IMLA Joins State Partners To Address Abstention Issue Before Supreme Court

When is it appropriate for a federal court to decide a case that is pending in state court?Supreme Court

On the Supreme Court’s docket is a case that addresses this very issue, giving the Court the chance to once again ponder the limits of the Younger abstention doctrine.

That case, on appeal from the Eighth Circuit, is Sprint Communs. Co., L.P. v. Jacobs, Case No. 12-815.

At issue is whether Younger abstention applies only when the underlying state proceeding is “coercive” or whether it is sometimes appropriate for federal courts to abstain from hearing cases that are “remedial” in nature.  Many cases dealing with Younger abstention have turned on that distinction. But the difference between “coercive” and “remedial” proceedings, and the way courts classify cases as one or the other, is anything but clear-cut.  Indeed, the distinction could turn on whether the government or a private party initiated the action, as “coercive” proceedings are typically described as those that are criminal or quasi-criminal in nature.

There is also disagreement among the circuits about how critical the distinction really is.  While the Tenth Circuit has deemed the coercive-remedial distinction to be “the touchstone” in the analysis, the Eighth Circuit has not treated the coercive-remedial dichotomy as outcome-determinative.

Sprint initiated a proceeding before the Iowa Utilities Board, a state agency, to prevent Windstream, a communications provider that services Iowa customers, from refusing to connect Sprint calls to local customers if Sprint did not pay intrastate access charges.  After obtaining an unfavorable ruling from the IUB, Sprint challenged the IUB’s decision in both state and federal court.  The IUB successfully argued, in both the district court and in the Eighth Circuit, that Younger abstention precluded the district court from hearing the case.

The Eighth Circuit concluded that: “Interests of comity and federalism support federal abstention where state judicial review of the IUB’s order has not yet been completed.” Sprint Communs. Co., L.P. v. Jacobs, 690 F.3d 864, 867 (8th Cir. 2012).

Indeed, the idea behind the Younger abstention doctrine is the spirit of comity, “a proper respect for state functions,” and the recognition that, in our federal system,

[T]he National Government, anxious though it may be to vindicate and protect federal rights and federal interests, always endeavors to do so in ways that will not unduly interfere with the legitimate activities of the States. 

Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 44 (1971).

The abstention analysis requires federal courts to weigh state interests against federal interests.  That exercise calls for judicial discretion.  The Supreme Court has set forth a framework that allows for such discretion and careful balancing, in Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Ass’n, 457 U.S. 423 (1982).  Under that framework, abstention is appropriate if: (1) there is an ongoing state judicial proceeding; (2) that implicates important state interests; and (3) that provides an adequate opportunity to raise constitutional challenges.

The Middlesex framework need not be unduly narrowed in favor of a bright-line test that risks overshadowing the proper consideration of important state interests.  Important state interests meriting Younger abstention exist outside the realm of “coercive” proceedings.

Working with the State and Local Legal Center, the International Municipal Lawyers Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the Council of State Governments filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the Iowa Utilities Board.  That brief, along with all other briefs filed in Sprint, can be found here.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Mark Fischer.

(Disclosure: Best Best & Krieger attorneys Kira Klatchko and Irene Zurko authored the brief for IMLA, NCSL, and the Council of State Governments.)