction conferred by general jurisdictional statutes such as 28 U.S.C. ยงยง 1331, 1332, and 1334. In a pattern that has come to repeat itself time and again, the lower courts have consistently favored applicability of these exceptions, with the Supreme Court, often unanimously, reversing in favor of original federal jurisdiction. This Article explores that trend through the lens of the Supreme Court's 2004 and 2005 Terms, and considers various theories for why the Court may be consistently moving toward a broader conception of federal subject-matter jurisdiction. As the Article concludes, much of what may be behind these decisions is the Supreme Court's frustration with lower-court overreactions to the new jurisdictional formalism that resulted from the Court's 1998 decision in Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Environment, a decision the full effects of which we are still assessing almost a decade later.

Keywords: federal jurisdiction, probate exception, rooker-feldman, formalism, Hamdan

Suggested Citation

Vladeck, Stephen I., The Increasingly Unflagging Obligation: Federal Jurisdiction after Saudi Basic and Anna Nicole. Tulsa Law Review, Vol. 42, 2006. Available at SSRN:

Stephen I. Vladeck (Contact Author)

University of Texas School of Law ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States
5124759198 (Phone)

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