Vail Daily column: Diversity jurisdiction in federal court
Ryan Summerlin October 2, 2012
We’ve all been taught about diversity, haven’t we? That democratic ideal of peaceful co-existence in a blissful state of harmony. But, hey, get real; this a legal column, isn’t it? To paraphrase a Tina Turner song: What’s bliss and harmony got to do with it? Well, nothing really. Sorry.
Diversity in law has not a whit to do with peaceful co-existence. Nor does it bear upon racial or ethnic distribution among the judiciary. It has not a thing to do with women breaking through the glass ceiling, nor equal opportunity to the lean, the mean, the plump, the lame, the sexually oriented or disoriented, speciation, orientation, direction, opinion, belief, commitment, crusade, cause, age, physical characteristic, or religion. Sadly, it’s more plain vanilla than that. Law is like that sometimes.
OK, we’ve exhausted what it’s not. What then is diversity in the dark, enfolded recesses of legalism? Well, welcome, neighbor, to Mr. Robbins’ neighborhood. I’m glad you came.
Diversity has to do with “jurisdiction.” Cool, huh? But what the heck is that? Stripped to its nasty underthings, “jurisdiction” is the right and power of a particular court to adjudicate a certain matter. Jurisdiction may include the geographical area in which a court has power or it may involve the type of cases the particular court is able or permitted to hear. An example of geographically-based jurisdiction might involve a dispute arising over real estate. Generally, disputes over real estate are heard and adjudicated in the county in which the real property is located. Think of it as geographical Darwinism or determinism if you like.
An example of “type”-based jurisdiction might include any of the following: Bankruptcy proceedings, water law disputes, and probate proceedings, each of which are heard in and by a particular kind of court. Respectively, these matters would be heard in bankruptcy court, water court and probate court, all of which hear and adjudicate matters only within the narrow purview of their respective jurisdictions.
Diversity is a jurisdictional thing. What it really has to do with is diversity of citizenship. Bear with me for the tiniest aside here. The word “diversity” springs from the font of the word “diverse” which simply means “different.” Without straining the mental corpuscles too much then, diversity of citizenship means “different” citizenship. In the context of these legal gymnastics anyway, “citizenship” means the state from which one hails rather than the nation of one’s inhabitance or origin. Putting it all together, then, diversity of citizenship means that the persons involved are residents of different states.
“Involved” in what, you ask? The answer is forthright; the persons involved in the lawsuit or dispute.
“Diversity,” more technically elaborated as “diversity of citizenship,” is a phrase used with reference to the jurisdiction of the federal courts which, under Article III, section 2 of the United States Constitution, extends to cases between citizens of different states. It designates the condition existing when the party on one side of a lawsuit is a citizen of one state, and the other party on the other side is a citizen of another state. It may also pertain where one party to the suit is an “alien.” No, Curiosity aside, not someone from Mars but, rather, a citizen of another nation. In other words, it is the condition existing where Mr. X sues Mr. Y, and X and Y are citizens of different states. (You’ve got to wonder, though, why lawyers always seem to speak of the participants in a lawsuit as “parties.” Where are the cocktails and canapes? And what’s so darn festive about a lawsuit anyway? Fodder for another column, I suppose).
It should be noted that diversity of citizenship is a requirement of pursuing a lawsuit in federal court. If X and Y are both citizens of the same state (say Colorado, for example), and want to butt heads in a courtroom over one thing or another, the proper place to do so is in the court of that particular state.
In order to proceed in federal court, the diversity of all parties must be “complete.” What this means is that if the lawsuit is, in fact, a group affair (say X, Y, Z, Q, R, and S all suing one another in a giant mambo of group litigation), then the citizenship of all parties must be different than that of all others (in other words, completely “diverse”).
A quickie before closing down the fork in the jurisprudential road between state and federal courts. In Robert Frost terms, one path to one courthouse or the other is always the one not taken. Suffice it to say briefly here, that unless there exists complete diversity of citizenship between the parties and the amount in dispute reaches the jurisdictional minimum of federal court, the matter must be heard in the courts of the particular state.
As to disputes between citizens of the U.S. of A., federal court exists to afford relief between the disputants without affording either a home field advantage. Where citizens of different states collide, the combustion chamber is the federal court but in order to avail oneself of federal court jurisdiction, the litigants must be diverse. Not lean or mean or plump or ethnically eclectic, rather “diverse” in the state (or states) of their respective citizenship.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his e-mail addresses, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.