At first glance, the rule that state courts are not bound by decisions of the lower federal courts in interpreting questions of federal law seems uncontroversial. Yet the roots of that rule are far from clear. The United States Supreme Court has not definitively stated the rule. While the majority of courts seem to adhere to the rule, a few courts have held that state courts are bound by decisions of the lower federal courts under certain circumstances. Should state courts be bound by lower federal court decisional law? If not, should they nonetheless follow precedent from the circuit in which they sit as a prudential matter? This paper will begin by examining the closest thing we have to definitive authority regarding the rule—affirmative statements by individual justices of the United States Supreme Court. If it were to be held that state courts are required to follow lower federal court precedent, the source of such a doctrine would have to be the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution. Thus, the paper will give a very brief overview of the Supremacy Clause and the institution of judicial review. It will then proceed to examine four arguments for and against the rule, taking into account some of the unique federalism concerns that arise in this area. Next, the paper will examine New Mexico case law in order to conduct a practical study of how state courts deal with circuit precedent on questions of federal law. In doing so, the paper will pose the question of whether there are certain areas of substantive federal law in which state courts should give greater deference than usual to the opinions of the lower federal courts.
University of New Mexico School of Law
Bumgarner-Kirby, Quinn. "Should State Courts be Required to Follow the Decisions of Lower Federal Courts when Interpreting Questions of Federal Law?." (2005). https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/law_studentscholarship/10