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Article III judicial power, the adverse-party requirement, and non-contentious jurisdiction.

INTRODUCTION

  I. NON-CONTENTIOUS PROCEEDINGS IN THE FEDERAL COURTS
     A. Government Benefits
        1. Naturalization Proceedings
        2. Revolutionary War Pension Claims and Hayburn's Case
        3. Remission and Mitigation of Forfeitures
     B. Transfers of Property
        1. Prize and Salvage Cases
        2. Trademark Seizure Orders
     C. Bankruptcy
        1. Initial Appointment
        2. Administrative Fees
        3. Contract and Plan Approval
     D. Government Investigations
        1. Warrant Applications
        2. FISA Warrants
        3. Administrative Subpoenas
        4. Immunized Testimony
     E. Prisoner Litigation
     F. Public and Private Dispute Resolution
        1. Default Judgments
        2. Uncontested Equity Receiverships
        3. Consent Decrees
        4. Guilty Pleas
        5. Crime Victims' Bights
        6. Class-Action Settlements
        7. Letters Rogatory

 II. SCHOLARLY REACTIONS TO EX PARTE AND NON-CONTENTIOUS
     PROCEEDINGS
     A. Isolated Departures and Historical Aberrations
     B. Tutun v. United States and the Possible Adversary Theory

III. CONTENTIOUS AND N 0 N-CO NTE NTIO U S JURISDICTION
     A. The Historical Pedigree of Non-Contentious Jurisdiction
        1. Roman Law
        2. The European Reception of Non-Contentious Jurisdiction
        3. Non-Contentious Jurisdiction in England and America
     B. The Adverse-Party Requirement Reconsidered
        1. Cases, Controversies, and the Judicial Power
        2. Hayburn's Case and the Lessons of History
        3. Feigned Cases and Adverse Parties

 IV. TOWARD ATHEORYOF NON-CONTENTIOUS JURISDICTION
     A. The Theory Sketched
        1. Original and Ancillary Non-Contentious Jurisdiction
        2. The Elements of Non-Contentious Jurisdiction
        3. Other Requirements for the Exercise of Non-Contentious
           Jurisdiction
     B. The Theory's Implications for the Article III Injury-in-Fact
        Requirement and Separation of Powers
     C. The Theory Applied: Judicial and Administrative Work
        1. The Distinction Between Courts and Judges
        2. The Probate Exception
        3. The Extradition Puzzle
        4. FISA Courts
        5. Administrative and Judicial Classification
           a. Circuit Judicial Councils and Docket Assignments
           b. Administrative Management of Fee Petitions
           c. The Classification Debate in Printz v. United States

CONCLUSION


INTRODUCTION

For students of federal jurisdiction, the Supreme Court's encounter with the adverse-party requirement in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) case, United States v. Windsor, was both overdue and disappointing. (1) The Court has long held that federal courts can hear only "definite and concrete" controversies that touch upon "the legal relations of parties having adverse legal interests." (2) But the Court has failed to provide a coherent account of this "adverse-party requirement" or of how such a requirement can coexist with a variety of nonadverse or ex parte proceedings that have worked their way onto the docket of the federal courts. Since the 1790s, Congress has assigned pension claims, naturalization proceedings, and a surprisingly broad range of other matters lacking an adverse party to the federal courts. For example, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), a subject of recent controversy, requires the government to obtain an ex parte federal-court order to conduct certain kinds of electronic surveillance but makes no provision for an adverse party ever to contest the government's application. (3) Aside from a decision some ninety years ago addressing the power of the federal courts to naturalize aliens, (4) the Court has failed to wrestle with the constitutionality of non-adverse and ex parte proceedings.

Windsor, unfortunately, did little to clarify matters. Doubts as to the presence of adverseness had arisen early on, when the government insisted on enforcing DOMA but agreed with its nominal opponent, Edith Windsor, that the law violated her constitutional rights by denying her the beneficial federal tax treatment she would have received had she been the surviving spouse of a man instead of a woman. (5) Yet the opinion by Justice Kennedy for a five-justice majority announced that the federal government's agreement with Windsor did not deprive the Court of power to reach the merits. (6) For the majority, the requirement of "concrete adverseness" was a prudential element of standing doctrine, one that appropriately informed the Court's discretion but did not inflexibly compel party opposition as a jurisdictional prerequisite at every stage of every case. (7) The Court did not offer much by way of support for its conclusion that such a requirement existed or, if it did, why it might merely be a matter of prudence; the Court took no notice of the many instances in which the federal judiciary, without first consulting constitutional limitations or prudential considerations, proceeds in the absence of party adverseness. (8)

Justice Scalia's sharply worded dissent also added little to our understanding of the adverse-party requirement. To be sure, Justice Scalia viewed the rule not as a "'prudential' requirement that we have invented," but as "an essential element of an Article III case or controversy." (9) Moreover, Justice Scalia attempted to connect the adverse-party restriction to the text of Article III, placing some emphasis on the fact that the term "controversy" connotes a live dispute between opposing parties. (10) But Justice Scalia did not address the mean-meaning of Article Ill's grant of "judicial power" or of its reference to "cases"; both terms have suggested to others, including possibly Chief Justice John Marshall and Justice Joseph Story, that federal courts may do more than simply resolve disputes between adversaries. (11)

As for history, Justice Scalia depicted Article Ill's case-or-controversy limits as reflecting the traditional notions of adjudication inherited from early Americans and our "English ancestors," (12) an echo of Justice Felix Frankfurter's earlier contention that the federal judicial power extends only to the forms and actions of the English courts at Westminster. (13) This emphasis on England and the practice of the (mostly common-law) courts at Westminster, however, not only overlooks the fact that the English Court of Chancery, a non-common law court sitting at Westminster, exercised jurisdiction over certain ex parte and non-adverse matters; it also tends, in its focus on the common law, to obscure the range of alternative sources on which the Framers drew in crafting Article III. (14) It was mainly in the equity, admiralty, and probate courts of the eighteenth century, where judges rather than juries bore primary responsibility for fact-finding, that the Framers were to encounter the range of ex parte proceedings that made their way onto federal court dockets in the early Republic. (15) Justice Scalia's common-law traditionalism thus brought us little closer than did Justice Kennedy's prudentialism toward resolving the tension between the theory of the adverse-party requirement and the reality of federal court practice.

