Constitutionality of Exclusive Federal Jurisdiction: How can Congress divest state courts of subject matter jurisdiction?

January 26th, 2010

In class this week, we will be discussing federal question jurisdiction, and exclusive federal jurisdiction. There are certain statutes  where the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction (e.g., 28 U.S.C. 1337 for Antitrust claims, 28 U.S.C. 1338 for Patent and Copyright claims, and 15 U.S.C. 78aa for Securities claims).

While I was preparing for class, I asked myself, how is this constitutional? How can Congress divest state courts of subject matter jurisdiction over these claims? If a state court wants to entertain a federal antitrust complaint, why can’t it?

Example:  A sues B for a violation of federal antitrust law in state court. For whatever reason, B doesn’t remove. The  state court doesnt dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction. The case is appealed to the state supreme court, and never dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Supreme Court grants cert. What precedent would say that a state court cannot hear a federal exclusive question? But why cant a state court decide to also hear it?

I first considered the comandeering line of cases, which held that under the 10th Amendment, the federal government cannot commandeer, or force state officials to do something. Under this principle, are state judges considered in the same vein as state executive officials? Would constraining subject matter jurisdiction be equivalent to forcing state officials to conduct background checks for firearm purchases?

The best I could come up with is the Supremacy clause. State judges are forced to swear an oath to the Constitution, which includes the supremacy clause. These statutes granting exclusive jurisdiction would be considered the Supreme Law of the land, and state judges would be forced to abide by it, thereby pruning these issues from a state court’s subject matter jurisdiction.

In this case, the Supremacy Clause would be the opposite of the 10th amendment in the comandeering cases. I never though of the supremacy clause in the context of limiting a state’s subject matter jurisdiction, but that makes enough sense.

If anyone knows any precedents to this effect, I’d be curious.

H/T to Adam and Natalie for their help working this issue out.

Update: I am working on a separate post for this item. For a title of some future law review article, how about:  Commandeering the State Courts: How Can Exclusive Federal Jurisdiction Statutes Divests State Courts of Subject Matter Jurisdiction? I blog about it further here.