David Bernthal/Off the Bench: Federal courts have limited jurisdiction

David Bernthal/Off the Bench: Federal courts have limited jurisdiction

"Why was this case in federal court?" That was a question asked by a juror following a trial over which I presided a few years back. It was a great question which provided an opportunity to explain the limited jurisdiction of the federal courts. In fact, it is a question that every judge in federal court must ask when a case is filed.

As I recall my study of history, the people who organized our system of government through the United States Constitution did not want the national government to have unlimited power. The courts were no exception. Article III vests the judicial power in "one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." In Section 2 of the article that judicial power is extended to certain categories of cases. In this fashion the jurisdiction of the federal courts was conferred but also limited. The juror mentioned above clearly understood the concept.

He served as a juror in the trial of a civil suit brought by New York citizens against parties who were Illinois citizens. The case raised a claim of medical negligence allegedly occurring in Illinois. As such, the suit could have been filed in the state court system. Because there was diversity of citizenship (New York and Illinois) the Plaintiffs were entitled to file in federal court.

Over the years Congress has limited diversity jurisdiction by adding a monetary threshold. Currently, the amount in controversy must exceed $75,000. Accordingly, claims commonly filed in state court, such as for personal injury (automobile crashes, medical negligence, products liability for example) or breach of contract can be heard in federal court if there is complete diversity of citizenship between the parties and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.

Federal courts also have jurisdiction over claims arising under the Constitution, laws or treaties of the United States. This is commonly referred to as federal question jurisdiction. This one is self-explanatory but a few examples may help illustrate. Claims of discrimination in employment, violation of civil rights, as well as claims arising under ERISA would be included. Intellectual property claims, including patent, copyright and trademark matters are also included. These and other cases may be brought in federal court because they assert rights under the Constitution or federal laws.

While somewhat a product of geography as far as where one finds them, federal courts have jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime disputes. I do not recall an example from the Danville/Urbana division.

Bankruptcy matters are handled in federal court. In fact, such cases are brought before United States bankruptcy judges. These judges hear only matters arising under the Bankruptcy Code.

Authority to resolve criminal cases is limited to prosecution for violation of federal criminal laws. Some conduct runs afoul of both state and federal law. Whether the case is brought in state or federal court is determined by which prosecuting office pursues the case. The decision is influenced, but not controlled by, the law enforcement agency handling the investigation and arrest.

I recall a case from my early days in federal court. A person driving a large truck failed to make a quick calculation as he approached a railroad overpass which had the maximum height posted. The truck did not clear and became stuck. Authorities were summoned to deal with an apparent traffic situation only to discover a trailer full of marijuana. Any traffic ticket arising from the event (I doubt they bothered) would have been prosecuted in state court. The drug-related charges could have been filed in either state or federal court because there were both federal and state criminal statutes that covered the conduct. In that instance the authorities involved elected to proceed in federal court.

Judges in federal court must ask the same question raised by the juror mentioned above. They must be sure that the court has authority to hear the case. Jurisdiction cannot be conferred upon the court by the parties. It must exist under the authority noted earlier. If the court lacks jurisdiction it cannot keep the case. It must be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction or, in some cases, returned to state court. That is what the Framers of the Constitution intended.

I know this gets tedious and challenging. If it helps you may be assured that judges and lawyers often struggle with questions of jurisdiction. I hope this column helps in answering the question "Why is this case in federal court?"

David Bernthal, who lives in Mahomet, is a retired 21-year federal magistrate and before that an eight-year associate circuit judge in Vermilion County. His email is askthejudge1@gmail.com.

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