Few scholars have attempted to address the tension by exploring the textual and historical underpinnings of the adverse-party requirement. (16) Fewer still

Westminster...."); see also Willing v. Chi. Auditorium Ass'n, 277 U.S. 274, 290 (1928) (noting in Justice Brandeis's majority opinion that a resort to equity when no case or controversy existed was "a proceeding which was unknown to ... English ... courts"). have considered the requirement in light of the non-adverse practices of the federal courts. To be sure, some students of constitutional history have called attention to certain early ex parte or non-adverse proceedings that appear very much at odds with an adverse-party requirement. (17) Others have identified more modern examples of departures from our adversary ideal, such as certain actions in bankruptcy administration, consent decrees, and settlement class actions. (18) Still others have attempted to justify particular ex parte practices, such as search and arrest warrants, by highlighting the possibility that related adverse-party litigation might ensue. (19) Yet, to our knowledge, no one has conducted a comprehensive assessment of the non-adverse proceedings of the federal courts or attempted to situate them within a coherent theoretical framework. Instead of attempting to develop a theory that can account for the federal courts' willingness to hear both adverse-party disputes and non-adverse proceedings, most scholars who have confronted the issue tend to treat the non-adverse practices they discover as aberrational vestiges of an earlier day, (20) or as anomalies that have become too entrenched to question. (21)

Beneath the surface of this judicial and scholarly neglect lies a deeply ingrained set of assumptions about the adversarial character of the judicial system of the United States. In an adversary system, the parties maintain substantial control over the development of the legal issues and evidence bearing on the resolution of their dispute. Judges play a more passive role as neutral arbiters of disputes presented to them by the parties. (22) This passivity contrasts with the more active role of judges in European and other civil-law inquisitorial systems. There, judges develop the factual record of the case and enjoy some control over the legal issues to which they will most closely attend. The attorneys stay on the sidelines to some degree, particularly during the fact-finding process.

Although the contrast between the Anglo-American adversary system and the inquisitorial systems of continental Europe may be slightly overdrawn, (23) American lawyers and judges are steeped in the adversarial ideal, (24) and courts in the United States mainly continue to profess adherence to the adversarial model. (25) Indeed, one can sense that the adversary ideal has come to be per ceived as yet another feature of American exceptionalism--that is, as a deliberate departure from and improvement upon the practice of European countries of which Americans should be justly proud. (26) As Amanda Frost has noted, inquisitorial judging has become something of an "epithet among American judges," most of whom seek to avoid even a "whiff of its judge-dominated procedures." (27)

This devotion to the adversary tradition tends to encourage strong statements of the adverse-party requirement and to cast doubt on the power of federal courts to entertain ex parte and non-adverse proceedings. After all, in many of these proceedings, the courts determine petitions for recognition of a right or benefit--such as naturalized citizenship--in almost the same way as administrative agencies oversee applications for Social Security benefits or immigration status. To rule on such a petition, the judge must investigate the factual and legal justification for the relief sought, often without the appearance of an adverse party. Such uncontested proceedings present a challenge, especially for federal judges who lack the training, administrative support, and inclination to conduct their own investigations. Modern observers justifiably view such inquisitorial ex parte practices as inconsistent with the adversary ideal. Consider, for example, the thorough critique of settlement class actions offered by Martin Redish and Andrianna Kastanek. (28) The two authors argue that settlement class actions violate Article Ill's adverse-party requirement, which they view as a "logical outgrowth of the nation's commitment to an adversary system." (29) Yet, non-adverse proceedings account for a significant part of the dockets of federal courts.

In this Article, we offer a solution to the puzzle of why federal courts, limited by Article III and guided by the adversary ideal that animates so much of American procedural exceptionalism, may properly entertain ex parte and certain other non-adverse proceedings. We suggest that the answer lies in recognizing that federal courts may constitutionally exercise not one but two kinds of judicial power: power to resolve disputes between adverse parties and power to entertain applications from parties seeking to assert, register, or claim a legal interest under federal law. The first power, familiar to those practicing within an adversary system, was known in ancient Rome and to civil-law lawyers of the eighteenth century as "contentious" jurisdiction and extended to the resolution of disputes between parties. The second, less familiar power, was known in Roman and civil law as "voluntary" or "non-contentious" jurisdiction and extended to the registration of contracts, the application for legal benefits, and the recordation of a legal status or interest. Much like federal courts hearing ex parte proceedings today, Roman tribunals and the civil-law European courts that succeeded them often exercised non-contentious jurisdiction in the course of performing administrative functions on an ex parte or consensual basis. The existence of a genuine dispute between adversaries was not essential to the exercise of non-contentious jurisdiction; indeed, parties appeared before the court either alone or in openly feigned contests, seeking a decree that would legalize a transaction or help them structure their affairs.

On our view, the evidence supports an inference that the Roman-law tradition of non-contentious jurisdiction was taken up by the civilian lawyers in continental Europe and Britain, made its way to the American colonies, and came to characterize a variety of proceedings familiar to the Founding generation. Proceedings in probate and admiralty jurisdiction in England and the colonies were governed by civil law, and both proceedings featured elements of non-contentious jurisdiction. Bankruptcy proceedings, an outgrowth of estate administration by the ecclesiastical courts and courts of equity, included administrative chores that did not invariably feature adverse parties. English and Scottish law books in the eighteenth century described the difference between contentious and non-contentious jurisdiction. (30) Even Blackstone's Commentaries described non-contentious forms of practice, distinguishing "voluntary" from "contentious" jurisdiction in the probate of wills and granting of administration. (31) Justices of the peace, the workhorses of eighteenth- and nineteenthcentury American adjudication, resolved disputes and handled a range of legislative and administrative chores at the county level. (32) All these forms of noncontentious jurisdiction were part of the complex and cosmopolitan legal world in which the lawyers of the Framers' generation practiced law, and many of these forms found their way onto the dockets of the first federal courts.

