Challenges to federal court subject matter jurisdiction enjoy exceptional treatment: They resist procedural regulation, they are immune to waiver, and they may be raised at any time during a case, even by the party who invoked the federal court’s jurisdiction in the first instance. Such treatment is said to arise from the limited nature of federal judicial power. Nevertheless, the current ability to raise jurisdictional challenges—however and whenever—proves to be a comparatively recent development. During the early Republic, the federal courts were governed by a highly formalized common-law pleading regime that constricted the time and manner of jurisdictional objections, that embraced a robust notion of waiver, and that created disincentives to challenging jurisdiction. The result was that federal courts heard cases in which the pleadings may have suggested subject matter jurisdiction but in which jurisdiction was lacking in fact. Mid-nineteenth century developments associated with code pleading brought an increased focus on jurisdictional facts, and the Reconstruction Congress provided greater opportunities for jurisdictional challenges than those available at common law. But it was not until the mid-1930’s that the Supreme Court fully articulated the modern notion that jurisdictional defects could be raised in any manner and at any time—a notion that was soon embodied in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This underexplored history of pleading and jurisdiction—particularly that of the early Republic—suggests understandings of the federal courts’ limited jurisdiction that may be in tension with current views. It may also offer possibilities for (as well as limits on) procedural reform aimed at restricting the currently open-ended ability to raise jurisdictional challenges in federal court.
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