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An Erie Silence: Erie Guesses and Their Effects on State Courts, Common Law, and Jurisdictional Federalism

By Connor Shaull. Full Text.

In the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, the Court broadly interpreted the Judiciary Act’s limitations and noted that: “There is no federal general common law.” This first-year law school lesson appears simple enough: federal courts, when applying any substantive state law, must defer to the respective state’s highest court. However, both state and federal courts have debated the Erie Doctrine’s purpose since its inception, which has shaped how contemporary courts view and apply the Erie Doctrine. Among such issues that Erie did not explicitly address itself are the frequent, yet overlooked, Erie Guesses. Erie Guesses are when federal courts predict state courts’ future decisions on substantive matters that the state has not explicitly decided.

This Note explores the Erie Guess’s history and practicality by investigating how states within the Eighth Circuit have generally “responded” to such predictions. Part I provides doctrinal background information and explains how critics of Erie Guesses are calling for federal courts to employ alternative judicial methods. Part II offers an empirical analysis that categorizes how the highest state courts “respond” to the Eighth Circuit courts’ Erie Guesses. This study categorizes the states’ responses into three “groups”: (1) agreement with the Eighth Circuit; (2) acquiescence or no response to the Eighth Circuit; and (3) disagreement with the Eighth Circuit.

Based on the study’s results and existing precedent, this Note proposes that federal courts continue interpreting novel state claims through Erie Guesses and argues that counter-movements, like mandatory certification or abstention, are antithetical to the Erie Doctrine’s main purposes. Further, this Notes offers a clearer standard that federal courts should apply when making Erie Guesses. This suggested approach could increase certainty and accuracy in federal courts’ Erie Guesses and reduce the probability that state courts will disagree with such decisions.