Of Rules and Standards: Reconciling Statutory Limitations on 'Arising Under' Jurisdiction

62 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2006

Date Written: November 19, 2006


The Supreme Court has imposed two significant filters on the invocation federal question jurisdiction: the well-pleaded complaint rule and the centrality requirement. Centrality seeks to determine whether the plaintiff's claim is federal enough to justify jurisdiction. The Court sent inconsistent signals on centrality in the first third of the twentieth century, and left the issue alone for fifty years. When it returned to it in 1986, the Court created great confusion, particularly regarding whether a state-created claim can invoke federal jurisdiction. The confusion reflected disagreement about whether to employ a rigid rule espoused by Justice Holmes or a flexible standard to assess centrality. In 2005, in Grable, the Court resolved several important issues left open by earlier cases. Still, a concurring opinion in Grable and scholarly commentary favor a return to the Holmes test.

This Article suggests that confusion over centrality stems from divergent views of the purpose of federal question jurisdiction. The Holmes test reflects the view that jurisdiction serves only to provide a federal forum to vindicate federally-created rights. The more flexible approach reflects a broader view that jurisdiction also must provide access to a federal trial forum for the interpretation of federal law. The broader view is consistent with contemporary reality that caseload burdens make it impossible for the Supreme Court to discharge a unifying interpretive function through its appellate jurisdiction over state-court cases. Moreover, the Holmes test does not permit courts to assess litigation reality and thus replicates a shortcoming of the well-pleaded complaint rule. Grable properly brings clarity to the centrality inquiry by espousing a vision of why we have federal question jurisdiction.

Keywords: jurisdiction, civil procedure, pleading and practice, courts, federal courts, allocation of judicial power, arising under, centrality, Grable

JEL Classification: H77, K10, K30, K40, K41

Suggested Citation

Freer, Richard D., Of Rules and Standards: Reconciling Statutory Limitations on 'Arising Under' Jurisdiction (November 19, 2006). Emory Public Law Research Paper No. 06-26. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=946036 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.946036

Richard D. Freer (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
(404) 727-6838 (Phone)
(404) 727-6820 (Fax)

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