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Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Bell v. Hood lives

I am beginning to think of Bell v. Hood  the way Justice Scalia thinks about about the Lemon Test: "Like some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried."  The Court's recent turn to a broader and sharper awareness of what is merits should require the interment of Bell, which strips courts of jurisdiction over federal claims that are "wholly insubstantial and frivolous." After all, if the question of whether the conduct challenged is reached (and thus prohibited by) a law (or, as I like to say, "who can sue whom for what conduct and what remedy")  is a merits question, it should always be a merits question, regardless of the strength of the claim of right.

There were some questions during argument in Shapiro v. McManus hinting that Bell might be on the table, especially given recent jurisdictionality cases that did not even cite Bell. Alas, it was not to be. A unanimous Court, per Justice Scalia, held that any case challenging the constitutional of congressional apportionment must be referred to a three-judge district court and cannot be dismissed by the single district judge. (I wrote about the case for SCOTUSblog). The limited exception, for "insubstantial" constitutional claims, incorporates Bell for "wholly insubstantial and frivolous" claims only, while "[a]bsent such frivolity," failure to state a claim for relief remains a judgment on the merits.

Bell thus survives and is now explicitly incorporated into the three-judge court analysis. In other words, some weak-on-the-merits claims, if the merits are weak enough, still can be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. And so we continue to be haunted by unwarranted and unnecessary jurisdiction/merits overlap.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 8, 2015 at 05:21 PM in Civil Procedure, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

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