Evidence from the early Republic also suggests that the Framers viewed the judicial power with which Article III courts were invested as encompassing the exercise of non-contentious jurisdiction. Article III extends the judicial power to "cases" arising under federal law and to "controversies" between specified parties. (33) Whereas the latter term connotes a dispute between opposed parties (and does much of the textual work in arguments for an adverse-party requirement), the former term has proved more elusive. Some scholars have argued, despite the tendency of the Supreme Court to conflate the two terms, that the term "case" confers a broader power than simply that of dispute resolution. (34) Non-contentious jurisdiction may partly explain why the Framers chose to distinguish between cases and controversies in Article III. As we argue below, the term "case" includes not just disputed adverse claims, but also certain petitions brought on an ex parte basis by a party seeking to assert claims within the bounds of the law. Indeed, such early exponents of federal jurisdiction as Chief Justice Marshall and Justice Story defined the term "case" capaciously enough to include ex parte submissions, thereby giving voice to a principled distinction between such "cases," on the one hand, and "controversies" arising between adverse parties and subject to federal diversity jurisdiction, on the other. (35)

The insight that the federal court system can consciously exercise both contentious and non-contentious jurisdiction without violating constitutional strictures or historical norms strikes us as surprisingly useful but profoundly unsettling. On the useful side of the ledger, the recognition of non-contentious judicial power provides a novel solution to a serious problem of coherence in the workaday world of the Article III judiciary by explaining how federal courts can hear both adversary disputes and certain ex parte and non-adverse proceedings. The proposed dual-power solution also fits well with the text, structure, and history of Article III, and it nicely explains admiralty and equity practices at the time of the Framing. In addition, by formulating a theory for the ex parte matters already entertained by federal courts, we hope to provide a framework for evaluating those proceedings' compliance with necessary jurisdictional predicates.

On the other hand, few notions seem more central to our conception of Article III courts than that they serve as tribunals for the resolution of concrete disputes between adverse parties and perform their law-exposition functions best in that setting. Recognition of non-contentious jurisdiction challenges this familiar conception of the Article III judiciary and forces courts and scholars to confront the inadequacy of current doctrines, such as the adverse-party requirement and the injury-in-fact test for standing. In addition, the recognition of non-contentious jurisdiction poses a potential risk to the rights of third parties. Finally, one might worry that the formal recognition of the propriety of non-contentious jurisdiction will encourage Congress to assign new administrative chores to the federal courts, burdening them with matters that that they are not institutionally equipped to adjudicate or that could be better handled by administrative agencies and other non-Article III actors.

In putting forward a theory of non-contentious jurisdiction, we propose to achieve greater coherence without calling for a dramatic transformation of the work of the Article III judiciary. We therefore suggest that the federal courts maintain a distinction between their contentious and non-contentious jurisdiction. On the contentious side, federal courts should continue to insist, in the main, on concrete disputes between genuine adversaries. (36)

On the non-contentious side, we develop a set of guidelines to which federal courts should adhere as they entertain the administrative or ex parte matters that Congress has assigned to them. They should, for example, continue to apply elements, some familiar, some adapted, of the case-or-controversy rule and of standing doctrine. Thus, while no adverse party need appear in non-contentious proceedings, federal courts should exercise jurisdiction only if the party invoking federal power has a concrete interest in the recognition of a legal claim. In a revision of the traditional standing test, courts should decide a question of law only if the party's entitlement to recognition of the right sought necessarily turns on resolution of that question. The courts also should exercise non-contentious jurisdiction only where they have been called upon to employ judicial judgment in the application of law to the facts and only where their decisions will enjoy the finality long viewed as essential to the federal judicial role. The courts must be especially mindful of the potential for cases heard on the non-contentious side of their dockets to affect the rights of absent parties, and due process will continue to require that third parties receive notice of, and an opportunity to participate in, matters that concern them. We derive these guidelines from practice and use them to review, critique, and refine the exercise of non-contentious jurisdiction in the courts of the United States.

We begin in Part I with a catalog of the ex parte and other non-contentious matters that have been assigned to federal dockets. Part II shows that scholars have not sufficiently accounted for the appearance of these proceedings, even as the Supreme Court has quietly validated them as proper objects of judicial power. Part III proposes to reconcile theory and practice, offering a historical account of contentious and non-contentious judicial power and suggesting that both modes of proceeding were proper subjects of federal judicial cognizance. In particular, Part III shows that non-contentious jurisdiction made an early appearance in federal practice in the United States in the form of naturalization, pension, warrant, and other applications and helps to explain the distinction between "cases" and "controversies" as used in Article III. (37) Part IV develops our theory of non-contentious jurisdiction, proposing a further distinction between what we call "original" and "ancillary" non-contentious proceedings and setting forth guidelines for their adjudication. Part IV also examines the broad range of puzzles that our theory can help to solve. We show that the concept of non-contentious jurisdiction assists in the evaluation of current ex parte practices; provides a new understanding of the injury-in-fact requirement; better defines and limits the "probate exception" to federal jurisdiction; and helps to clarify the contested boundaries between judicial, administrative, and ministerial work.

