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Federal Questions

Among the types of controversies that Article III, §2 of the U.S. Constitution permits Congress to assign to the federal courts are all cases “arising under” the Constitution, laws and treaties of the United States. It was not until 1875, however, that Congress exercised this constitutional grant of jurisdiction-creating authority when it passed a statute giving federal courts the power to adjudicate cases “arising under” the federal constitution, laws and treaties on a permanent basis. Suits falling within this category are referred to as “federal question” cases. The present version of this legislative award of federal question jurisdiction is found at 28 U.S.C. §1331.

Does or should “arising under” mean that the federal courts can exercise jurisdiction over any case involving a question of federal law? For example, what if a retail computer supply store failed to pay for hundreds of copies of products that it had ordered and received from Microsoft, Inc. Microsoft files a complaint in federal district court, alleging that the supply store breached its contractual obligation to pay for the software, that this customer admitted ordering and receiving all of these products, but purported to justify its refusal to pay on the ground, which Microsoft vehemently denies, that Microsoft’s pricing policy is one of many monopolistic practices that violate federal antitrust laws. Does this case fall within the court’s “federal question” subject matter jurisdiction? Alternatively, suppose that the supply store got wind of Microsoft’s intention to sue and decided, instead, to force the issue by filing its own action in federal court seeking a declaratory judgment that Microsoft’s pricing policy violated the federal antitrust laws. Would this action fall within the court’s “federal question” jurisdiction? These, and other, important questions are addressed in the following case:

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