Introduction to Federal Question Jurisdiction


Art. III §§ 2 of the Constitution empowers federal courts to have subject matter jurisdiction over “all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made under their Authority.” 

As we previously discussed, the Constitution provides the outer bounds of subject matter jurisdiction, and Congress can grants courts the authority to hear cases within those boundaries. Congress provided the statutory grant of federal question jurisdiction in 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Federal question jurisdiction is intended to allow federal courts the power to decide federal law. The statute promotes uniformity in federal law, encourages federal judges to develop expertise in federal law and protects against potential state-court hostility towards federal claims.

Although the Constitution itself does not create federal trial courts, the First Congress established a system of ‘inferior’ tribunals. Such courts did not have original jurisdiction over questions of federal law until 1875, when Congress passed what would eventually become § 1331.

Federal question jurisdiction was authorized by Congress for one year from 1801 to 1802 as part of the Judiciary Act of 1801, but was repealed when Thomas Jefferson became president. For those of you who are interested in legal history, the Judiciary Act of 1801 is also known as the Midnight Judges Act because in the nineteen days between when the Act was passed and the end of John Adams’ presidency, he filled as many of the newly-created circuit judicial seats as possible. These judges were known as Midnight Judges because Adams was said to be signing their appointments at midnight prior to President Jefferson’s inauguration. Notably, one of these appointments to a District of Columbia court, which was authorized under a different Act of Congress but similarly late in Adams’ presidency, was the subject of Chief Justice John Marshall’s famous opinion in Marbury v. Madison.

Notably, the exercise of original jurisdiction by lower federal courts allows the Supreme Court to restrict its docket to answering new questions of law, rather than policing old solutions. However, it is not the case that federal courts should have exclusive jurisdiction over questions of federal law. For example, consider the high volume of cases that federal courts would be faced with, the inconvenience to parties to travel to where federal courts are located. Arguably, allowing state courts concurrent jurisdiction over federal claims also promotes cooperation and good relationships between the state and federal systems.

The Osborn case we will discuss maps the outer bounds of the Constitutional grant of subject matter jurisdiction...