I. NON-CONTENTIOUS PROCEEDINGS IN THE FEDERAL COURTS

Scholars and jurists widely accept the proposition that the federal judicial power can be exercised only when a court is presented with a concrete dispute between parties possessed of adverse legal interests. (38) This "adverse-party requirement" complements other justiciability doctrines that limit the constitutional or prudential jurisdiction of federal courts, such as finality, standing, mootness, and the prohibitions on issuing advisory opinions and addressing political questions. (39) Many believe that the adverse-party requirement serves to circumscribe the role of federal courts by preventing them from interfering with the prerogatives of the states and of the political branches of the federal government unless required to do so by the presence of a live dispute. (40) Adverseness is also said to protect the interests of absent third parties and to enable courts to make decisions with the benefit of a full record and a comprehensive understanding of the arguments bearing upon questions implicated by the case. (41) Indeed, the Supreme Court has treated decisions rendered without full adversarial briefing as entitled to less precedential weight than decisions rendered on fully developed records. (42)

But the adverse-party requirement sits uneasily with the reality of federal judicial practice. In fact, since their establishment, federal courts have entertained a wide variety of ex parte and other proceedings lacking an adverse party and have consistently upheld the judicial role in such proceedings against challenges to their propriety under Article III of the Constitution. Moreover, non-contentious proceedings often call upon the courts to exercise core judicial functions, such as fact-finding, the determination of questions of law, and the application of the law to the facts of the case. (43) To provide a sense of the sheer scope of the gap between the adverse-party requirement in theory and the diverse reality of federal court practice, the sections that follow catalog many of the non-contentious proceedings overseen by the Article III judiciary. (44) As we will see, some non-contentious matters begin with an original application for relief, while others unfold in proceedings ancillary to a dispute between parties with opposing interests.

A. Government Benefits

We begin with ex parte court proceedings as a method for the determination of government benefit claims in the early Republic. (45) Congress apparently chose to rely on the federal courts to hear such claims in part because of the absence of the sort of federal administrative apparatus available today. Aside from the postal service, customs collectors, district attorneys, marshals, and lighthouse keepers, early Congresses had little administrative capacity at their disposal (46) and understandably turned to the federal courts to evaluate benefit claims.

1. Naturalization Proceedings

Applications for citizenship appeared on federal dockets shortly after the adoption of the nation's first naturalization statute in 1790. The 1790 Act provided for an applicant to submit a petition for naturalization to "any common law court of record." (47) This formulation was broad enough to encompass both state and federal courts, and federal judges issued naturalization judgments under its authority; (48) later, the 1795 Act expressly conferred concurrent authority on the state, lower federal, and territorial courts to entertain naturalization petitions. (49) Along with the petition, the applicant was required to submit evidence sufficient to satisfy the court of the applicant's good character and residence in the United States. (50) Assuming the applicant made these showings, the Act called upon the "court," not the judge, to administer an oath in which the applicant pledged to support the Constitution. (51) Finally, the Act provided for the clerk to record the application and the proceedings, memorializing the court's conclusion. (52) The Act made no provision for the prospective citizen to name the government (or its officers) as an opposing party. Nor did it specifically allow for the government to intervene or seek the cancellation of a naturalization judgment. (53)

The failure to require or even provide for the appearance of an adverse party does not appear to have raised doubts in the minds of legislators or judges as to the judicial nature of the naturalization proceeding. Indeed, the Act's referral of these matters to "courts of record" tends to underscore their judicial quality. Courts of record enjoyed a special status in Anglo-American law: they conducted open proceedings on "court" days, (54) and their judgments, part of the court's formal record, were considered conclusive unless modified through some special proceeding. (55) The Supreme Court has long treated the ex parte consideration of naturalization petitions as an appropriate exercise of judicial power. In Ex parte Fitzbonne, an unreported decision from 1800, the district court resolved an issue of law that had arisen in a naturalization proceeding, namely, whether a statutory prohibition on the naturalization of citizens of a country at war with the United States applied to French citizens during the quasi-war with France. (56) The district court decided that the countries were at war, and Alexander Dallas, the Court's reporter and the attorney for the petitioners, sought review by petitioning the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus. (57) The Court agreed to hear the matter and ordered the district court to proceed with the naturalization proceeding, apparently concluding that French citizens were eligible for naturalization in the federal courts. (58)

2. Revolutionary War Pension Claims and Hayburn's Case (59)

The oft-told story of Hayburn's Case begins in 1792, when Congress assigned the federal circuit courts responsibility for reviewing the pension applications of disabled war veterans. (60) The statute called for the claimant to file a petition with the court, along with supporting evidence of military service, rank, and related information. (61) The statute did not, however, require the veterans to join the government as an opposing party. In passing on these petitions, the circuit courts were to conduct a physical examination of the veteran, assess the extent of the injury, and prepare an opinion as to the degree of disability and the proper compensation. (62) The court's decision, together with the veteran's supporting evidence, were to be forwarded to the Secretary of War for review. (63) Assuming there was no "imposition or mistake"--as adjudged by the Secretary and reviewed by Congress--the petitioner would be added to the pension list for submission to Congress. (64) Hayburn's Case reports that three circuit courts rejected the pension scheme, in part because the Secretary's revision power rendered the courts' decisions non-final, and in part for reasons that have been the cause of frequent speculation. (65)

3. Remission and Mitigation of Forfeitures

Tucked away in the history of revenue collection in the early Republic, a curious provision for the mitigation or remission of penalties and forfeitures appears to blur the lines of separation between the departments of government. The revenue laws of 1789 imposed duties on imported goods as well as a fee on the "tonnage" of the vessels engaged in the carrying trade. (66) Congress assigned collection of these taxes to a group of federal collectors, surveyors, and naval officers, all appointed by the President to work one of many revenue districts along the coast. (67) The revenue laws imposed strict rules of transparency: merchants involved in the import business were obliged to declare the goods they proposed to import and to pay the specified duties. (68) If they failed to do so, or if they attempted to smuggle goods into port, they were subject to fines and penalties enforced by the admiralty courts. (69) Most dramatically, informers were encouraged to bring suit for violations of the revenue laws against the offending vessels, seeking a forfeiture of ship and cargo for the use of the United States. (70) Informers were entitled to keep a portion of the value of any forfeited property. (71)

