Although a central role of the modern federal judiciary is the adjudication of cases involving federal law and rights, prior to 1875, Congress, with the brief exception of the short-lived Judiciary Act of 1801, did not grant the federal trial courts general original jurisdiction in civil cases "arising under" federal law, or so-called federal questions. The Supreme Court was left through its appellate jurisdiction to enforce federal rights and to establish uniformity of federal law. Since the late nineteenth century, the authority of the lower federal courts to hear cases involving federal questions has depended on Congress's creation of new causes of action and the Supreme Court's interpretation of which cases "arise under" federal law.
The Constitution states in Article III that "The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority." Congress in the Judiciary Act of 1789 did not grant the federal district and circuit courts general jurisdiction over federal questions, but instead left the state courts to resolve disputes involving federal law. The Federalist majority in Congress, which supported greater authority for the federal courts, granted the circuit courts federal question jurisdiction in the Judiciary Act of 1801, but the Jeffersonian Republicans, who assumed the majority a few weeks later, repealed that statute in 1802.
Congress in the early decades of the nation's history passed statutes granting the federal courts jurisdiction in suits related to particular functions of the federal government. Congress in the Patent Act of 1793 gave the federal circuit courts exclusive jurisdiction over actions for patent infringement, followed in 1819 by a statute granting circuit court jurisdiction to all actions "arising under" the patent laws. Congress also passed statutes in 1815 and 1833 that allowed federal revenue officers to remove to federal courts suits or prosecutions against them in state court for actions taken in the exercise of their official duties. This removal right was extended to all federal officials during the Civil War. Congress included in the 1816 charter for the Second Bank of the United States a provision allowing the Bank to sue and be sued in any federal circuit court.
In the 1824 case of Osborn v. Bank of the United States , the Supreme Court for the first time interpreted the meaning of Article III's grant of judicial power over cases "arising under" federal law. In a challenge to circuit court jurisdiction over cases to which the Bank of the United States was a party, the Court in Osborn ruled that a case arises under federal law whenever federal law "forms an ingredient of an original cause," even in cases that turned on the application or construction of state law. Chief Justice John Marshall's opinion held that the Bank's federal charter was a potential "ingredient" in the case because its provisions could become an issue for a court, no matter how unlikely. The Supreme Court used similar reasoning later in the century to uphold circuit court jurisdiction over disputes involving federally chartered railroads.
The era of Reconstruction marked the beginning of a gradual transformation in which the federal trial courts increasingly became the primary forum for individuals to enforce their federal constitutional and statutory rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, adopted to protect freed African-Americans in the former Confederate states, opened federal circuit and district courts to individuals claiming rights under the Act and granted the right of removal to those denied their rights in state or local courts. In 1868, the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibited states from denying individuals equal protection of the laws and from depriving individuals of life, liberty, and property without due process of law. In civil rights acts in 1868, 1870, and 1871, Congress granted individuals private causes of action for damages against anyone acting "under color of any law" of a state who deprived them of their constitutional and statutory rights. Finally, in 1875, Congress passed a statute that granted to the circuit courts general jurisdiction over all cases "arising under" the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States, limited only by a requirement that the amount in controversy be over $500. This general grant was limited somewhat in 1887 by a statute that raised the minimum amount in controversy to $2,000 and placed restrictions on the removal of cases from state courts.
In the twentieth century, Congress created new causes of action and new federal remedies in a broad range of regulatory statutes. In statutes passed to regulate railroad rates and safety, food and drugs, and labor conditions, among other areas, Congress permitted citizens to file suits for damages in federal court for violations of the law. In some cases, such as those involving securities laws passed during the Great Depression, the courts interpreted statutes as implying a private right to civil suits even when Congress had not expressly granted one. Regulatory statutes also allowed for civil suits against federal administrative agencies by those "adversely affected or aggrieved" by agency action, a principle broadly stated in the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946.
The scope of general federal question jurisdiction was shaped by the Supreme Court's determination of when a suit brought under a state law cause of action sufficiently involved a federal question. While the Supreme Court in Osborn had quite broadly interpreted the potential scope of "arising under" jurisdiction in Article III, the Court construed the statutory grant of federal question jurisdiction in the 1875 Act more narrowly. The Supreme Court established a procedural requirement that for a federal court to take jurisdiction, the issue of federal law had to be clearly presented in the plaintiff's complaint, a doctrine that became known as the "well-pleaded complaint rule." In the 1908 case of Louisville & Nashville Railroad v. Mottley , for example, the Court held that a plaintiff could not bring a case in federal court based on the anticipation that the defendant would raise a constitutional defense to the suit. The Court ruled in a number of cases in the 1920s and 1930s, including the 1921 case of Smith v. Kansas City Title & Trust Co., that a state law cause of action-such as a suit for breach of contract- could be brought in federal court only if the case depended on the construction or application of the Constitution or a federal statute.
