When Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito joined the United States Supreme Court, most commentators predicted it would become more conservative. Indeed, many believed that the reinvigorated federalism revolution under Chief Justice Rehnquist would, if anything, become more robust under the new chief. To a large degree, those commentators were right; the Court has decided numerous hotly contested federalism cases along predictable ideological lines. But there are some important counterexamples in the Court’s federalism jurisprudence. In a list of cases about access to plaintiff-friendly state courts, the Justices seem to abandon their federalism principles. Instead, the liberal wing of the Court generally votes in favor of robust states’ rights, while the conservative wing votes to impose defendant-friendly federal rules in civil litigation or to require plaintiffs to proceed in relatively hostile federal courts.
This Article is the first to focus on the Roberts Court’s treatment of federalism in civil procedure cases and the consequences for private civil litigation. It argues that the apparent disconnect between individual Justices’ stances in procedural cases and their federalism commitments is due, at least in part, to the Justices’ understandings of the purposes for, and effectiveness of, the federal civil litigation system. By examining the Justices’ narratives about civil litigation, the Article demonstrates that even as they invoke the language of federalism, the Justices’ positions in procedural cases correlate with the civil litigation interests they seek to protect: business interests for the conservative Justices and access to justice for the liberal Justices. This Article concludes that these interests, and not federalism commitments, are far better predictors of how the Justices will decide procedural cases. Yet, the Article argues, the Court should more closely adhere to traditional conservative federalism principles in this context. Procedural jurisprudence that is deferential to states in private civil litigation is likely to create greater access to the courts and thus a more just civil litigation system.