Report identifies 277 federal laws that obligate state courts

Role of State Courts in Federal Courts coverReport identifies 277 federal laws that obligate state courts

State courts are rightly proud of the fact that they handle about 99% of all civil and criminal cases filed in the United States. That amounted to over 83 million cases in 2019, the most recent year for which complete figures are available. A newly released report from NCSC, supported with funding from the State Justice Institute, adds a new number of considerable interest to state courts: 277. That’s the number of provisions in the U.S. Code---the body of laws adopted by the United States Congress—that ask state courts to take specific action (or to not take actions) with respect to federal matters, according to this new report.

The report is called The Role of the State Courts in our Federal System, and with it NCSC has undertaken a comprehensive cataloguing of where affirmative obligations have been imposed on the state courts through federal laws. “By collecting express statutory mandates, this study identifies situations in which Congress itself is the entity imposing obligations” on the state courts, notes the report. The research was carried out by law students at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law with guidance and supervision from law professors and NCSC experts.

Another noteworthy finding: the range of federal subjects in which state courts have been involved by Congress. They vary from national defense to foreign relations, from child welfare to crime control, all the way through to land and water management and conservation. Those 277 provisions are spread across 36 titles in the Code.

The Role of the State Courts in our Federal System also notes that it’s not just where Congress directs state courts to take action that matters. The report highlights that state courts play a major role in the interpretation of federal law through the principle of concurrency, which essentially means that state courts have jurisdiction over federal claims, including constitutional claims, unless Congress specifically says they do not. “It is important,” the report notes, “to recognize that state courts have for over two hundred years been promoting and carrying out federal interests even in the absence of any statutory command.”

The researchers suggest that there is more to learn: more insight is needed into federal agency regulations, policy statements, and other pronouncements beyond statutes. Another potential avenue for future study could look when the 277 provisions were enacted, to determine “whether any significant correlations exist with respect to congressional attention to state courts over time.”

Indiana justice urges local leaders to work together to address mental health issues

Indiana Supreme Court Associate Justice Christopher Goff, speaking last month at the National Association of Counties’ Legislative Conference, said local government leaders must collaborate with state court judges and others to solve the problems associated with defendants who suffer from mental illness and find themselves in the court system.

Justice Goff said state court judges nationwide have been urged to convene their community stakeholders to work on these problems, none larger than defendants languishing in jails while they await hearings on whether they’re competent to stand trial.

“We know we are late to the party,” he said.  “You and your constituents have been dealing with these issues for a long time.  But we are here now and, in the spirit of humility and in the spirit of optimism, we ask you to share with us your ideas as to how we can better serve you and better serve the communities we share.”

The national association, known as NACo, assigned a liaison to the National Judicial Task Force to Examine State Court’s Response to Mental Illness, an initiative to create a framework to help solve these problems.

Justice Goff urged his audience to use the resources provided by the task force.