What is the Lockstep Doctrine?

July 1, 2021 Criminal Defense

The Lockstep Doctrine refers to the principle that state courts, when presented with a federal question, are not bound by the decisions of any federal court deciding on that question except for the United States Supreme Court. This doctrine stemmed from the theory that federal courts “were originally created to coordinate with state courts, [and] with the exception of the highest court in the land, federal courts were not seen as superior to their state counterparts.”[1] The goal of the doctrine was to “ensure that state and federal courts acted in accordance with one another to promote national uniformity.”[2] The Lockstep Doctrine is just one of four identifiable methods of state constitutional analysis, the other three methods that outline state constitutional jurisprudence include[3]:

The Primacy Method:

This method requires a state constitutional analysis first, supplemented by a federal constitutional analysis.

The Independent Method:

This method requires a simultaneous evaluation of federal and state constitutions.

The Interstitial Method:

This method requires a federal constitutional analysis first, supplemented by the state constitutional analysis.

Although Florida has “never explicitly adopted any one approach,” this doctrine has garnished criticism for “undermining the fundamental relationship between state and federal constitutions, breeding inconsistency with the classical model of federalism, and encroaching on the powers of the state judiciary to interpret their own constitutions.”[4]

Is this a Good Method?

The Lockstep Doctrine can be a good method of state constitutional analysis for a variety of reasons. For one, “it is premised on the idea that one court will treat as binding another court’s interpretation of law not because it has to, but because of the benefits that such an approach has.”[5] However, federal law can see vast improvements when a state court follows the decisions of an inferior federal court, including a higher quality in adjudication of federal laws generally, a reduction in forum shopping abuses, better consistency in the overall application of federal law, and the promotion of equal protection under the law.[6] Ultimately, the Lockstep Doctrine allows for courts to bind themselves to the rulings of other courts for public policy reasons, rather than out of an explicit duty to do so. Yet, the doctrine can pose a problem when state supreme courts opt to follow in lockstep with the Supreme Court’s rulings on civil rights issues despite the overwhelming suggestion that they should expand civil rights beyond that of the Supreme Court’s ruling. State courts have routinely refrained from going down an independent path on state constitutional questions. Although this helps solidify consistency and uniformity among state and federal courts, the lack of divergency can lead to public policy issues remaining stagnant and unchanging as time progresses.[7]

How Does it Impact my Defense?

The Lockstep Doctrine improves predictability, allowing lawyers to effectively advise their clients regarding legal issues. More so, this provision is especially helpful “when the lawyer’s client is trying to comply with the law to prevent from being sued in a state that adopts the Lockstep Doctrine for federal questions in state court.”[8] Without such consistency, this task becomes much harder, takes much longer, and as a result, is much more costly. In addition, it has been recognized that, although state courts are competent to hear federal questions of a matter of law, there are growing concerns that “changing circumstances–more laws, more complexity–have rendered state courts less equipped to adjudicate federal questions with the highest degree of quality deserving of the federal law as a practical and policy matter.”[9] Therefore, use of the Lockstep Doctrine leverages the expertise of the federal courts, and ultimately prevents state judges from having to “reinvent the wheel” on questions that have already been considered by the most prominent court in our legal system, which can help to improve the quality of justice.[10]

Criminal Justice Lawyer in Tallahassee, FL

Navigating the judicial system is undoubtedly a strenuous task, as different doctrines and methods are used in analyzing questions and determining rulings. No matter what questions underlie your case, Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have years of experience defending clients and will be adamant in pursuing justice on your behalf. Call a defense attorney today at (850) 681-7777 or send an online message to discuss your options during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our legal team.

This article was written by Sarah Kamide

Sarah Pumphrey Law Firm







[1] M. Jason Hale, Federal Questions, State Courts, and the Lockstep Doctrine, 57 Case W. Res. L. Rev. 927 (2007)

[2] Michael Mello, The Jurisdiction to Do Justice: Florida’s Jury Override and the State Constitution, 18 Fla. St. U. L. Rev. 923 (1991)

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] M. Jason Hale, supra.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id


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