17 May 2004

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the [Federal] Forum

Ernie the Attorney posted some interesting thoughts from a friend of his on choosing where to file suit. I agree with his friend's conclusion: a plaintiff is often, and perhaps even most of the time, better off in federal rather than state court. Ernie reports that his friend points to (1) the illusory nature of the "big verdict," (2) the probable need to defend that "big verdict" on appeal, and (3) the "quicker" result in federal courts. Ernie's friend was pointing to Jones Act (death/injury of seamen) cases; but I think he's right in more cases and for broader reasons.

Admittedly, most of my actual litigation experience is in federal courts. I am more comfortable there with the rules themselves. It is not just a question of speed, although that is certainly an issue. The discovery and evidence rules in federal court are far more flexible and better-understood than those of just about any state court system, particularly when one is "out of town counsel." To begin with, the defendant in most matters in which I am involved is not in the plaintiff's home forum. That means going to the defendant's forum to get jurisdiction, or getting jurisdiction elsewhere the hard way and then having trouble enforcing discovery requests — especially once a third party is involved. Consider, for example, a suit alleging that Publisher X made certain derivative rights sales, but did not inform the author of or pay the author his/her share for those sales. The purchaser of those rights is a relevant party; what if the purchaser is in a different place?

Perhaps the most important general advantage of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, though, is that they go a great deal farther toward levelling the playing field between small firm/solo practitioners and big firms and insurance companies. A local example might be helpful here. In Illinois, each side may move once to change the judge, so long as it's early enough in the matter. Typically, an insurance/defense firm will make such a motion the day before motions to dismiss or answers are due, thereby delaying the matter by at least sixty days. That does not necessarily change the due date for motions; but it does change the way those motions will be considered, almost always to the plaintiff's detriment. In the rare instance in which Goliath is suing David, Goliath will do so with the same timing just to disrupt the defendant's ability to answer/file motions. Further, this creates some rather disturbing "judge-shopping" situations, particularly outside of the Chicago area.

Virtually every state has some nature of similarly arcane, "home-team-favoring" procedural rules. Perhaps the most egregious of these are the "local counsel" requirements. Although the text of the rules may be similar in state and federal courts, the federal courts tend to be much more open to pro hac vice (for one matter only) admissions, especially at the appellate stage. I have voiced my opposition before to states erecting what amounts to a duty upon the interstate movement of legal services with their moronic "home practice" provisions; and I'm being polite for the sake of civil conversation. In less-polite terms, I might use exceptionally foul language and point to particular instances I have observed in which maintenance of a local monopoly based only on historical accident, and not on either competence of counsel or protection of the parties' right to select counsel, formed the foundation for such barriers. I might even name names. I might even question whether those attorneys who engage in such protectionism are violating the Rules or Code of Professional Conduct, and possibly the Sixth Amendment. But, as a solo practitioner, my voice means nothing to the bar regulatory authorities or voluntary bar associations, so I won't bother. Too much.

In any event, there is a final, and to me compelling, reason for choosing federal court over state court: the quality of the decisionmaking. There are some very fine state-court judges and law clerks in this country; there are some very poor federal-court judges and law clerks in this country. On the average, though, the federal-court judges and their clerks are more sophisticated and better educated than their state-court counterparts. This is almost always to the advantage of David, and not Goliath, because the judges and clerks are that much more likely to question large-firm/insurance defense "conclusions" that appear based more on the (literal) weight of the evidence than upon good reasoning. Further, the reversal rate is somewhat lower; and, even when David loses, that provides some closure for poor David.

Of course, some of this is also influenced by the fact that most of my work has, or at least implicates, federal law, sometimes with exclusive federal jurisdiction (see 28 U.S.C. § 1338). Since federal courts are not bound by state-court interpretations of federal law, but the state courts are bound by federal interpretations of federal law, this is just another layer of uncertainty that I would prefer to evade.