Faculty Blog, Singer

Is the Supreme Court Rethinking the Federal Courts’ Mission?

For some time, the Supreme Court and Congress have jointly viewed the federal court system as a special, nearly exclusive forum for resolving disputes. Congress has permitted federal courts to hear only those cases that directly invoke a federal law, or in which the parties are citizens of entirely different states. And the Supreme Court has read jurisdictional statutes narrowly in order to preserve the federal courts’ exclusivity. As a result, most cases are left to the state courts.

But a recent decision reveals some cracks in that longstanding commitment. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc. v. Jackson involved a challenge under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2004 (CAFA), a rare statute that expanded federal court jurisdiction, and which was only reluctantly accepted by the courts upon its enactment. Among other things, CAFA makes it easier for “any defendant” in a state court class action to move the case to a federal forum—a process known as removal.

“Any defendant” seems clear enough in the abstract, but real life has a way of exposing the limits of language. In 2016, Citibank sued George Jackson in North Carolina state court to collect on a debt related to a purchase Jackson made at Home Depot. Jackson filed counterclaims against Citibank, and also brought a class action counterclaim against Home Depot, alleging that Home Depot, Citibank, and others had schemed to defraud consumers. Now a party to the case for the first time, and reasoning that it was a “defendant” under CAFA, Home Depot tried to remove the case to federal district court. But the district court read CAFA’s language narrowly to preclude removal by defendants—like Home Depot—who were not original parties to the case, and sent the case back to the state court. The federal appeals court agreed.

Given its traditional reluctance to dilute the “distinctive judicial forum” of the federal courts, one might have expected the Supreme Court to read CAFA’s provisions as restrictively as had the lower courts. And a majority of the Court did just that, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing that a third party cannot remove a case absent explicit Congressional authorization. But this holding drew a fiery dissent from Justice Samuel Alito, who called the majority’s distinction between Home Depot and ordinary class action defendants “irrational.” Both types of defendants, he argued, were intended to benefit from CAFA’s lower barriers to removal.

Any fair reading of CAFA’s history suggests that Alito’s view is more consistent with the intent of Congress. And Alito’s position serves justice in the individual case, allowing Home Depot to stand on equal footing with any other class action defendant. But Alito’s reasoning would also open the federal courts to cases beyond the literal scope of CAFA’s intended expansion, and invite further attempts to increase federal access purely through judicial interpretation.

The Alito position, of course, did not prevail in Home Depot. But his dissent reveals what may be a fundamental split within the Court regarding the federal courts’ role and mission. The two newest Justices, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, both signed on to Alito’s broader interpretation of CAFA. By contrast, the three longest tenured Justices—Thomas, Ginsburg, and Breyer—all favored the more restrictive reading which would preserve the federal courts’ exclusivity.

Even more significant, the dissenters in Home Depot included Chief Justice John Roberts. More than any other individual, the Chief Justice has his finger on the organizational pulse of the judiciary. He is keenly aware of the court system’s responsibilities, resources, and current ability to meet public expectations. He surely recognizes the effect of reading jurisdictional statutes more expansively: more federal cases, more pressure on court resources, and more strain on federal-state relations. Past Chief Justices might have balked at joining the dissent for these reasons alone. Yet Roberts signed on just the same.

Time will tell what Home Depot ultimately means for the federal courts. But we may look back at Justice Alito’s dissent as the start of a new era, in which the Supreme Court began asserting federal jurisdiction in a more muscular fashion than ever before.

Jordan Singer is Professor of Law at New England Law | Boston. He blogs about the judiciary at The Interdependent Third Branch.