What’s Wrong with Klaxon

So earlier this morning (yesterday, Eastern Time, which apparently governs the Volokh Conspiracy), I explained why the federal government does indeed need to look in large part to state law when it tries to figure out whether a couple is married. In this post we’ll discuss another alternative solution with a goofy case name: Klaxon.”

To recap, Klaxon is a general rule for solving choice of law problems in federal court when there is no federal law involved. And the solution Klaxon provides depends on the physical location of the federal trial court where the litigation takes place. It says that the federal trial court should imagine itself as a state court in the same state, and then do whatever that state’s courts would do.

Commenter “JHW” asked, in the previous post mentioning Klaxon:

Is there a practical difference, in the marriage recognition context, between the Klaxon rule and the “federal common law” rule that the law of the domicile is controlling?

There would be, presumably, in a diversity case, if for example the spouses lived in different states. But for a couple living in the same state seeking federal recognition, it seems that applying a state’s choice-of-law rules and applying a state’s marriage recognition rules amounts to applying precisely the same set of rules. Perhaps because I’m nearly totally ignorant of this area of law, the way you’ve framed this confuses me a bit.

There is a big difference: a Klaxon rule will often pick a very different state than the parties’ domicile, because Klaxon depends entirely on what state the lawsuit is in, and federal lawsuits can often be filed in one of several different districts. (There is a legal doctrine called venue that determines what district a lawsuit can be filed in.) So a couple might live in Texas, but wish to challenge an agency action in the District of Columbia or someplace totally different.

Now, as I noted earlier, this Klaxon rule controls in federal lawsuits that are brought in diversity jurisdiction, i.e. when no federal law is involved. And several courts (though not the Supreme Court) have suggested that the rule should be extended to federal cases too. I don’t think that makes much sense.

Here’s the most important reason why. Federal law is frequently enforced and administered by the executive branch. That’s a huge amount of what administrative agencies do all day, and we expect agencies to apply federal law in a huge range of cases that will never go to court, or will only go to court years later, after the agency has hopefully gotten things pretty much right.

But the Klaxon rule and the executive branch don’t mix very well. Under the Klaxon rule, you only know what law to apply once there has been a federal lawsuit, because only then will you know in what state the district court is located. So the executive branch just has to guess where the litigation will be brought. Moreover, since the plaintiff often has a choice of several different venues, he can strategically select a venue that will produce a choice of law rule that will contradict what the executive branch did.

This isn’t a problem in the diversity jurisdiction context, because the executive branch isn’t very involved in enforcing state law. But executive branch enforcement is a big part of federal law which results in federal question jurisdiction. The fact that Klaxon doesn’t mesh with executive branch enforcement is a very important reason not to extend Klaxon to federal question cases.

By process of elimination, that means that federal courts will have to craft their own choice of law rule as a matter of so-called federal common law. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about what that rule should be.