Supreme Court Jurisdiction under the Constitution

Jurisdiction is the ability of a court to hear a case. The Constitution grants the Supreme Court original jurisdiction over cases involving two or more states and those involving ambassadors and other public ministers. The Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over any other case involving constitutional issues or federal law.

Article III, Section 2, Clause 2:

In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.

Original Jurisdiction

United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

From the beginning, the Supreme Court has assumed that its original jurisdiction flows directly from the Constitution and is therefore self-executing without further action by Congress.1 In Chisholm v. Georgia,2 the Court entertained an action of assumpsit against Georgia by a citizen of another state. Congress in § 3 of the Judiciary Act of 17893 purported to invest the Court with original jurisdiction in suits between a state and citizens of another state, but it did not authorize actions of assumpsit in such cases nor did it prescribe forms of process for the exercise of original jurisdiction. Over the dissent of Justice Iredell, the Court, in opinions by Chief Justice Jay and Justices Blair, Wilson, and Cushing, sustained its jurisdiction and its power to provide forms of process and rules of procedure in the absence of congressional enactments. The backlash of state sovereignty sentiment resulted in the proposal and ratification of the Eleventh Amendment, which did not, however, affect the direct flow of original jurisdiction to the Court, although those cases to which states were parties were now limited to states as party plaintiffs, to two or more states disputing, or to United States suits against states.4

By 1861, Chief Justice Taney could confidently enunciate, after review of the precedents, that in all cases where original jurisdiction is given by the Constitution, the Supreme Court has authority "to exercise it without further act of Congress to regulate its powers or confer jurisdiction, and that the court may regulate and mould the process it uses in such manner as in its judgment will best promote the purposes of justice."5

Although Chief Justice Marshall apparently assumed the Court had exclusive jurisdiction of cases within its original jurisdiction,6 Congress from 1789 on gave the inferior federal courts concurrent jurisdiction in some classes of such cases.7 Sustained in the early years on circuit,8 this concurrent jurisdiction was finally approved by the Court itself.9 The Court has also relied on the first Congress's interpretation of the meaning of Article III in declining original jurisdiction of an action by a state to enforce a judgment for a pecuniary penalty awarded by one of its own courts.10 Noting that § 13 of the Judiciary Act had referred to controversies of a civil nature, Justice Gray declared that it "was passed by the first Congress assembled under the Constitution, many of whose members had taken part in framing that instrument, and is contemporaneous and weighty evidence of its true meaning."11

However, another clause of § 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was not accorded the same presumption by Chief Justice Marshall, who, interpreting it to give the Court power to issue a writ of mandamus on an original proceeding, declared that, as Congress could not restrict the original jurisdiction, neither could it enlarge it, and he pronounced the clause void.12 Although the Chief Justice's interpretation of the meaning of the clause may be questioned, no one has questioned the constitutional principle it proclaimed. Although the rule deprives Congress of power to expand or contract the jurisdiction, it allows a considerable latitude of interpretation to the Court itself. In some cases, such as Missouri v. Holland,13 the Court has manifested a tendency toward a liberal construction of its original jurisdiction, but the more usual view is that "our original jurisdiction should be invoked sparingly."14 Original jurisdiction "is limited and manifestly to be sparingly exercised, and should not be expanded by construction."15 Exercise of its original jurisdiction is not obligatory on the Court but discretionary, to be determined on a case-by-case basis on grounds of practical necessity.16 It is to be honored "only in appropriate cases. And the question of what is appropriate concerns of course the seriousness and dignity of the claim; yet beyond that it necessarily involves the availability of another forum where there is jurisdiction over the named parties, where the issues tendered may be litigated, and where appropriate relief may be had. We incline to a sparing use of our original jurisdiction so that our increasing duties with the appellate docket will not suffer."17 But where claims are of sufficient "seriousness and dignity," in which resolution by the judiciary is of substantial concern, the Court will hear them.18

