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September 2010

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What Is the Proper Role of the Federal Courts Relative to the State Courts?


Judge Janet Hall (D. Conn.)

Judge Janet Hall (D. Conn.)

Judge Janet Hall has chaired the Judicial Conference Committee on Federal-State Jurisdiction since 2007. She was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut in 1997.

The Committee on Federal-State Jurisdiction is comprised of federal judges and four state supreme court chief justices. How does the addition of the state court representatives assist the work of the Committee?

There has been a fine tradition of service by state chief justices to our committee. They bring years of experience and a different perspective. In my experience, they’re of great assistance in identifying issues—or tensions—that are inherent in our system of federalism and also in identifying areas that are of mutual concern to the state and federal courts. Having state chief justices as members facilitates collegial relationships that I believe provide us a better understanding of the unique needs of, and challenges facing, state courts.

We often hear the concept of “federalism” discussed in striking the balance for appropriate state and federal jurisdiction. How does your Committee apply that concept in its work?

Our Committee’s primary responsibility is to consider the proper role of the federal courts relative to the state court systems. We start with the premise—which is a principal one for all federal judges—that the federal courts have limited jurisdiction. Our court system works because the federal system respects the boundaries between, and the unique roles of, the federal and state courts.

What exactly are the proper boundaries? Well, I don’t want to say that, ‘we know it when we see it,’ but it is often a question of the context in which the question is asked. Let’s say Congress is considering altering federal jurisdiction, typically by adding to it. We would consider such things as whether this has been an area traditionally of state concern; whether there is a need for a national or federal approach; the potential impact on the federal docket if we were to shift causes of action from the state to the federal courts; and, lastly, where the federal Judiciary does have a particular expertise, does that make it more appropriate for certain actions to be in federal court?

Obviously, our Committee’s responsibility is to discuss and address the issues that are raised by jurisdictional questions and then to make recommendations to the Judicial Conference. In the end, of course, it is Congress’ responsibility to decide how best to allocate jurisdiction between the federal and state courts.

What are the challenges for the federal courts?

I would say one of the areas that presents the greatest challenge for us going forward is in the area of immigration. Although the 111th Congress has provided increased funding for border security, prospects for other legislation appear uncertain. As a Committee, however, we have been monitoring proposals and outlines of legislation, as well as reviewing the different views expressed by members of Congress and the Administration, to assess their potential impact on the federal courts.

Obviously, some of the proposals will involve other Judicial Conference Committees. For example, some proposals include increased penalties for immigration-related violations. The Criminal Law Committee would be interested in those provisions. Also, some of the proposals include suggestions for adjusting the legal status of the 10-12 million immigrants who are currently in this country without legal status. Given the number of individuals who may seek to adjust their status, any provision for judicial review of decisions adverse to applicants in that program could have a very substantial impact on the federal courts. This would be of concern to several Judicial Conference committees. At the same time, we recognize the importance of preserving the role of the federal courts in ensuring due process with respect to immigration cases.

What do the state supreme court chief justice members of your committee identify as the greatest issues of interest to the state courts?

At every Committee meeting, the state chief justices present a report in which they address issues they want to bring to the attention of the federal courts. One area of continuing concern to them is access to the courts.

I would say another area of great interest is what they view as a threat to the balance of federalism, usually through preemption by Congressional action. The financial reform legislation raised concerns among the states on the issue of federalizing standards for behavior or performance of boards of directors and other aspects of corporate governance—issues that, in their view, have traditionally been the province of state law and state courts.

Another area would be the need to safeguard judicial independence, which is an issue the federal Judiciary shares. The state chief justices often deal with that issue, however, in connection with problems raised by state judicial elections.

They’re struggling with the demand for interpreter services as the diversity of the population increases. We worked with Administrative Office staff responsible for the federal contract court interpreter program to encourage the exchange of information between federal and state courts regarding qualified interpreters. It’s a very simple step, but it has been of benefit to the state courts.

Are there other ways that your Committee facilitates communication with the state courts and their support organizations?

