Recent legislation has reinvigorated the scholarly debate over the proper relationship between Congress and the federal courts in matters of federal-court jurisdiction. The traditional view of jurisdiction-stripping is that Congress has virtually plenary power to determine the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Others have argued that there are substantial limits on Congress's authority to deprive the federal courts of jurisdiction over certain matters. A similar debate has raged over the obligation of federal courts to exercise jurisdiction that Congress ostensibly has conferred. Since the debate over Congress's role in crafting a jurisdictional regime last flared in full force, textualism has been ascendant as a methodology for interpreting statutes, and has had a profound impact on the way that judges - textualists and non-textualists alike - read statutes. The rise of textualism provides an important opportunity to update the long-standing debate over the proper roles of Congress and the courts in matters of federal-court jurisdiction.
Like the debate over congressional control of the federal jurisdictional regime, textualism is largely about the judicial role in a democracy. Textualists argue that their methodology recognizes the properly limited judicial role, and they insist that judges must be faithful agents of the legislature, guided by the plain meaning of statutory text. To the extent that textualism has had a significant impact on judicial decision-making, particularly by the Supreme Court, we might expect to see a move towards strict interpretation of jurisdictional statutes, and a vindication, at least as a descriptive matter, for the strong congressional-control models. After all, if the textualist judge is supposed to act as a faithful agent of Congress, following the plain meaning of statutory text, then when Congress plainly withdraws jurisdiction, faithfully textualist judges can be expected to decline to exercise authority; and if Congress confers jurisdiction without qualification, then we might expect textualist judges to eschew arguments for implicit exceptions to the exercise of jurisdiction. In practice, however, textualism has been applied somewhat unevenly to jurisdictional statutes. Although the Court's textualists have strictly read statutes that purport to divest the federal courts of jurisdiction, they have not been as consistent in applying textualism to statutes that appear, based on their plain language, to confer expansive grants of jurisdiction.
Textualism's goal to limit the judicial role in a democratic society is advanced by strict interpretations of statutes purporting to divest the courts of jurisdiction. But when Congress appears to confer broad grants of authority - such as in the general federal-question statute - being a truly faithful agent based on statutory language will result in a more robust judicial role than some textualists might otherwise prefer. The treatment by the Court's textualists of jurisdictional statutes suggests that the textualists' urge to constrain judicial power has sometimes trumped the textualists' demand that courts act as faithful agents of Congress by considering only the plain meaning of statutory language in deciphering Congress's instructions.
This has implications both for textualism and for the larger question of the proper relationship between Congress and the courts in crafting a jurisdictional regime. It should force textualists to defend their approach more explicitly as a device for constraining judicial authority, and perhaps less as the optimal means for implementing a theory of faithful agency in statutory interpretation. And it suggests that, at least as a positive matter, the strong congressional-control models of federal jurisdiction have not yet fully prevailed, at least with respect to the question of the courts' authority to decline to exercise jurisdiction that Congress ostensibly has granted.
GW Paper Series
GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 350, GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 350
108 Colum. L. Rev. 1883 (2008)