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In the movie Air Force One, there is a scene where the President makes a call to the White House switchboard, Where the operator says

Okay, sir. You want to make a federal case out of this, fine by me!

So my question is if it was a normal citizen making a call, what was wrong with that call, and why was it a federal case.

point in movie

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"Making a federal case out of it" is figure of speech (and had the same meaning in 1997 when the movie Air Force One was released that it does today).

It means making a big deal out of everything and going all out to formally address things through cumbersome channels even when this may be disproportionate to the actual stakes of a dispute. It does not always literally refer to an actual or possible federal court case, or even a literal court case at all. Sometimes it just means making a big deal out of something (when that isn't necessary).

This has its origins in the time period when you had to have a large dollar amount in controversy between litigants to bring a lawsuit in federal court under either federal question or diversity litigation (the limit now only applies to diversity litigation when there is no federal law dispute at issue, so there are actually many simple, small dollar lawsuits in federal court these days). The exact amounts at particular times with inflation adjustments to 2023 dollars are set forth in the footnote below.

Thus, historically only large dollar disputes could be brought in federal court and the litigation of those very big dollar disputes was always cumbersome and intense. So, the term "a federal case" came to be metaphorically associated with any case being litigated as if there were huge economic stakes involved, even if it was actually in state court and could never have been brought in federal court.

Almost always, the term is used in the sense of "don't make a federal case out of it", since for many minor disagreements that all out big dollar civil dispute style of intense litigation and formal legalistic fighting is inappropriate.

Dictionary.com claims that the metaphorical sense of the phrase had its origins in the time period from 1950-1955.

Wikipedia asserts (in sources compiled at the same link) that the phrase was popularized by:

New York City-born comedian Jimmy Durante (1893-1980) who used “Why the guy’s making a federal case out of it” on his radio show with Gary Moore, The Durante-Moore Show, broadcast about 1944 and printed in a book published in 1945. The phrase was picked up by other New York writers (Walter Winchell, Evan Hunter, George Axelrod, Jerome Weidman) and it appears likely that Durante coined the expression of “making a federal case.”

The link above corroborates this conclusion with references from Google Books.

Footnote Re Inflation Adjusted Dollar Amounts

Congress first established the amount in controversy requirement when it created diversity jurisdiction in the Judiciary Act of 1789, pursuant to its powers under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, the amount being $500. It was raised to $2,000 in 1887, to $3,000 in 1911, to $10,000 in 1958, to $50,000 in 1988, and finally to the current $75,000 in 1996. . . .

Congress did not create a consistent federal question jurisdiction, which allows federal courts to hear any case alleging a violation of the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States, until 1875, when Congress created the statute which is now found at 28 U.S.C. § 1331: "The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." At that time, such cases had the same amount in controversy requirement as the diversity cases. Congress eliminated this requirement in actions against the United States in 1976 and in all federal question cases in 1980.

(Source)

Adjusting for inflation and rounding to the nearest thousand dollars:

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  • Up to 1945 it was used literally, in reference to filing a federal legal case. Over the next 5-10 years it took on the figurative meaning. E.g. 1918 "We then intended to make a Federal case against Delano , but we found that the statute of limitations had run by some three months , so that we were barred".
    – user6726
    Feb 11, 2023 at 1:48
  • @user6726 This feels a bit like folk etymology. Do you have a source?
    – bdb484
    Feb 11, 2023 at 4:28
  • @bdb484 Updated with a source of the popularization of the phrase which is enhanced by the context of the legal background.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 14, 2023 at 23:11
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I can only speculate why the writers had the switchboard operator say that. Perhaps they imagined that the operator believed it was a federal crime to impersonate the President and that the person on the phone was not the President.

Depending on what acts are taken while pretending to be the President, that can be an offence under 18 U.S.C. § 912:

Whoever falsely assumes or pretends to be an officer or employee acting under the authority of the United States or any department, agency or officer thereof, and acts as such, or in such pretended character demands or obtains any money, paper, document, or thing of value, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

The Department of Justice recommends:

when presented with a situation in which a subject has pretended to be a federal officer or employee but has not performed an overt act which is distinguishable from the pretense itself ... consideration should be given to referring the matter to state and local authorities for their action, rather than initiating an 18 U.S.C. § 912 prosecution.

That is a rather fine nuance that I would not expect the writers to have imagined the switchboard operator to have internalized; so the switchboard operator may have very well just been refering to the offence generally (or simply as an idiom, as ohwilleke suggests) without actually taking the time to think about whether it would apply in the circumstances.

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  • thanks @jen , so impersonating is crime, not the actual call. I remember seeing a joke youtu.be/mN3z3eSVG7A?t=141 where a person can voice his/her comments to US executive branch
    – puzzled
    Feb 11, 2023 at 1:09

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