Appellate Jurisdiction

Implicit in the argument of Marbury v. Madison19 is the thought that the Court is obligated to take and decide cases meeting jurisdictional standards. Chief Justice Marshall spelled this out in Cohens v. Virginia:20 "It is most true that this Court will not take jurisdiction if it should not: but it is equally true, that it must take jurisdiction if it should. The judiciary cannot, as the legislature may, avoid a measure because it approaches the confines of the constitution. We cannot pass it by because it is doubtful. With whatever doubts, with whatever difficulties, a case may be attended, we must decide it, if it be brought before us. We have no more right to decline the exercise of jurisdiction which is given, than to usurp that which is not given. The one or the other would be treason to the constitution." As the comment recognizes, because judicial review grows out of the fiction that courts only declare what the law is in specific cases21 and are without will or discretion,22 its exercise is surrounded by the inherent limitations of the judicial process, most basically, of course, by the necessity of a case or controversy and the strands of the doctrine comprising the concept of justiciability.23 But, although there are hints of Chief Justice Marshall's activism in some modern cases,24 the Court has always adhered, at times more strictly than at other times, to several discretionary rules or concepts of restraint in the exercise of judicial review, the practice of which is very much contrary to the quoted dicta from Cohens. These rules, it should be noted, are in addition to the vast discretionary power which the Supreme Court has to grant or deny review of judgments in lower courts, a discretion fully authorized with certiorari jurisdiction but in effect in practice as well with regard to what remains of appeals.25

At various times, the Court has followed more strictly than other times the prudential theorems for avoidance of decisionmaking when it deemed restraint to be more desirable than activism.26

Supreme Court Review of State Court Decisions

In addition to the constitutional issues presented by § 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 and subsequent enactments,27 questions have continued to arise concerning review of state court judgments which go directly to the nature and extent of the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction. Because of the sensitivity of federal-state relations and the delicate nature of the matters presented in litigation touching upon them, jurisdiction to review decisions of a state court is dependent in its exercise not only upon ascertainment of the existence of a federal question but upon a showing of exhaustion of state remedies and of the finality of the state judgment. Because the application of these standards to concrete facts is neither mechanical nor nondiscretionary, the Justices have often been divided over whether these requisites to the exercise of jurisdiction have been met in specific cases submitted for review by the Court.

The Court is empowered to review the judgments of "the highest court of a State in which a decision could be had."28 This will ordinarily be the state's court of last resort, but it could well be an intermediate appellate court or even a trial court if its judgment is final under state law and cannot be f reviewed by any state appellate court.29 The review is of a final judgment below. "It must be subject to no further review or correction in any other state tribunal; it must also be final as an effective determination of the litigation and not of merely interlocutory or intermediate steps therein. It must be the final word of a final court."30 The object of this rule is to avoid piecemeal interference with state court proceedings; it promotes harmony by preventing federal assumption of a role in a controversy until the state court efforts are finally resolved.31 For similar reasons, the Court requires that a party seeking to litigate a federal constitutional issue on appeal of a state court judgment must have raised that issue with sufficient precision to have enabled the state court to have considered it and she must have raised the issue at the appropriate time below.32

When the judgment of a state court rests on an adequate, independent determination of state law, the Court will not review the resolution of the federal questions decided, even though the resolution may be in error.33 "The reason is so obvious that it has rarely been thought to warrant statement. It is found in the partitioning of power between the state and Federal judicial systems and in the limitations of our own jurisdiction. Our only power over state judgments is to correct them to the extent that they incorrectly adjudge federal rights. And our power is to correct wrong judgments, not to revise opinions. We are not permitted to render an advisory opinion, and if the same judgment would be rendered by the state court after we corrected its views of Federal laws, our review could amount to nothing more than an advisory opinion."34 The Court is faced with two interrelated decisions: whether the state court judgment is based upon a nonfederal ground and whether the nonfederal ground is adequate to support the state court judgment. It is, of course, the responsibility of the Court to determine for itself the answer to both questions.35

