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Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Two steps back on jurisdictionality

On Monday, SCOTUS unanimously (through Justice Breyer) held that plaintiffs must prove, not merely make non-frivolous allegations of, the elements of the exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act for cases where "rights in property taken in violation of international law are in issue." The plaintiff must prove and the court must find that the case involves property rights and that the property was taken in violation of international law--if the claim fails on either point, the court lacks jurisdiction. This must be the approach even if the findings overlap with the merits of the claim and even if the findings are not made until later in the case (although the Court also said resolution should be made "as near to the outset of the case as is reasonable possible").

This is the first time in a while the Court has declined to draw a sharp separation between jurisdiction and everything else and to adopt the narrower conception of jurisdiction. The Court was swayed by the foreign-relations and international-comity implications of the contrary result, under which sovereigns would have had to litigate the merits, which may have caused litigation to continue for longer. The Court rejected the plaintiff's analogy to § 1331, emphasizing the different language and the textual import of consistency with international law as to FSIA but not to § 1331. The Court was unconcerned with merits-jurisdiction overlap, emphasizing that in most cases the jurisdictional facts (property and violation of international law) are not part of the merits.* These facts thus were more like the fact of citizenship in diversity cases than whether a claim is created by federal law.

[*] The court of appeals tried a middle ground--proof of jurisdictional fact was necessary where the merits did not overlap, while nonfrivolous allegations were sufficient where they did. SCOTUS said this approach was contrary to the text of FSIA.

I am not convinced by the distinctions with arising-under jurisdiction, although that is informed by two conclusions: 1) Jurisdiction and merits never can overlap, even by the accident of Congress slapping the label of "jurisdiction" on some issue; 2) Sovereign immunity, again regardless of label, is better understood as a merits defense, going to who can be sued and for what conduct. The Bolivarian Court at times plays loose with that jurisdictional nature, distinguishing § 1331 because it does not involve sovereign immunity--but if sovereign immunity is jurisdictional, then it is doing the same thing as § 1331 in limiting judicial authority.

Two of the Court's arguments as to § 1331 are, I believe, especially weak. First, the Court emphasized that the "arising under" language of § 1331 is unconcerned with consistency with international law. But the FSIA exception requires that rights in property taken in violation of international law be "in issue." Nonfrivolous allegations that property was taken in violation of international law should place those facts "in issue," just as a claim "arises under" when the nonfrivolous allegations suggest a right and right of action created by federal law. The Court never addresses the "in issue" language, what it might mean, or how it might be comparable to the § 1331 language.

Second, the plaintiffs had argued that their approach would not burden sovereign litigants, who could move under 12(b)(6) or 56 on these issues and would not necessarily (or even likely) be forced to litigate to the "bitter end." Breyer responded that foreign sovereign immunity is immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine. If these were treated as merits facts, however, they would not be immediately appealable, because Cohen requires the issue be separate from and collateral to the merits. But several non-jurisdictional defenses (notably individual immunities in § 1983 actions) are subject to C/O/D review. And the Court's recent cases have focused on the effectively unreviewable prong and the effect on and importance of  the interests lost if immediate review is unavailable--considerations that should break in favor of  C/O/D applying even if these are treated as merits facts.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 2, 2017 at 08:42 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

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