Federal courts primarily interfere with state courts in three ways: by enjoining proceedings in them, by issuing writs of habeas corpus to set aside convictions obtained in them, and by adjudicating cases removed from them. With regard to all three but particularly with regard to the first, there have been developed certain rules plus a statutory limitation designed to minimize needless conflict.
Comity.—[T]he notion of ‘comity,’ Justice Black asserted, is composed of a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate state governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways. This, perhaps for lack of a better and clearer way to describe it, is referred to by many as ‘Our Federalism’....1200 Comity is a self-imposed rule of judicial restraint whereby independent tribunals of concurrent or coordinate jurisdiction act to moderate the stresses of coexistence and to avoid collisions of authority. It is not a rule of law but one of practice, convenience, and expediency1201 which persuades but does not command.
Abstention.—Perhaps the fullest expression of the concept of comity may be found in the abstention doctrine. The abstention doctrine instructs federal courts to abstain from exercising jurisdiction if applicable state law, which would be dispositive of the controversy, is unclear and a state court interpretation of the state law question might obviate the necessity of deciding a federal constitutional issue.1202 Abstention is not proper, however, where the relevant state law is settled,1203 or where it is clear that the state statute or action challenged is unconstitutional no matter how the state court construes state law.1204 Federal jurisdiction is not ousted by abstention; rather it is postponed.1205 Federal-state tensions would be ameliorated through federal-court deference to the concept that state courts are as adequate a protector of constitutional liberties as the federal courts and through the minimization of the likelihood that state programs would be thwarted by federal intercession. Federal courts would benefit because time and effort would not be expended in decision of difficult constitutional issues which might not require decision.1206
1200 Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 44 (1971). Compare Fair Assessment in Real Estate Ass’n v. McNary, 454 U.S. 100 (1981), with id. at 119-25 (Justice Brennan concurring, joined by three other Justices).
1201 Mast, Foos & Co. v. Stover Manufacturing Co., 177 U.S. 458, 488 (1900). Recent decisions emphasize comity as the primary reason for restraint in federal court actions tending to interfere with state courts. E.g., O’Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 499-504 (1974); Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 599-603 (1975); Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U.S. 434, 441 (1977); Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415, 430 (1979). The Court has also cited comity as a reason to restrict access to federal habeas corpus. Francis v. Henderson, 425 U.S. 536, 541 and n.31 (1976); Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 83, 88, 90 (1977); Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 128-129 (1982); Levin v. Commerce Energy, Inc., 130 S. Ct. 2323 (2010) (comity has particular force in cases challenging constitutionality of state taxation of commercial activities). See also Rosewell v. LaSalle National Bank, 450 U.S. 503 (1981); Fair Assessment in Real Estate Ass’n v. McNary, 454 U.S. 100 (1981) (comity limits federal court interference with state tax systems). And see Missouri v. Jenkins, 495 U.S. 33 (1990).
1202 C. WRIGHT, HANDBOOK OF THE LAW OF FEDERAL COURTS 13 (4th ed. 1983). The basic doctrine was formulated by Justice Frankfurter for the Court in Railroad Comm’n v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941). Other strands of the doctrine are that a federal court should refrain from exercising jurisdiction in order to avoid needless conflict with the administration by a State of its own affairs, Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943); Alabama Public Service Comm’n v. Southern Ry., 341 U.S. 341 (1951); Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. v. Huffman, 319 U.S. 293 (1943); Martin v. Creasy, 360 U.S. 219 (1959); Moses H. Cone Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1 (1983); New Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council of the City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350 (1989) (carefully reviewing the scope of the doctrine), especially where state law is unsettled. Meredith v. City of Winter Haven, 320 U.S. 228 (1943); County of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co., 360 U.S. 185 (1959); Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25 (1959). See also Clay v. Sun Insurance Office Ltd., 363 U.S. 207 (1960). Also, while pendency of an action in state court will not ordinarily cause a federal court to abstain, there are exceptional circumstances in which it should. Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976); Will v. Calvert Fire Insurance Co., 437 U.S. 655 (1978); Arizona v. San Carlos Apache Tribe, 463 U.S. 545 (1983). But in Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 706 (1996), an exercise in Burford abstention, the Court held that federal courts have power to dismiss or remand cases based on abstention principles only where relief being sought is equitable or otherwise discretionary but may not do so in common-law actions for damages.
1203 City of Chicago v. Atchison, T. & S.F. Ry., 357 U.S. 77 (1958); Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 249-251 (1967). See Babbitt v. United Farm Workers Nat’l. Union, 442 U.S. 289, 306 (1979) (quoting Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534-35 (1965)).
