2.9 State Court Jurisdiction over Federal Claims

Updated 2013 by Jeffrey S. Gutman

In determining whether state courts are allowed to entertain jurisdiction over federally created causes of action, the Supreme Court has applied a presumption of concurrency.1 Under this presumption, state courts may exercise jurisdiction over federally created causes of action as long as Congress has not explicitly or implicitly made federal court jurisdiction exclusive.2  An implied exclusivity can result from an “unmistakable implication from legislative history, or by a clear incompatibility between state-court jurisdiction and federal interest.”3 In considering whether a federal claim is incompatible with state court jurisdiction, the Court looks to “the desirability of uniform interpretation, the expertise of federal judges in federal law, and the assumed greater hospitality of federal courts to peculiarly federal claims.”4 Under this framework, federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty, bankruptcy, patent, trademark, and copyright claims because the relevant jurisdictional statutes expressly provide so.5 In other areas, such as antitrust, the federal statutes do not make federal court jurisdiction exclusive, but courts found an implied exclusivity.6

State courts may exercise jurisdiction over claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.7 Although the Court has not expressly addressed state court jurisdiction over the other Reconstruction-era civil rights actions, it reviewed a 42 U.S.C. § 1982 action arising in the state courts without any apparent doubt about the permissibility of state courts to entertain such actions.8 Moreover, state courts addressing issues involving 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 42 U.S.C. § 1982, both having their origins in Section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and its 1870 reenactment, concluded that they were allowed to entertain such actions.9

A state court may decline to entertain a federal claim if it adhere to a neutral rule of judicial administration. That rule must not violate the Supremacy Clause by treating the federal claim less favorably than a parallel state claim.  In Howlett v. Rose the Court was asked to decide whether common-law sovereign immunity was available to a state school board to preclude a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 even though such a defense would be unavailable in federal court.10 The state court had dismissed the lawsuit on grounds that the school board, as an arm of the state, had not waived its sovereign immunity in Section 1983 cases. The Howlett Court stated that state common-law immunity was eliminated by acts of Congress in which Congress expressly made the states liable.11 The Court held that the state court’s refusal to entertain a Section 1983 claim against the school district, when state courts entertained similar state-law actions against state defendants, violated the Supremacy Clause.12

More recently, the Supreme Court struck down a New York statute that divested its state courts from entertaining Section 1983 or state law claims for damages by prisoners against state correctional employees.13 The state legislature determined that these kinds of lawsuits were frequently frivolous and channeled them into the state court of claims, which offered more limited remedies and more stringent procedural requirements.  The Supreme Court held that the state law violated the Supremacy Clause because it reflected a policy contrary to Congress' view that state actors are liable for money damages when they violate federal constitutional rights under color of state law.14 The Court further determined that merely because the state treated Section 1983 and parallel state law claims equally did not mean that the law was a neutral rule of judicial administration and therefore a valid excuse for barring the federal claim from being heard in state court: "[a]lthough the absence of discrimination is necessary to our finding a state law neutral, it is not sufficient. A jurisdictional rule cannot be used as a device to undermine federal law, no matter how evenhanded it may appear."15


Updated 2013 by Jeffrey S. Gutman