Making federal case out of it


“The great object of my fear is the federal judiciary. That body is gaining ground step by step … Let the eye of vigilance never be closed.”

— Thomas Jefferson

“Jefferson is among the most ambitious &, I suspect, among the most unforgiving of men. Every check on the wild impulse of the moment is a check on his own power. He looks, of course, with ill will at an independent judiciary.”

— John Marshall

The old saying, “don’t make a federal case out of it,” implies that a federal case is somehow more serious or a “bigger deal” than a state matter and, more often than not, that is precisely true. But cases don’t just arrive in federal court because someone has decided that they’re important enough. A federal court must have jurisdiction over the case — a kind of legal permission slip to hear the matter.

Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives “original” jurisdiction to the federal courts in certain kinds of cases. Original jurisdiction means that the matter need not begin in another court and be “removed” to the federal court, but instead may be filed directly at the federal courthouse. Among these cases are any matters involving questions of federal Constitutional law, federal statutes or regulations, treaties, foreign ambassadors, or cases involving the federal government, foreign nations, or suits between two states.

Originally, the scope of this power was a subject of much debate. Some of the founding fathers — like Thomas Jefferson — felt that to allow the federal courts to declare an act of Congress to be unconstitutional would tip the balance of federal power in favor of the judiciary. Others felt that allowing judicial oversight of the legislative branch was the only way to prevent the legislature from becoming the end all and be all of government power.

Ironically, the power of the federal judiciary was cemented in a case that involved the appointment of judges. John Adams had made a number of “midnight appointments” in the hours before his term as president ended on March 3, 1801. Thomas Jefferson refused to honor more than half of those appointments, relying on a provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789. The Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, struck down that federal law because it conflicted with the Constitution and thereby established that the federal judiciary has the ultimate power to interpret the Constitution.

Cases that are filed in state court may be “removed” to federal court if a question of federal law arises. For example, a contract dispute between two companies is generally a matter for state courts. But if that contract dispute turns out to be a fight over who can use the brand name of a product — a question of federal copyright law — then one party could ask for the case to be transferred to federal court.

Federal cases are generally regarded to be more serious for a variety of reasons. First, by its very nature, a federal case involves issues of federal law or the U.S. Constitution. Second, in a federal criminal case, the entire resources of the federal government can be brought to bear on a defendant. Third, federal cases generally have a broader territorial impact and so affect a greater number of people.

Criminal cases make their way into the federal system depending upon the nature of the crime. Some crimes, like the deaths of federal employees at the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, are federal offenses because of the victims. Other crimes, like the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, are federal offenses because they are crimes against the federal government. Finally, other crimes become federal offenses because they are interstate in nature, such as mail fraud or internet crimes.

Some crimes, like the Oklahoma City bombing mentioned above, are simultaneously prosecuted in state and federal court in cases that cover related, but separate acts, or separate victims.

Even two decades after his presidency, Jefferson harbored doubts about the federal judiciary. Writing to Spencer Roane in 1821, he said, “The great object of my fear is the federal judiciary. That body, like gravity ever acting, with noiseless foot, and alarming advance, gaining ground step by step, and holding with it gains, is engulfing insidiously the special governments into the jaws of which feeds them.” And yet, almost exactly 200 years later, our Republic survives, and the ‘noiseless foot’ seems not have made the ‘alarming advance’ he feared.

By David Hejmanowski

Case Study

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.

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