1204 Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534-535 (1965); Babbitt v. United Farm Workers Nat’l., 442 U.S. 289, 305-312 (1979). Abstention is not proper simply to afford a state court the opportunity to hold that a state law violates the federal Constitution. Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U.S. 433 (1971); Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 374, 379 n.5 (1978); Douglas v. Seacoast Products, 431 U.S. 265, 271 n.4 (1977); City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987) (A federal court may not properly ask a state court if it would care in effect to rewrite a statute). But if the statute is clear and there is a reasonable possibility that the state court would find it in violation of a distinct or specialized state constitutional provision, abstention may be proper, Harris County Comm’rs Court v. Moore, 420 U.S. 77 (1975); Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82 (1970), although not if the state and federal constitutional provisions are alike. Examining Bd. v. Flores de Otero, 426 U.S. 572, 598 (1976).
1205 American Trial Lawyers Ass’n v. New Jersey Supreme Court, 409 U.S. 467, 469 (1973); Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167 (1959). Dismissal may be necessary if the state court will not accept jurisdiction while the case is pending in federal court. Harris County Comm’rs v. Moore, 420 U.S. 77, 88 n.14 (1975).
1206 E.g., Spector Motor Service v. McLaughlin, 323 U.S. 101 (1944); Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25 (1959); Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167 (1959).
During the 1960s, the abstention doctrine was in disfavor with the Supreme Court, suffering rejection in numerous cases, most of them civil rights and civil liberties cases.1207 Time-consuming delays1208 and piecemeal resolution of important questions1209 were cited as a too-costly consequence of the doctrine. Actions brought under the civil rights statutes seem not to have been wholly subject to the doctrine,1210 and for awhile cases involving First Amendment expression guarantees seemed to be sheltered as well, but this is no longer the rule.1211 Abstention developed robustly with Younger v. Harris,1212 and its progeny.
1207 McNeese v. Board of Education, 373 U.S. 668 (1963); Griffin v. School Board, 377 U.S. 218 (1964); Hostetter v. Idlewild Bon Voyage Liquor Corp., 377 U.S. 324 (1964); Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360 (1964); Davis v. Mann, 377 U.S. 678 (1964); Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479 (1965); Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528 (1965); Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241 (1967); Wisconsin v. Constanineau, 400 U.S. 433 (1971).
1208 England v. Louisiana State Bd. of Medical Examiners, 375 U.S. 411, 426 (1964) (Justice Douglas concurring). See C. WRIGHT, HANDBOOK OF THE LAW OF FEDERAL COURTS 305 (4th ed. 1983).
1209 Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 378-379 (1964). Both consequences may be alleviated substantially by state adoption of procedures by which federal courts may certify to the State’s highest court questions of unsettled state law which would be dispositive of the federal court action. The Supreme Court has actively encouraged resort to certification where it exists. Clay v. Sun Insurance Office Ltd., 363 U.S. 207 (1960); Lehman Brothers v. Schein, 416 U.S. 386 (1974); Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U.S. 132, 151 (1976).
1210 Compare Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167 (1959), with McNeese v. Board of Education, 373 U.S. 668 (1963).
1211 Compare Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360 (1964), and Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479 (1965), with Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), and Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66 (1971). See Babbitt v. United Farm Workers, 442 U.S. 289, 305-312 (1979).
1212 401 U.S. 37 (1971). There is room to argue whether the Younger line of cases represents the abstention doctrine at all, but the Court continues to refer to it in those terms. E.g., Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 705 (1992).
Exhaustion of State Remedies.—A complainant will ordinarily be required, as a matter of comity, to exhaust all available state legislative and administrative remedies before seeking relief in federal court.1213 To do so may make unnecessary federal-court adjudication. The complainant will ordinarily not be required, however, to exhaust his state judicial remedies, inasmuch as it is a litigant’s choice to proceed in either state or federal courts when the alternatives exist and a question for judicial adjudication is present.1214 But when a litigant is suing for protection of federally-guaranteed civil rights, he need not exhaust any kind of state remedy.1215
1213 The rule was formulated in Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line Co., 211 U.S. 210 (1908), and Bacon v. Rutland R.R., 232 U.S. 134 (1914).
1214 City Bank Farmers’ Trust Co. v. Schnader, 291 U.S. 24 (1934); Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268 (1939). But see Alabama Public Service Comm’n v. Southern Ry., 341 U.S. 341 (1951). Exhaustion of state court remedies is required in habeas corpus cases and usually in suits to restrain state court proceedings.