The first question, whether there is a nonfederal ground, may be raised by several factual situations. A state court may have based its decision on two grounds, one federal, one nonfederal.36 It may have based its decision solely on a nonfederal ground but the federal ground may have been clearly raised.37 Both federal and nonfederal grounds may have been raised but the state court judgment is ambiguous or is without written opinion stating the ground relied on.38 Or the state court may have decided the federal question although it could have based its ruling on an adequate, independent non-federal ground.39 In any event, it is essential for purposes of review by the Supreme Court that it appear from the record that a federal question was presented, that the disposition of that question was necessary to the determination of the case, that the federal question was actually decided or that the judgment could not have been rendered without deciding it.40

Several factors affect the answer to the second question, whether the nonfederal ground is adequate. In order to preclude Supreme Court review, the nonfederal ground must be broad enough, without reference to the federal question, to sustain the state court judgment;41 it must be independent of the federal question;42 and it must be tenable.43 Rejection of a litigant's federal claim by the state court on state procedural grounds, such as failure to tender the issue at the appropriate time, will ordinarily preclude Supreme Court review as an adequate independent state ground,44 so long as the local procedure does not discriminate against the raising of federal claims and has not been used to stifle a federal claim or to evade vindication of federal rights.45

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Footnotes

  1. But, in § 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, 1 Stat. 80, Congress did so purport to convey the jurisdiction and the statutory conveyance exists today. 28 U.S.C. § 1251. It does not, however, exhaust the listing of the Constitution.
  2. 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419 (1793). In an earlier case, the point of jurisdiction was not raised. Georgia v. Brailsford, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 402 (1792).
  3. 1 Stat. 80.
  4. On the Eleventh Amendment, see infra.
  5. Kentucky v. Dennison, 65 U.S. (24 How.) 66, 98 (1861).
  6. Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 137, 174 (1803).
  7. In § 3 of the 1789 Act. The present division is in 28 U.S.C. § 1251.
  8. United States v. Ravara, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 297 (C.C. Pa. 1793).
  9. Rhode Island v. Massachusetts, 37 U.S. (12 Pet.) 657 (1838)Bors v. Preston, 111 U.S. 252 (1884)Ames v. Kansas ex rel. Johnston, 111 U.S. 449 (1884). Such suits could be brought and maintained in state courts as well. Plaquemines Tropical Fruit Co. v. Henderson, 170 U.S. 511 (1898)Ohio ex rel. Popovici v. Agler, 280 U.S. 379 (1930).
  10. Wisconsin v. Pelican Ins. Co., 127 U.S. 265 (1888).
  11. 127 U.S. at 297. See also the dictum in Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264, 398–99 (1821)Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419, 431–32 (1793).
  12. Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 137 (1803). The Chief Justice declared that "a negative or exclusive sense" had to be given to the affirmative enunciation of the cases to which original jurisdiction extends. Id. at 174. This exclusive interpretation has been since followed. Ex parte Bollman, 8 U.S. (4 Cr.) 75 (1807)New Jersey v. New York, 30 U.S. (5 Pet.) 284 (1831); Ex parte Barry, 43 U.S. (2 How.) 65 (1844); Ex parte Vallandigham, 68 U.S. (1 Wall.) 243, 252 (1864)Ex parte Yerger, 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 85, 98 (1869). In the curious case of Ex parte Levitt, 302 U.S. 633 (1937), the Court was asked to unseat Justice Black on the ground that his appointment violated Article I. § 6, cl. 2. Although it rejected petitioner's application, the Court did not point out that it was being asked to assume original jurisdiction in violation of Marbury v. Madison.
