Can Federal Courts Dictate State Law? [No. 86]
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Can Federal Courts Dictate State Law? [No. 86]


The federal courts, ah, the key power they
authorize, the key ‘who decides’ question they’re presented with is the meaning of federal
law. So if there’s an interpretation of a federal
statute, the Federal Constitution, that’s the leading role of the federal courts, from
the Federal District Court, to courts like mine, the intermediate Federal Courts of Appeals
up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Congress is also authorized the federal courts
to interpret state law in diversity cases and in cases presenting pendant collateral
state law claims. So the state courts are truly the courts of
general jurisdiction. Ah they really can hear everything. You have to meet certain requirements to get
those cases into federal court. But all states have trial courts of general
jurisdiction and they can hear state law questions, federal law questions, statutory questions
under federal or state law, common law questions under state law. Ah they truly are the key decision makers. Federal courts can decide federal and state
questions. They even can decide state constitutional
law questions. When it comes to state law questions the key
limit is they’re not the final decision makers. Ah even a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the
meaning of a state law or a state constitution would not bind the state court that’s responsible
for that particular state guarantee. The state constitutions can mean whatever
a state court wants them to mean. They obviously can’t be construed to violate
the U.S. Constitution, but that doesn’t mean that they have to mean the same thing as the
Federal Constitution. They can mean less, they can mean more. One of the remarkable things ah that one has
to come to appreciate in American Constitutional Law is that you can have two guarantees with
exactly the same words, letter for letter, and yet a state court can construe them to
mean one thing, a federal court could construe them to mean another. There’s nothing wrong with that. So think of unreasonable searches and seizures. What’s unreasonable can quite uneasily lead
to disagreement and reasonable disagreement between people on one court or between people
on different courts. Sometimes that language is construed differently
because the history of the enactment, or the history of that particular state. One good example of this is the free exercise
of religion. So, think about a state like Utah, Rhode Island,
or Maryland. These are states that were founded by religious
dissenters very sensitive to being a minority practitioner of a faith and having to deal
with the problem of interacting with the majority that practiced a different faith. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if the state
courts in those three states construe free exercise liberty protection guarantees more
robustly than another state might, or than the U.S. Supreme Court might. That’s really quite appropriate, even though
they might share exactly the same language as another state constitution or as the U.S.
Constitution. That that’s federalism in a nutshell.

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