1215 Patsy v. Board of Regents, 457 U.S. 496 (1982). Where there are pending administrative proceedings that fall within the Younger rule, a litigant must exhaust. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), as explicated in Ohio Civil Rights Comm’n v. Dayton Christian School, Inc., 477 U.S. 619, 627 n.2 (1986). Under title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, barring employment discrimination on racial and other specified grounds, the EEOC may not consider a claim until a state agency having jurisdiction over employment discrimination complaints has had at least 60 days to resolve the matter. 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-5(c). See Love v. Pullman Co., 404 U.S. 522 (1972). And under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, there is a requirement of exhaustion, where States have federally-approved procedures. See Patsy, 457 U.S. at 507-13.
Anti-Injunction Statute.—For reasons unknown,1216 Congress in 1793 enacted a statute to prohibit the issuance of injunctions by federal courts to stay state court proceedings.1217 Over time, a long list of exceptions to the statutory bar was created by judicial decision,1218 but in Toucey v. New York Life Ins. Co.,1219 the Court in a lengthy opinion by Justice Frankfurter announced a very liberal interpretation of the anti-junction statute so as to do away with practically all the exceptions that had been created. Congress’ response was to redraft the statute and to indicate that it was restoring the pre-Toucey interpretation.1220 Considerable disagreement exists over the application of the statute, however, and especially with regard to the exceptions permissible under its language. The present tendency appears to be to read the law expansively and the exceptions restrictively in the interest of preventing conflict with state courts.1221 Nonetheless, some exceptions do exist, either expressly or implicitly in statutory language1222 or through Court interpretation.1223 The Court’s general policy of application, however, seems to a considerable degree to effectuate what is now at least the major rationale of the statute, deference to state court adjudication of issues presented to them for decision.1224
1216 Toucey v. New York Life Ins. Co., 314 U.S. 118, 130-132 (1941).
1217 [N]or shall a writ of injunction be granted to stay proceedings in any court of a state; ... § 5, 1 Stat. 334 (1793), now, as amended, 28 U.S.C. § 2283.
1218 Durfee & Sloss, Federal Injunctions Against Proceedings in State Courts: The Life History of a Statute, 30 MICH. L. REV. 1145 (1932).
1219 314 U.S. 118 (1941).
1220 A Court of the United States may not grant an injunction to stay proceedings in a State court except as expressly authorized by Act of Congress, or where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction, or to protect or effectuate its judgments. 28 U.S.C. § 2283. The Reviser’s Note is appended to the statute, stating intent.
1221 Amalgamated Clothing Workers v. Richman Bros., 348 U.S. 511 (1955); Atlantic Coast Line R.R. v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, 398 U.S. 281 (1970). See M. REDISH, FEDERAL JURISDICTION: TENSIONS IN THE ALLOCATION OF JUDICIAL POWER ch. 10 (1980).
1222 The greatest difficulty is with the expressly authorized by Act of Congress exception. No other Act of Congress expressly refers to § 2283 and the Court has indicated that no such reference is necessary to create a statutory exception. Amalgamated Clothing Workers v. Richman Bros., 348 U.S. 511, 516 (1955). Compare Capital Service, Inc. v. NLRB, 347 U.S. 501 (1954). Rather, in order to qualify as an ‘expressly authorized’ exception to the anti-injunction statute, an Act of Congress must have created a specific and uniquely federal right or remedy, enforceable in a federal court of equity, that could be frustrated if the federal court were not empowered to enjoin a state court proceeding. Mitchum v. Foster, 407 U.S. 225, 237 (1972). Applying this test, the Court in Mitchum held that a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit is an exception to § 2283 and that persons suing under this authority may, if they satisfy the requirements of comity, obtain an injunction against state court proceedings. The exception is, of course, highly constrained by the comity principle. On the difficulty of applying the test, see Vendo Co. v. Lektco-Vend Corp., 433 U.S. 623 (1977) (fragmented Court on whether Clayton Act authorization of private suits for injunctive relief is an expressly authorized exception to § 2283).
On the interpretation of the § 2283 exception for injunctions to protect or effectuate a federal-court judgment, see Chick Kam Choo v. Exxon Corp., 486 U.S. 140 (1988).