  13. 252 U.S. 416 (1920). See also South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966), and Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112 (1970).
  14. Utah v. United States, 394 U.S. 89, 95 (1968).
  15. California v. Southern Pacific Co., 157 U.S. 229, 261 (1895). Indeed, the use of the word sparingly in this context is all but ubiquitous. E.g.Wyoming v. Oklahoma, 502 U.S. 437, 450 (1992)Maryland v. Louisiana, 451 U.S. 725, 739 (1981)United States v. Nevada, 412 U.S. 534, 538 (1973).
  16. Texas v. New Mexico, 462 U.S. 554, 570 (1983).
  17. Illinois v. City of Milwaukee, 406 U.S. 91, 93–94 (1972). In this case, and in Washington v. General Motors Corp., 406 U.S. 109 (1972), and Ohio v. Wyandotte Chemicals Corp., 401 U.S. 493 (1971), the Court declined to permit adjudication of environmental pollution cases manifestly within its original jurisdiction because the nature of the cases required the resolution of complex, novel, and technical factual questions not suitable for resolution at the Court's level as a matter of initial decision, but which could be brought in the lower federal courts. Not all such cases, however, were barred. Vermont v. New York, 406 U.S. 186 (1972) (granting leave to file complaint). In other instances, notably involving political questions, cf. Massachusetts v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447 (1923), the Court has simply refused permission for parties to file bills of complaint without hearing them on the issue or producing an opinion. E.g.Massachusetts v. Laird, 400 U.S. 886 (1970) (constitutionality of United States action in Indochina); Delaware v. New York, 385 U.S. 895 (1966) (constitutionality of electoral college under one-man, one-vote rule).
  18. Wyoming v. Oklahoma, 502 U.S. 437, 451 (1992). The principles are the same whether the Court's jurisdiction is exclusive or concurrent. Texas v. New Mexico, 462 U.S. 554 (1983)California v. West Virginia, 454 U.S. 1027 (1981)Arizona v. New Mexico, 425 U.S. 794 (1976)Cf. Florida v. Georgia, 585 U.S. ___, No. 142, Orig., slip op. at 3 (2018) ('This Court has recognized for more than a century its inherent authority, as part of the Constitution's grant of original jurisdiction, to equitably apportion interstate streams between States.' But we have long noted our 'preference' that States 'settle their controversies by mutual accommodation and agreement.' (quoting Kansas v. Nebraska, 574 U.S. ___, No. 126, Orig., slip op. at 7 (2015); Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546, 564 (1963))).
  19. 5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 137 (1803).
  20. 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264, 404, (1821).
  21. See, e.g., Justice Sutherland in Adkins v. Children's Hospital, 261 U.S. 525, 544 (1923), and Justice Roberts in United States v. Butler, 297 U.S. 1, 62 (1936).
  22. "Judicial power, as contradistinguished from the powers of the law, has no existence. Courts are the mere instruments of the law, and can will nothing." Osborn v. Bank of the United States, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 738, 866 (1824) (Chief Justice Marshall). See also Justice Roberts in United States v. Butler, 297 U.S. 1, 62–63 (1936).
  23. The political question doctrine is another limitation arising in part out of inherent restrictions and in part from prudential considerations. For a discussion of limitations utilizing both stands, see Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 346–56 (1936) (Justice Brandeis concurring).
  24. Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 548–49 (1969)Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 211 (1962)Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 248 (1967).
