Making a “Federal Case” Out of It

How did the saying “Making a Federal Case Out of It” come to mean ballooning a small issue into a bigger one? Its origins are clouded, but it seems to have made its first appearance around 1950. It is probably not coincidence that by the middle of the 20th century, Federal Courtswere expanding in importance, volume of cases, and the number of criminal statutes with which they had to deal.

One can point to many factors, such as the civil rights movement, murdering of civil rights workers, or smuggling moonshine during prohibition, but at the foundation, it was the changing of a “village” economy to a global economy through motor vehicles, air travel, radio, TV, and then the internet. Maybe it started with Bonnie and Clyde. In the early 20th century, a bank robber had only to race to the nearest state border and he was safe. Making bank robbery a “Federal Case” brought in the FBI, who could follow them anywhere.

A central, unifying Court like the Federal Court was also ideally suited to bring 50 different jurisdictions into the mainstream on a broad range of issues. Thus, improved racial equality could never have been forced on the old slave states without the heavy arm of the Federal Courts. How does a lone citizen stop a multi-billion dollar corporation from dumping toxic chemicals into the water table? By Making a Federal Case out of it. Unlike in state court, a judgment in Federal Court makes national ripples.

A national and a world economy brings Federal Courts more to center stage, but once a trend is started it is sometimes hard to restrain. Many Federal judges, lawyers and legislators believe that the Federal Government has gone overboard in passing so many criminal and civil laws, that the Federal Courts are overburdened, with the Feds poking into areas that have only very marginal national impact.

If a woman is injured when her Ford Pinto’s gas tank explodes on impact due to faulty design, she could simply sue Ford and win her damages. Or, she could sue in Federal Court, get the case certified as a class action, thus bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the action, and have the judgment control Ford auto design and marketing on a nationwide basis. That is “making a Federal Case” out of a single auto accident. Whether this is good or bad depends on your point of view, your politics, and ultimately upon the budget and resources of the Federal Courts.