Article III, Congress, and the Texarkana Courthouse

When a comment on the Texarkana thread pointed to a story about the Texarkana federal courthouse and a special federal statute that would let cases in the courthouse be heard on either side of the state line, I remembered Brian Kalt's fascinating The Perfect Crime -- the rare law review article that has inspired a mystery novel. Brian Kalt, naturally, had the same thought, but based on actual knowledge of the legal issue, and was kind enough to pass it along:

Your Texarkana post last week caused Ira Matesky to contact me with an interesting constitutional issue that the Texarkana Courthouse presents.

I had been corresponding with Mr. Matesky about my new piece, Tabloid Constitutionalism. The piece is a case study of the near-comic fecklessness of Congress and the courts in dealing with a loophole I identified (in which people can arguably commit crimes with impunity in a small corner of Idaho).

In Tabloid Constitutionalism, I had to respond to people who said that Congress had better things to worry about than my little issue (short answer: fair enough, but they aren't fixing those other things either). The Texarkana story adds a different sort of data point to the field. Here, Congress went out of its way to act, addressing a non-existent problem yet failing to solve it.

As this article explains, the federal courthouse in Texarkana straddles the state line. Part of the building is in the Eastern District of Texas and the Fifth Circuit, while part is in the Western District of Arkansas and the Eighth Circuit. It's a fun little anomaly, and things seem to work pretty well. Here's the problem (emphasis added):

The temptation is to borrow a courtroom from the other district. But does that mean a Texas case could wind up being heard in an Arkansas courtroom?

"It's usually not a problem with civil cases, with the consent of the parties," said [Judge David] Folsom. "But we'd be concerned about the change with criminal cases, or in the rare civil case where the parties might object to their case being heard in another state."

To settle that question, a provision in the Federal Courts Improvement Bill of 2004 would allow the Western District of Arkansas and the Eastern District of Texas to hold court anywhere within the federal courthouse.

Sure enough, Congress enacted the Federal Courts Improvement Act of 2004 (FCIA), ยง 103 of which declared that cases in Texarkana in either district/state could be heard anywhere in the courthouse. It does not limit itself to civil cases.

The problem is that Article III, ยง 2, cl. 3 states that federal criminal trials "shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed." So if you commit a crime in Texas, you have a constitutional right to have your trial in Texas. Not "Texas or really close to Texas," just "Texas."

So what does the FCIA accomplish in criminal cases? Let's take a hypothetical scenario. Say I get arrested in nearby Atlanta, TX for RICO violations stemming from my unhealthy obsession with local talk-radio station KALT (1610 on your AM dial). The courtrooms on the Texas side of the Texarkana courthouse are unavailable when my trial date rolls around, so they assign me to a courtroom on the Arkansas side, citing the FCIA.

The chances of this being a problem seem pretty slim: I might plead guilty, or I might go to trial but waive my Article III right to be tried in Texas. But if either of those things happened, then the prosecutors would be safe even without the FCIA. I could have pleaded guilty or waived my right just as easily before the Act passed. The FCIA changes nothing in the criminal context.

On the other side, I might object. I have a constitutional right to be tried in Texas, after all, and as the original post made clear to anyone who didn't know it before, Arkansas definitely is not Texas. If I object to the application of the FCIA in my case, what can the prosecutor say? The Act can't amend Article III, after all. There is no question that the trial is on the wrong side of the state line. I'd have a decent argument that the trial and the FCIA are simply unconstitutional.

Maybe I'd lose. Perhaps the prosecutor could argue that this is a de minimis violation; this is literally as near to compliance with Article III as a wrong-state trial can be. But would DOJ really litigate the issue and risk losing a criminal case over this? One would hope that they would play it safe and just switch courtrooms if I objected. But if they do that, then what was the point of the FCIA? And conversely, if DOJ fought the issue and won -- that is, if the court refused to apply Article III so strictly -- wouldn't DOJ have been able to get the same result even without the FCIA? It's hard to imagine a court saying: "This wrong-state trial would ordinarily be unconstitutional. Because Congress encouraged it in this statute, however, it is now OK."

In other words, there was a scheduling problem with criminal trials at the federal courthouse in Texarkana. A solution worked its way through the labyrinthine legislative process; Congress found out about the problem and took decisive action. The solution didn't actually affect the problem at all, but hey, at least it was decisive.