  25. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1254–1257. See F. Frankfurter & J. Landis, supra at ch. 7. "The Supreme Court is not, and never has been, primarily concerned with the correction of errors in lower court decisions. In almost all cases within the Court's appellate jurisdiction, the petitioner has already received one appellate review of his case . . . . If we took every case in which an interesting legal question is raised, or our prima facie impression is that the decision below is erroneous, we could not fulfill the Constitutional and statutory responsibilities placed upon the Court. To remain effective, the Supreme Court must continue to decide only those cases which present questions whose resolution will have immediate importance far beyond the particular facts and parties involved." Chief Justice Vinson, Address on the Work of the Federal Court, in 69 Sup. Ct. v, vi. It "is only accurate to a degree to say that our jurisdiction in cases on appeal is obligatory as distinguished from discretionary on certiorari." Chief Justice Warren, quoted in Wiener, The Supreme Court's New Rules, 68 Harv. L. Rev. 20, 51 (1954).
  26. See Justice Brandeis' concurring opinion in Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 346 (1936)And contrast A. Bickel, supra at 111–198, with Gunther, The Subtle Vices of the Passive Virtues: A Comment on Principle and Expediency in Judicial Review, 64 Colum. L. Rev. 1 (1964).
  27. On § 25, see "Judicial Review and National Supremacy," supra. The present statute is 28 U.S.C. § 1257(a), which provides that review by writ of certiorari is available where the validity of a treaty or statute of the United States is drawn in question or where the validity of a statute of any state is drawn in question on the ground of its being repugnant to the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States, or where any title, right, privilege, or immunity is specially set up or claimed under the Constitution or the treaties or statutes of, or any commission held or authority exercised under, the United States. Prior to 1988, there was a right to mandatory appeal in cases in which a state court had found invalid a federal statute or treaty or in which a state court had upheld a state statute contested under the Constitution, a treaty, or a statute of the United States. See the Act of June 25, 1948, 62 Stat. 929. The distinction between certiorari and appeal was abolished by the Act of June 27, 1988, Pub. L. No. 100-352, § 3, 102 Stat. 662.
  28. 28 U.S.C. § 1257(a). See R. Stern & E. Gressman, Supreme Court Practice ch. 3 (6th ed. 1986).
  29. Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45, 47 (1935)Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60, 62 (1960)Thompson v. City of Louisville, 362 U.S. 199, 202 (1960)Metlakatla Indian Community v. Egan, 363 U.S. 555 (1960)Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514, 516, 517 (1968); Koon v. Aiken, 480 U.S. 943 (1987). In Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264 (1821), the judgment reviewed was that of the Quarterly Session Court for the Borough of Norfolk, Virginia.
  30. Market Street Ry. v. Railroad Comm'n, 324 U.S. 548, 551 (1945)See also San Diego Gas & Electric Co. v. City of San Diego, 450 U.S. 621 (1981)Flynt v. Ohio, 451 U.S. 619 (1981)Minnick v. California Dep't of Corrections, 452 U.S. 105 (1981)Florida v. Thomas, 532 U.S. 774 (2001). The Court has developed a series of exceptions permitting review when the federal issue in the case has been finally determined but there are still proceedings to come in the lower state courts. Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 476–487 (1975)See also Fort Wayne Books, Inc. v. Indiana, 489 U.S. 46 (1989)Duquesne Light Co. v. Barasch, 488 U.S. 299, 304 (1989)NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 907 n.42 (1982).
  31. Republic Natural Gas Co. v. Oklahoma, 334 U.S. 62, 67–69 (1948)Radio Station WOW v. Johnson, 326 U.S. 120, 123–24 (1945).
  32. New York ex rel. Bryant v. Zimmerman, 278 U.S. 63, 67 (1928)See also Bankers Life & Casualty Co. v. Crenshaw, 486 U.S. 71, 77 (1988)Webb v. Webb, 451 U.S. 493, 501 (1981). The same rule applies on habeas corpus petitions. E.g.Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270 (1972).
  33. Murdock v. City of Memphis, 87 U.S. (20 Wall.) 590 (1875)Black v. Cutter Laboratories, 351 U.S. 292 (1956)Wilson v. Loew's, Inc., 355 U.S. 597 (1958).