Concerned with the relative harshness of these punishments, Congress adopted legislation in 1790 that conferred power on the Secretary of the Treasury to mitigate or remit penalties and forfeitures. (72) These powers came into play when, in the Secretary's opinion, the violation had occurred without "wilful negligence or any intention of fraud." (73) The decision was to be made on the basis of a record assembled by the federal judge in the district where the forfeiture occurred. (74) To apply for relief from the forfeiture, the petitioning party was required to submit a petition for remission to the district court, along with a statement of the pertinent "circumstances." (75) Upon submission, the district judge was directed to notify interested parties, conduct a summary (that is, non-jury) inquiry into the matter, and attach a statement of the facts to the petition for transmission to the Secretary. (76) Although interested parties (usually, the customs officers who had a financial interest in the proceeds) could appear, their presence was not required; the district judge could proceed to assemble a factual record even where no adverse party came forward to contest the petition for remission. (77) As with naturalization petitions, federal courts have treated petitions for remission or mitigation as falling within the judicial power of the United States. (78)

B. Transfers of Property

The federal courts also exercised jurisdiction over ex parte and non-contentious transfers of property. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before the advent of contemporary due process protections, (79) in rem proceedings in probate and admiralty were commonly brought in English and American courts to secure a transfer of title to property that was regarded, in the colorful parlance of the day, as binding on "all the world." (80) Often, these in rem proceedings began and even continued on an ex parte basis. Probate in the "common form" began with an application for the admission of a will to probate by the party named as the will's administrator. (81) Similarly, the captors of a vessel claimed as prize would initiate proceedings by filing a petition (or "libel") with the admiralty court. (82) While the probate and admiralty courts welcomed the appearance of adverse parties, the court's power to transfer title in the property did not depend on their presence. (83) It was possible, therefore, that an ex parte disposition could foreclose the claims of interested parties who had not received any personal notice of the pendency of the proceeding. (84) Yet the courts nonetheless took the position that such dispositions were conclusive judgments, binding in the absence of fraud. (85)

l. Prize and Salvage Cases

Although the "probate exception" kept--and keeps--most personal estate proceedings out of the federal courts, (86) federal courts sitting in admiralty possessed a considerable docket of often non-contentious property transfer actions in the form of prize and salvage cases. Prize claims were a commonplace of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century seagoing warfare; governments authorized both the officers of their navies and certain duly licensed privateers to intercept and claim as prize the merchant ships and naval vessels of opposing nations. (87) The administration of prize claims occupied the lion's share of the dockets of the colonial vice-admiralty courts and, later, of the state admiralty courts and the federal Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture under the Articles of Confederation and the federal admiralty courts of the early Republic. (88) Salvage was awarded to a crew that helped to save a stranded or damaged vessel or re-took a friendly ship that the enemy had claimed as prize. (89)

Much like probate proceedings, prize and salvage claims began with the ex parte submission of a petition (again, here called a "libel") to the proper court, seeking an order that would institute the condemnation process, an inquisitorial process--characteristic of admiralty proceedings--in which the court would demand all of the ship's records and issue commissions to take deposition testimony from those involved in the vessel's capture. (90) If, on the basis of the evidence collected, the court found that the vessel qualified as one subject to capture or salvage, the court would enter a decree authorizing the sale of the vessel and its cargo. (91) The legal effect of prize decrees did not depend on the appearance of any opposing party, and indeed section 30 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 recognized that no adverse party might even be named; (92) on many occasions, presumably, the captured vessel was so obviously a good prize that no one bothered to contest the fact. But the court would nonetheless proceed to decree in such a case. (93)

While the task of administering probate estates fell to the state courts, federal courts were assigned jurisdiction over claims of prize and capture. (94) Rules of procedure promulgated by the First Congress declared that "civil law" process was to govern proceedings in federal courts of admiralty (as well as in suits brought in equity). (95) Federal courts sitting in admiralty accordingly followed the inquisitorial model customary of admiralty proceedings in English and continental civil-law courts, decreeing good prize and ordering the sale of captured vessels. (96) Given the widespread view that such matters of prize and capture were proper subjects of federal adjudication, no one appears to have raised doubts about the power of the federal courts to adopt an inquisitorial model or to entertain the proceedings on an ex parte basis. (97) Indeed, providing dispositive legal decrees regarding naval captures played a crucial role in national defense and international relations in the early Republic, (98) and the fact that this task was assigned to federal district courts sitting in admiralty (as it was assigned to the admiralty courts in England) suggests that the Framers expected the federal courts to play a role in the administration of law beyond mere dispute resolution.

2. Trademark Seizure Orders

Although prize cases have fallen by the wayside, Congress has relied on federal courts to exercise similar functions in contemporary forfeiture proceedings. In 1984, for example, Congress amended the Lanham Act to authorize federal courts to issue ex parte seizure warrants aimed at the sellers of goods infringing on a valid trademark. (99) Exercising this power, federal courts have issued broad ex parte seizure orders authorizing the owners of a trademark to take counterfeit goods off the market in the days surrounding major events. (100)

The statute contemplates post-seizure proceedings during which the target of the seizure order may contest the order (101) and provides for the award of compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys' fees in cases of wrongful seizure. (102) But many such seizures are never contested. A close student of the practice reports that many successful trademark owners use the seizure order simply to get the counterfeit goods off the street and never pursue claims for damages against the sellers of the offending goods (who also never show up to claim them). (103)

C. Bankruptcy

The administration of an estate by courts exercising equitable powers has long featured a combination of both adverse and non-adverse proceedings. (104) One can see this combination reflected in the wide range of familiar forms of estate administration, including the probate matters discussed above, equity receiverships, equitable trust supervision, and federal bankruptcy. (105) Although these forms have evolved in different directions, they apparently spring from common roots in the civil or canon law, and all feature administrative and ex parte elements in addition to formal adverse-party disputes. (106)

l. Initial Appointment

Most estate proceedings begin with a petition that commences the administrative process through the appointment of an individual who will bear a fiduciary obligation to manage the affairs of the estate. (107) The names of these fiduciaries vary: trustees oversee estates, including those in bankruptcy; administrators conduct intestate successions; guardians serve on behalf of minors; receivers manage an equitable receivership; and executors handle the probate of wills and the distribution of the testators' property. (108)

