The Jurisdiction Canon
This Article concerns the interpretation of jurisdictional statutes. The fundamental postulate of the law of the federal courts is that the federal courts are courts of limited subject-matter jurisdiction. That principle is reinforced by a canon of statutory interpretation according to which statutes conferring federal subject-matter jurisdiction are to be construed narrowly, with ambiguities resolved against the availability of federal jurisdiction. This interpretive canon is over a century old and has been recited in thousands of federal cases, but its future has become uncertain. The Supreme Court recently stated that the canon does not apply to many of today’s most important jurisdictional disputes. The Court’s decision is part of a pattern, as several cases from the last decade have questioned the canon’s validity, a surprising development given what appeared to be the canon’s entrenched status.
This state of flux and uncertainty provides an ideal time to assess the normative merits and the likely future trajectory of the canon requiring narrow construction of jurisdictional statutes. This Article undertakes those tasks. First, it conducts a normative evaluation of the canon and its potential justifications. The normative evaluation requires consideration of several matters, including the canon’s historical pedigree, its relationship to constitutional values and congressional preferences, and its ability to bring about good social outcomes. Reasonable minds can differ regarding whether the canon is ultimately justified, but the case for it turns out to be weaker than most observers would initially suspect. Second, the Article attempts, as a positive matter, to identify the institutional and political factors that have contributed to the canon’s recent negative trajectory and that can be expected to shape its future path. These factors include docket composition, interest-group activity, and the Supreme Court’s attitude toward the civil justice system.
This Article’s examination of the jurisdiction canon has broader value beyond the field of federal jurisdiction because it sheds some incidental light on the more general questions of why interpretive rules change, how methodological changes spread through the judicial hierarchy, and how the interpretive practices of the lower courts vary from those of the Supreme Court.
Professor of Law, William & Mary Law School.