Jurisdiction is foundational to the exercise of judicial power. It is precisely for this reason that subject matter jurisdiction, the species of judicial power that gives a court authority to resolve a dispute, has today come to the center of a struggle between corporate litigants and the regulatory state. In a pronounced trend, corporations are using jurisdictional maneuvers to manipulate forum choice. Along the way, they are wearing out less-resourced parties, circumventing hearings on the merits, and insulating themselves from laws that seek to govern their behavior. Corporations have done so by making creative arguments to lock plaintiffs out of court and push them into arbitration, and failing that, to lock plaintiffs into federal court rather than state court, or to punt federal cases to administrative agencies that may lack the power or will to resolve the underlying issues in the case. These efforts have largely been successful. This Article offers a panoramic view of how over recent decades federal courts have acquiesced in a corporate-driven effort to leverage jurisdictional doctrines to their unique private advantage, and contends that together, these doctrinal changes constitute an inflection point in U.S. law and procedure. We argue that corporate adjudicatory practice has slanted judicial power in favor of deregulatory efforts that undermine legal commitments to equality, dignity, and participation. The shifts in jurisdiction, which may seem to be merely technical and apolitical, are a core part of the architecture of what we call the oligarchic courthouse—one where courts as public institutions transform their procedures to meet private, corporate interests at the expense of public goals, thereby cementing economic power and translating it into concentrated political power that undermines the possibility of robust democratic life.

The trends we describe in federal subject matter jurisdiction resonate with earlier corporate battles at the turn of the twentieth century. But the construction of today’s oligarchic courthouse holds implications for democracy that are not simply a reprise of earlier corporate efforts. To show the scope of the implications, the Article steps back and clarifies why jurisdiction matters to democracy. Drawing on law and social mobilization literature, we argue that jurisdiction functions as a political resource that facilitates opportunities for democratic contestation and both reflects and shapes the openness and closedness of the state. Having centered jurisdiction in a larger account of democracy, we explore how the oligarchic courthouse, by entrenching economic power and narrowing participatory options for workers, consumers, and other less-resourced litigants, can be nested in a larger account of democratic decline in the United States.