Petitions for judicial involvement may be contested, but they need not be contested in order for the court to begin the proceeding and appoint a fiduciary. In bankruptcy, for example, the submission of an uncontested or voluntary petition may be filed in the absence of any dispute and will initiate the proceeding and occasion the creation of a bankruptcy estate. (109) In such an uncontested proceeding, the court has the power to distribute the non-exempt assets (if any) among the creditors. (110) If there are no assets, and no creditors appear, the court nonetheless has power to provide the debtor with a discharge (and fresh start). (111)

2. Administrative Fees

The judicial administration of bankruptcy cases often entails the issuance of orders approving the payment of administrative fees. (112) Fees may be due to the trustee or to professional advisors (lawyers, investment managers, and accountants) hired to assist with the estate's management and may generally be paid from the estate if "reasonable." (113) In many situations, no party to the estate's administration has an incentive to contest these fees." (114) Perhaps as a result, bankruptcy law holds that the court has an independent duty to examine the fees, even in the absence of a specific challenge." (115) In some respects, the dynamic surrounding the approval of such fees resembles the dynamic triggered by a proposed settlement of a class action and raises similar concerns." (116)

3. Contract and Plan Approval

During the course of bankruptcy proceedings, courts grant formal approval to a variety of business decisions by debtors-in-possession that are agreed to in advance by interested parties. (117) For example, the parties may wish to adopt a pre-petition contract that has been profitable for the debtor and the bankruptcy estate. (118) In such a situation, the federal bankruptcy code requires the court to approve the contract before it can be given legal effect. (119) In addition, court approval of the debtor's reorganization plan requires satisfaction of a laundry list of conditions. (120) The court must hold a hearing on the plan's confirmation and take evidence and make findings on each item, regardless of whether the item has "been placed in issue by the parties." (121)

D. Government Investigations

In a variety of situations, the government must secure the approval of the federal judiciary before completing one or more phases of its investigatory process, such as conducting a search or seizure or issuing a subpoena. We summarize these proceedings in this section, recognizing that the rule of prior judicial approval does not apply to warrants and subpoenas issued under the aegis of grand jury proceedings (which have themselves been described as operating on an inquisitorial, rather than an adversarial, model). (122)

l. Warrant Applications

The Fourth Amendment assumes that courts and magistrates will conduct ex parte proceedings in the course of evaluating arrest and search warrants. The well-thumbed terms of the Amendment prohibit "unreasonable searches and seizures" and further declare that "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation." (123) Although scholars debate the meaning of the Warrant Clause and its connection to the ban on unreasonable searches, (124) and although the Court has tugged and pulled at the Clause over time, (125) key features seem relatively clear for our purposes. First, jurisprudence regarding the Warrant Clause contemplates the submission of an application to a "neutral and detached magistrate," typically in an ex parte proceeding in which a government officer offers sworn testimony in support of the proposed warrant. (126) Second, the issuance of a warrant had genuine legal consequences at common law, in that a lawful warrant immunized an officer who stayed within its bounds and the bounds of the law from subsequent civil liability. (127)

In the early Republic, representatives of all three branches of government appear to have presumed that warrant applications were proper in Article III courts, as when Congress authorized "any court of the United States" to hear warrant proceedings to enforce Alexander Hamilton's 1791 federal excise tax on distilled spirits, which for obvious reasons did not provide for advance notice to the warrant's target. (128) Consider also the affair of Captain Barre, a French sailor who apparently found life in the United States preferable to the vagaries of the French Revolution. (129) Under a treaty with France, the United States had agreed to arrest deserters from French vessels and deliver them to the French consul for return to their country. (130) The French consul filed papers before Judge John Laurance in the United States District Court for the District of New York, seeking a warrant for Barre's arrest following his desertion from a French ship. (131) Although the evidence tended to establish that Barre had in fact deserted, Judge Laurance refused to issue an arrest warrant until the consul produced evidence of Barre's enlistment on the ship's register or roll (as apparently contemplated in the language of the treaty). (132) The consul, lacking the specific proof demanded, sought help from the executive branch, which filed a petition for a writ of mandamus to compel Judge Laurance to issue the warrant. (133)

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court refused to issue the requested writ. (134) Reasoning that Judge Laurance had acted in a "judicial capacity," the Court said that it lacked power by way of mandamus to compel the judge to decide "according to the dictates of any judgment, but his own." (135) No one involved in the affair questioned the power of either the district court or the Supreme Court to proceed on an ex parte basis. (136)

2. FISA Warrants

Warrant proceedings remain a commonplace feature of federal judicial practice today. To be sure, much of the workaday review of applications for search and arrest warrants now falls to federal magistrates rather than to Article III judges. (137) But Article III courts continue to assess ex parte warrant applications in other areas. In the much-discussed context of national security, Article III foreign intelligence surveillance courts consider ex parte applications for warrants authorizing the government to conduct certain kinds of foreign surveillance. (138) Created by FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (often called the FISC) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review employ judges from the Article III judiciary who have been designated by the Chief Justice of the United States to serve for specified terms. (139) As in the case of warrant proceedings associated with the 1791 excise tax, FISA makes no provision for notice to the targets of the application and provides them with no opportunity to contest the showing made in support of the warrant. The government presents its case for surveillance in a closed-door, ex parte proceeding. (140) In the event the FISC rejects the warrant application, FISA permits the government to appeal on an ex parte basis without joining an adverse party. (141)

Both the ex parte proceedings before FISA courts and the ex parte trademark seizure proceedings before federal district courts described in Part I.B.2 have been criticized for failing to satisfy the adverse-party requirement of Article III. One prominent early critic of the FISC, Laurence Silberman, later a judge on the D.C. Circuit, argued to Congress that the secret, non-adversarial character of its proceedings is inconsistent with Article Ill's case-or-controversy requirement. (142) And a district court, ruling before the practice was codified in 1984, held that ex parte trademark seizure applications suffered from the same defect. (143) As we shall see in Part II, some jurists have relied on the possibility of post-warrant litigation in arguing that ex parte warrant proceedings satisfy the adverse-party requirement; depending on the circumstances, the party seeking the warrant might institute criminal proceedings against the target or the target might seek civil damages in tort.