Res Judicata.—Both the Constitution and a contemporaneously-enacted statute require federal courts to give full faith and credit to state court judgments, to give, that is, preclusive effect to state court judgments when those judgments would be given preclusive effect by the courts of that State.1225 The present Court views the interpretation of full faith and credit in the overall context of deference to state courts running throughout this section. Thus, res judicata and collateral estoppel not only reduce unnecessary litigation and foster reliance on adjudication, but also promote the comity between state and federal courts that has been recognized as a bulwark of the federal system.1226 The Court in this case, after reviewing enactment of the statute that is now 42 U.S.C. § 1983, held that § 1983 is not an exception to the mandate of the res judicata statute.1227 An exception to § 1738 will not be recognized unless a later statute contains an express or implied partial repeal.1228 Thus, a claimant who pursued his employment discrimination remedies through state administrative procedures, as the federal law requires her to do (within limits), and then appealed an adverse state agency decision to state court will be precluded from bringing her federal claim to federal court, since the federal court is obligated to give the state court decision full faith and credit.1229
Closely related is the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, holding that federal subject-matter jurisdiction of federal district courts does not extend to review of state court judgments.38 The Supreme Court, not federal district courts, has such appellate jurisdiction. The doctrine thus prevents losers in state court from obtaining district court review, but “does not otherwise override or supplant preclusion doctrine or augment the circumscribed doctrines that allow federal courts to stay or dismiss proceedings in deference to state-court actions.”39
1223 Thus, the Act bars federal court restraint of pending state court proceedings but not restraint of the institution of such proceedings. Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479, 484 n.2 (1965). Restraint is not barred if sought by the United States or an officer or agency of the United States. Leiter Minerals v. United States, 352 U.S. 220 (1957); NLRB v. Nash-Finch Co., 404 U.S. 138 (1971). Restraint is not barred if the state court proceeding is not judicial but rather administrative. Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line Co., 211 U.S. 210 (1908); Roudebush v. Hartke, 405 U.S. 15 (1972). Compare Hill v. Martin, 296 U.S. 393, 403 (1935), with Lynch v. Household Finance Corp., 405 U.S. 538, 552-556 (1972).
1224 The statute is to be applied to prevent needless friction between state and federal courts. Oklahoma Packing Co. v. Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co., 309 U.S. 4, 9 (1940); Atlantic Coast Line R.R. v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, 398 U.S. 281, 285-286 (1970).
1225 Article IV, § 1, of the Constitution; 28 U.S.C. § 1738.
1226 Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 95-96 (1980).
1227 449 U.S. at 96-105. There were three dissenters. Id. at 105 (Justices Black-mun, Brennan, and Marshall). In England v. Louisiana State Bd. of Medical Examiners, 375 U.S. 411 (1964), the Court held that when parties are compelled to go to state court under Pullman abstention, either party may reserve the federal issue and thus be enabled to return to federal court without being barred by res judicata.
1228 Kramer v. Chemical Construction Corp., 456 U.S. 461, 468 (1982).
1229 456 U.S. 468-76. There were four dissents. Id. at 486 (Justices Blackmun, Brennan, and Marshall), 508 (Stevens).
38 The doctrine derives its name from Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923), and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983).
39 Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005) (Rooker-Feldman has no application when federal court proceedings have been initiated prior to state court proceedings; preclusion law governs in that situation).
Three-Judge Court Act.—When the Court in Ex parte Young1230 held that federal courts were not precluded by the Eleventh Amendment from restraining state officers from enforcing state laws determined to be in violation of the federal Constitution, serious efforts were made in Congress to take away the authority thus asserted, but the result instead was legislation providing that suits in which an interlocutory injunction was sought against the enforcement of state statutes by state officers were to be heard by a panel of three federal judges, rather than by a single district judge, with appeal direct to the Supreme Court.1231 The provision was designed to assuage state feeling by vesting such determinations in a court more prestigious than a single-judge district court, to assure a more authoritative determination, and to prevent the assertion of individual predilections in sensitive and emotional areas.1232 Because, however, of the heavy burden that convening a three-judge court placed on the judiciary and that the direct appeals placed on the Supreme Court, the provisions for such courts, save in cases when otherwise required by an Act of Congress1233 or in cases involving state legislative or congressional districting, were repealed by Congress in 1976.1234
1230 209 U.S. 123 (1908).
1231 36 Stat. 557 (1910). The statute was amended in 1925 to apply to requests for permanent injunctions, 43 Stat. 936, and again in 1937 to apply to constitutional attacks on federal statutes. 50 Stat. 752.
1232 Swift & Co. v. Wickham, 382 U.S. 111, 119 (1965); Ex parte Collins, 277 U.S. 565, 567 (1928).
1233 These now are primarily limited to suits under the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1973b(a), 1973c, 1973h(c), and to certain suits by the Attorney General under public accommodations and equal employment provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000a-5(b), 2000e-6(b).
1234 Pub. L. 94-381, 90 Stat. 1119, 28 U.S.C. § 2284. In actions still required to be heard by three-judge courts, direct appeals are still available to the Supreme Court. 28 U.S.C. § 1253.
Last modified: June 9, 2014