Inferiority Complex: Should State Courts Follow Lower Federal Court Precedent on the Meaning of Federal Law?
The conventional wisdom is that state courts need not follow lower federal court precedent when interpreting federal law. Upon closer inspection, however, the question of how state courts should treat lower federal court precedent is not so clear. Although most state courts now take the conventional approach, a few contend that they are obligated to follow the lower federal courts, and two federal courts of appeals have declared that their decisions are binding on state courts. The Constitution’s text and structure send mixed messages about the relationship between state and lower federal courts, and the Supreme Court has never squarely addressed the matter. Remarkably, this significant question about the interplay between the state and federal judicial systems lingers unresolved more than two-hundred years after the Constitution’s ratification.
This Article uses this question to explore the relationship between state and lower federal courts. As a constitutional matter, it can be argued that state courts were intended to play a subordinate role to the lower federal courts when interpreting federal law, even if they are viewed as equals when it comes to finding facts and applying facts to law. Furthermore, Congress’s decision to create the lower federal courts, and then assign them broad federal question jurisdiction, arguably displaces state court authority to interpret federal law independently—particularly in an era in which the Supreme Court lacks the capacity to resolve many of the splits between the federal and state court systems. Finally, as a practical matter, allowing state courts to diverge from lower federal court precedent on matters of federal law can create disruptive intrastate conflicts that lead to forum shopping and can sometimes take years to resolve.
Although state courts are unlikely to reverse course and declare that they are bound by the decisions of the lower federal courts, both Congress and the Supreme Court arguably have the authority to require that they do so. The Article concludes by describing the source of these institutions’ authority over state courts, as well as the costs and benefits of requiring state courts to follow lower federal court precedent.
Professor of Law, American University Washington College of Law.