3. Administrative Subpoenas

On occasion, federal courts serve as adjuncts to enforce discovery occurring in non-Article III tribunals or initiated in the course of administrative investigations. The organic statutes of many administrative agencies include provisions authorizing the agencies to invoke the subpoena power of the federal courts in connection with their efforts to compel the production of evidence and testimony by regulated parties. (144) In 1887, Supreme Court Justice Field, riding circuit, held in In re Pacific Railway Commission that federal courts have no power to play this adjunct role. (145) For Justice Field, the business of issuing a subpoena was a distinctly judicial function to be undertaken by the federal courts only in service of proceedings before the courts themselves. (146) Administrative and legislative investigations were to be conducted without the aid of federal courts, (147) in keeping with Justice Field's belief that the federal courts were barred from acting as administrative assistants to coordinate departments. (148) Ultimately, however, the Supreme Court rejected Justice Field's view and upheld the federal courts' role in issuing and enforcing subpoenas to further an agency's investigation. (149)

4. Immunized Testimony

When a witness claims her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, she triggers a mechanism that allows the government to grant her immunity and compel her to testify. (150) Building on an approach first adopted in 1954 to regulate immunized testimony in the national security arena, (151) Congress in 1970 created a three-step mechanism in which the witness claims the privilege, the prosecutor or other government attorney procures from higher-ups in Washington, D.C., a statement as to the importance of the testimony, and the federal district court then enters an order granting the requested immunity. (152) In many instances, the parties do not disagree: the witness and the government both prefer that the grant of immunity be extended, and no one opposes the result. (153) Therefore, a number of commentators once questioned the constitutionality of the judicial role in such proceedings, arguing that the absence of any case or controversy deprived courts of the power to issue the immunity orders. (154) In Ullmann v. United States, the Supreme Court rejected the claim that no case or controversy existed. (155) Although the decision triggered a spirited dissent, no Justices questioned the majority's conclusion as to the power of the federal courts to pass on an uncontested application for the grant of immunity. (156)

E. Prisoner Litigation

Prisoners often contest the fact or duration of their imprisonment, the conditions in which they have been confined, or, in death penalty cases, the manner in which their execution will be conducted. Both the nature of these challenges and procedural hurdles enacted by Congress to regulate them frequently give rise to ex parte proceedings in the federal courts. The familiar petition for a writ of habeas corpus, for example, displays some non-contentious features. (157) Although the prisoner obviously has an interest adverse to the interest of the custodian detaining him, petitions for habeas corpus begin in an ex parte manner, and a court hearing the petition may reject it even before demanding that the custodian file a return to the writ specifying the cause of confinement. (158) Similarly, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (159) requires the federal district court to screen a complaint in a civil action in which a prisoners plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis and to dismiss any claim that is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. (160) Still another example is the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), (161) which provides that a habeas petitioner seeking to appeal from the district court's denial of habeas relief must first obtain a certificate of appealability (COA) from a "circuit justice or judge" but does not require the return of an adverse party. (162)

Despite the initial absence of an adverse party in all such proceedings, federal courts are entitled to hear ex parte habeas applications as a prelude to the determination of the merits. (163) On appeal, however, matters grow more complex. (164) In Hohn v. United States, the petitioner sought a COA as a prelude to pursuing review of his conviction for use of a firearm in violation of federal law. (165) When the application was denied, he sought review in the Supreme Court. (166) Invoicing the habeas cases and other examples, the Court ruled that his ex parte application for a COA was a "case" in the court of appeals within the meaning of its statutory grant of certiorari jurisdiction. (167)

Justice Scalia wrote a vigorous dissent, anticipating in certain respects his dissent in Windsor. Justice Scalia viewed the application for a COA as a threshold proceeding, separate from the dispute on the merits as to the propriety of habeas relief, and he evaluated its justiciability by seeking elements of adverse-party litigation:
   An application for a COA, standing alone, does not have the
   requisite qualities of a legal "case" under any known definition.
   It does not assert a grievance against anyone, does not seek remedy
   or redress for any legal injury, and does not even require a
   "party" on the other side. It is nothing more than a request for
   permission to seek review. (168)


For Justice Scalia, the COA did not seek to "remedy" any harm; instead, it operated only as a "threshold procedural requirement that a petitioner must meet in order to carry his [section] 2255 suit to the appellate stage." (169) As a result, the application for a COA did not constitute a "case" in the court of appeals within the meaning of the provision for certiorari review. (170)

The Court's intriguing response to Justice Scalia distinguished administrative work from judicial work. Citing United States v. Ferreira and Gordon v. United States, the Court acknowledged that it had previously refused to exercise appellate jurisdiction over decisions of lower courts that it viewed as administrative or legislative, rather than judicial, in character. (171) But petitions for COAs were different:
   Decisions regarding applications for certificates of appealability,
   in contrast, are judicial in nature. It is typical for both parties
   to enter appearances and to submit briefs at appropriate times and
   for the court of appeals to enter a judgment and to issue a mandate
   at the end of the proceedings, as happened here. (172)


The Court evaluated the judicial quality of COA applications in part by identifying characteristics that they share with adverse-party proceedings, such as the appearance of opposing parties and the submission of adversarial briefing. Importantly, the Court also focused in part on the extent to which COA applications call upon the court of appeals to act within the usual forms of judicial proceedings, such as by entering a judgment and issuing a mandate. (173)

F. Public and Private Dispute Resolution

1. Default Judgments

Ex parte proceedings also occur in the context of the judicial resolution of disputes between adverse parties. In perhaps the most familiar example, federal courts have the power, based on longstanding practice before courts of law and equity, to enter default judgments on an ex parte basis if satisfied that the defendant has been duly served with process and that the plaintiff has a prima facie right to recover. (174) This practice has been codified in Rule (55) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (175) Rule 55 imposes some procedural safeguards, requires the district court to exercise broad inquisitorial powers to investigate the facts that bear on the proposed judgment, (176) and prohibits the court from entering the judgment unless the claim has been established through the submission of "evidence that satisfies the court." (177) But the rule does not condition the court's power to issue a judgment on party opposition.