  34. Herb v. Pitcairn, 324 U.S. 117, 125–26 (1945). Whereas declining to review judgments of state courts that rest on an adequate and independent determination of state law protects the sovereignty of states, the Court has emphasized that review of state court decisions that invalidate state laws based on interpretations of federal law, "far from undermining state autonomy, is the only way to vindicate it" because a correction of a state court's federal errors necessarily returns power to the state government. See Kansas v. Carr, 577 U.S. ___, No. 14-449, slip op. at 9 (2016)AN (quoting Kansas v. Marsh, 548 U.S. 163, 184 (2006) (Scalia, J., concurring)).
  35. E.g.Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356, 366 (1990)NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 455 (1958).
  36. Fox Film Corp. v. Muller, 296 U.S. 207 (1935)Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, 368 U.S. 278 (1961).
  37. Wood v. Chesborough, 228 U.S. 672, 676–80 (1913).
  38. Lynch v. New York ex rel. Pierson, 293 U.S. 52, 54–55 (1934)Williams v. Kaiser, 323 U.S. 471, 477 (1945)Durley v. Mayo, 351 U.S. 277, 281 (1956)Klinger v. Missouri, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 257, 263 (1872)cf. Department of Mental Hygiene v. Kirchner, 380 U.S. 194 (1965).
  39. Poafpybitty v. Skelly Oil Co., 390 U.S. 365, 375–376 (1968).
  40. Southwestern Bell Tel. Co. v. Oklahoma, 303 U.S. 206 (1938)Raley v. Ohio, 360 U.S. 423, 434–437 (1959). When there is uncertainty about what the state court did, the usual practice was to remand for clarification. Minnesota v. National Tea Co., 309 U.S. 551 (1940)California v. Krivda, 409 U.S. 33 (1972)See California Dept. of Motor Vehicles v. Rios, 410 U.S. 425 (1973). Now, however, in a controversial decision, the Court has adopted a presumption that when a state court decision fairly appears to rest on federal law or to be interwoven with federal law, and when the adequacy and independence of any possible state law ground is not clear from the face of the opinion the Court will accept as the most reasonable explanation that the state court decided the case as it did because it believed that federal law required it to do so. If the state court wishes to avoid the presumption it must make clear by a plain statement in its judgment or opinion that discussed federal law did not compel the result, that state law was dispositive. Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983)See Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 261 n.7 (1989) (collecting cases); Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722 (1991) (applying the rule in a habeas case).
  41. Murdock v. City of Memphis, 87 U.S. (20 Wall.) 590, 636 (1875). A new state rule cannot be invented for the occasion in order to defeat the federal claim. E.g.Ford v. Georgia, 498 U.S. 411, 420–425 (1991).
  42. Enterprise Irrigation Dist. v. Farmers' Mutual Canal Co., 243 U.S. 157, 164 (1917)Ivanhoe Irrigation Dist. v. McCracken, 357 U.S. 275, 290 (1958).
  43. Enterprise Irrigation Dist. v. Farmers' Mutual Canal Co., 243 U.S. 157, 164 (1917)Ward v. Love County, 253 U.S. 17, 22 (1920)Staub v. City of Baxley, 355 U.S. 313 (1958).
  44. Beard v. Kindler, 558 U.S. ___, No. 08-992, slip op. (2009) (firmly established procedural rule adequate state ground even though rule is discretionary). AccordWalker v. Martin, 562 ___, No. 09-996, slip op. (2010)See also Nickel v. Cole, 256 U.S. 222, 225 (1921)Wolfe v. North Carolina, 364 U.S. 177, 195 (1960)But see Davis v. Wechsler, 263 U.S. 22 (1923)Brown v. Western Ry. of Alabama, 338 U.S. 294 (1949).
  45. Davis v. Wechsler, 263 U.S. 22, 24–25 (1923)NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 455–458 (1958)Barr v. City of Columbia, 378 U.S. 146, 149 (1964). This rationale probably explains Henry v. Mississippi, 379 U.S. 443 (1965)See also in the criminal area, Edelman v. California, 344 U.S. 357, 362 (1953) (dissenting opinion); Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 554 (1953) (dissenting opinion); Williams v. Georgia, 349 U.S. 375, 383 (1955)Monger v. Florida, 405 U.S. 958 (1972) (dissenting opinion).

 

 

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