By the 1960s, new statutes and key decisions by the Supreme Court expanded the federal courts' role as a forum for the enforcement of federal constitutional and statutory civil rights. Starting in the 1920s, the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment "incorporated" select provisions in the Bill of Rights to protect citizens against actions of state governments, and this doctrine opened up new avenues of suits for claims of constitutional rights. The 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education , which ordered the desegregation of public schools, signaled the courts' increased willingness to defend Fourteenth Amendment equal rights under the law for African Americans. The decision in Monroe v. Pape in 1961 gave greater utility to the private cause of action granted by the 1871 Civil Rights Act, codified in Section 1983 of the U.S. Code. In the 1962 case of Baker v. Carr , the Supreme Court ruled that the constitutionality of state legislative redistricting could be challenged in federal court. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 created new federal civil remedies for racial and gender discrimination in employment and housing, among other areas. In Maine v. Thiboutot in 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 1983 actions were not limited to civil rights laws, but also extended to violations of all federal laws, such as alleged discrimination in state implementation of federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
Civil rights cases, particularly suits filed under Section 1983, became one of the largest sources of federal court business in the late twentieth century. Between 1871 and 1920, there were only 21 cases decided based on Section 1983, and in 1961 there were only 287 Section 1983 suits. In 1985 there were 36,582 cases, rising ten years later to 57,571. Well over half of these suits were petitions submitted by prisoners challenging the conditions of their confinement. In 1996, Congress placed some limits on these petitions in the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act in order to reduce the burden of frivolous suits on district courts. By the early 1970s, all civil rights cases, including prisoner petitions, constituted 22 percent of the civil actions filed in district courts and would remain close to that level into the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Federal question caseloads also grew in the late twentieth century as a result of a host of new regulatory statutes adopted by Congress in the 1960s and 1970s. Congress established new regulations over consumer products and the environment that vastly expanded the range of rights and federal remedies that Americans could claim in federal courts. In addition, many statutes, such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, authorized so-called citizen suits, in which any individual or party could seek to enforce the law by suing administrative agencies or violators of regulations. As a result, more and more cases were filed not by regulated interests but by the beneficiaries of regulation to challenge agency action or, more commonly, inaction.
Since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has established new standing doctrines that narrowed somewhat the suits that could be brought against a federal agency under a cause of action created by Congress. In notable cases such as Sierra Club v. Morton (1971) and Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992), the Court ruled that an individual could only sue if he or she could demonstrate that the defendant was responsible for an actual or imminent "injury in fact." The Court reasoned that Article III's reference to "cases" and "controversies" limited the judicial power to adversarial disputes that involved the private rights of individuals and required the federal courts to abstain from issuing opinions on "generalized grievances" or political questions that fell equally upon a large class of citizens or the public generally.
In 1986, the Supreme Court also narrowed jurisdiction over federal questions in state law causes of action, ruling in the case of Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals v. Thompson that to get into federal court, a plaintiff's state law claim must depend on a federal statute that creates a federal cause of action. The Court established an exception to the principle in Merrell Dow in the 2005 decision in Grable & Sons Metal Products, Inc. v. Darue Engineering , in which it stated that a federal cause of action could be missing so long as an important national interest would be served by allowing the jurisdiction, such as providing a federal forum for federal tax litigation.
In 1980, Congress did away with the minimum amount in controversy for all federal question suits. The change had only a minor impact on caseloads, however, since between 80 and 90 percent of federal question civil cases were brought under a cause of action established by a congressional statute, most of which did not include minimum amounts in controversy. By the end of the twentieth century, federal question suits represented the largest component of federal district court caseloads and over half of all civil suits.
Erwin Chemerinsky, Federal Jurisdiction, 6 th Edition (New York: Wolters Kluwer, 2012).
Wythe Holt, "The First Federal Question Case," Law and History Review 3 (1985): 169-89.
Paul Mishkin, "The Federal 'Question' in the District Courts," Columbia Law Review 53 (1953): 157-96.