2. Uncontested Equity Receiverships

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, with no federal bankruptcy law in place until 1898, railroads and their creditors often turned to the equity receivership to restructure their affairs. (178) In theory, the receivership was designed to protect the interests of creditors who could not otherwise enforce and collect their debts. (179) In practice, the railroads themselves often welcomed the initiation of a receivership to secure the stay of litigation triggered by such a proceeding and to secure an orderly administration and restructuring of their debts. (180)

In one such proceeding, intervening parties contested the power of the federal court to entertain "friendly" receiverships. (181) The Supreme Court found no violation of the adverse-party requirement and upheld the friendly receivership, because the party initiating the receivership had an unsatisfied demand against the railroad that was neither denied nor paid. (182) That failure to pay, the Court held, was sufficient to ground the federal trial court's jurisdiction. (183)

3. Consent Decrees

The Supreme Court also has found that the lower federal courts have the power to enter consent decrees. (184) Typically, consent decrees represent the negotiated resolution of a dispute between adverse parties. Unlike purely private settlements, however, the parties to a consent decree condition their agreement on the willingness of the district court to enter the decree as part of their settlement. The decree operates like an injunction. It specifies what the defendant can and cannot do, and it often provides the district court with continuing authority to oversee compliance with its terms, punishing or threatening with contempt those who fail to comply with the decree. (185) Although scholars have questioned the propriety of consent decrees under Article III, reasoning that the parties' agreement as to the scope of relief lacks necessary adverseness, (186) the Court's sanctioning of consent decrees remains undisturbed. (187)

4. Guilty Pleas

Government enforcement proceedings often involve federal courts in the approval of a pre-negotiated settlement between the government and the enforcement target. Consent decrees are one example of such involvement. Plea agreements, which arose some 150 years ago as a capitulation to the demands placed on criminal dockets by mass society, are another. (188) Critics identify flaws with the plea-bargaining system, (189) but most doubt that the criminal justice system can function in its absence. (190) Plea bargaining represents, in the words of federal judge Gerard Lynch, an "informal, administrative, inquisitorial process of adjudication." (191) In the typical case, the prosecutor and the defendant have agreed in advance on the sentence or its parameters in exchange for the defendant's agreement to plead guilty to a particular offense. (192) Needless to say, most guilty pleas do not occasion any adversary presentation to the court; both the prosecutor and the defense seek substantially the same disposition. But the agreement alone does not suffice to ensure the effectiveness of the plea bargain; the court must go along. (193) Thus, the agreement will not be effective unless the district court first conducts a colloquy with the defendant to ensure that the plea and associated waiver of constitutional rights were knowing and voluntary, enters a judgment of conviction on the basis of the plea, and agrees to impose a sentence consistent with the plea agreement and the sentencing guidelines. (194)

5. Crime Victims' Rights

Under the Crime Victims' Rights Act, victims of federal crimes are afforded certain rights during criminal proceedings and may assert or enforce those rights through non-contentious proceedings. (195) The statute declares that a crime victim or his representative may assert his rights by motion to the district court and further provides that, upon the denial of such motion, the victim may petition for a writ of mandamus in the court of appeals. (196) The statute does not call for the person claiming to be a victim to name an opposing party in the motion, and although the victim's status or the extent of the rights to which he is entitled might be contested by a target of the criminal proceedings or even the government, (197) the statute does not predicate the judicial role on the existence of a controversy.

6. Class-Action Settlements

Under Rule 23(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the district court must oversee and approve the terms of the settlement of any certified class action. (198) Settlement approval protocols have grown increasingly elaborate, as courts have come to recognize the threat that an inadequate settlement can pose to the interests of absentees. (199) In addition to the judicial role in approving the settlement of certified class actions, courts sometimes agree to entertain what have come to be known as "settlement class actions," disputes that were resolved by party agreement before any litigation had been instigated. (200) When the parties agree, they may simultaneously file a complaint and a proposed settlement, inviting the court to approve a resolution of the claims on terms upon which they have previously agreed. (201) Such settlement class actions pose well-known threats of collusion and self-dealing, frequently advancing "only the interests of plaintiffs' attorneys, not those of the class members." (202)

Apart from the threat to the due process rights of individual litigants, such settlement class actions have been described as violating Article Ill's adverse-party requirement. (203) Redish and Kastanek draw a sharp line between pre-certification agreements in such settlement class actions and more "traditional" post-certification settlements. (204) They defend the judicial role in post-certification settlements on the ground that the federal courts enjoy ancillary power to dispose of a whole case following a settlement that renders the claims in the case non-justiciable. (205) However, they condemn settlement class actions because the parties commence proceedings only to seek judicial approval of a pre-arranged agreement and therefore have no adverse interests giving rise to a justiciable controversy. (206)

7. Letters Rogatory

Federal courts often play an ex parte role when parties to a foreign proceeding seek discovery of facts in the United States. Under longstanding international practice, parties to litigation in one country can apply through diplomatic channels for "letters rogatory" ordering the collection of evidence in another country. (207) Today, many such evidentiary requests are handled through the Hague Evidence Convention, which the United States joined as an original signatory. (208) The Convention directs such requests to a country's designated "Central Authority" for submission to the proper court. (209) The application to a court of the United States for letters rogatory typically proceeds on an ex parte basis and may or may not lead to litigation, depending on the target's response to the discovery request. (210) If the district court agrees with the evidentiary request, it will typically appoint a commissioner to take the deposition or collect the evidence. (211) While the target's opposition to the discovery in any particular case can certainly create a measure of adverseness, many ex parte applications for letters rogatory proceed without any contest. (212)
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Title Annotation:Introduction through I. Non-Contentious Proceedings in the Federal Courts, p. 1346-1391
Author:Pfander, James E.; Birk, Daniel D.
Publication:Yale Law Journal
Date:Mar 1, 2015
Words:9518
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