Judge Ron Gilman from the Sixth Circuit and I serve as representatives of our Committee to the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ), the national organization of the state supreme courts chief justices. Together with the Executive Committee representative, Judge Rod Sippel from the Eastern District of Missouri, we attend the twice-yearly CCJ meetings. We participate in the general sessions and attend their committee meetings. I also give a report at the Board of Directors meeting on the work of the Federal-State Jurisdiction Committee. These meetings are an excellent opportunity to discuss areas of interest and importance to the federal Judiciary, to share information, and to engage in conversations with many chief justices on areas of mutual concern.

There’s also the National Center for State Courts, which provides administrative support to the CCJ, as well as research and information services to state courts. They provide educational and organizational materials to the CCJ and to the administrators of the state courts. We share information with the Center about initiatives affecting federal and state courts, such as those initiatives related to judicial administration. We benefit greatly from that relationship.

Can you identify particular efforts being undertaken in cooperation with the state courts?

One of our responsibilities, as a Committee, is to encourage cooperation between the federal and state judicial systems. We have initiatives in this area at both the national and state levels.

We are seeking to facilitate discussion of issues which can be areas of tension between federal and state courts, such as capital habeas corpus litigation. We’re respectful of the integrity of the state court system and their role in the review of state court convictions, but we also recognize the role of the federal courts in this area.

I should also note that state-federal judicial councils have been established in several states. In my home state of Connecticut, the state chief justice and I began such a council. These councils provide a forum for federal and state judges to meet, to exchange ideas, and to address any area of friction or tension between their court systems. I think they’re really a wonderful mechanism to improve relations between the state and federal courts and to grow ideas that will improve the justice systems.

Our Committee has begun an effort to facilitate the exchange of ideas among the various councils for programs or topics of interest. We also provide a brief report after the Judicial Conference meets on the activities of the Federal-State Jurisdiction Committee.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress–the Federal Courts Jurisdiction and Venue Clarification Act–that was the result of the work of the Committee on Federal-State Jurisdiction. Could you describe that legislation and how it evolved?

This bill is really the outcome of several years of work trying to identify issues and areas where there could be uncertainty or omissions in statutory language. The current version proposes changes in removal and remand, diversity jurisdiction, venue and transfer. We sought comments from professors whose specialty is federal courts and jurisdiction and also relied upon much of the work of the American Law Institute in this area. There has also been outreach to many interest groups in an effort to build a consensus around the proposals.

Enactment of the legislation could help to control litigation costs and make it easier for the judge to reach the merits of the case without wasting time addressing difficult and, in many cases, unnecessary jurisdictional issues. It really is important in improving the litigation of disputes, and it can make a difference in the day-to-day practice of law in the federal courts. We hope to see some action on these changes fairly soon.

How do the issues in your committee intersect with the work of other Judicial Conference committees?

I think it’s a function of our area of responsibility. For example, a year or two ago, the Advisory Committee on Evidence Rules proposed a new Rule 502, which would alter the attorney-client and work product privilege with respect to inadvertent disclosures. The initial proposal raised a serious federalism issue because it specified the standard as to how the privilege would be applied within both the federal and the state court systems. Our Committee relayed its concerns to the Evidence Rules Committee. In the end, there were some modifications made to the proposed rule which substantially addressed these concerns.

As another example, because our Committee has responsibility for Pacific Islands issues, we recently reviewed a legislative proposal for conferring federal criminal jurisdiction on the local court of American Samoa. We worked with the Defenders Services Committee, the Criminal Law Committee, and the Pacific Islands Committee of the Ninth Circuit, which does the original hard work in this area.

Service on Judicial Conference committees requires a commitment of time over and above a judge’s “day job” of adjudicating cases—what would you say to judges who are considering service on a Conference committee?

Seize the opportunity! The Federal- State Jurisdiction Committee has an enormous volume of material that has to be absorbed and reviewed—some of which I’ve never had occasion to touch as a lawyer, a citizen, or a judge. This Committee provides terrific perspective on the federal Judiciary and on the workings of the Judicial Conference. It’s a great opportunity to be of service to the federal Judiciary, but it has also been very enjoyable for me, serving as a member and now as chair of this Committee. I love it.