Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, December 11, 2013


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High Court Limits Scope of Younger Abstention Rule


By JUSTIN LEVINE, Staff Writer


The Younger abstention doctrine is subject to significant limitations and is not applicable to ordinary civil litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.

The doctrine requires federal courts to abstain from deciding certain issues that are subject to ongoing proceedings in state courts.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it should be strictly limited to cases involving either state criminal prosecutions, civil enforcement proceedings akin to criminal prosecutions, or matters that uniquely touch upon a state court’s ability to perform its judicial function.

Yesterday’s case of Sprint Communications, Inc. v. Jacobs fell well outside those parameters, the justice said. It concerned national phone carrier Sprint Communications, which had argued that the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 preempted state regulations of long distance calls placed over the Internet.

The company’s argument prompted it to withhold mandatory local access fees imposed by a phone carrier in Iowa, Windstream Iowa Communications, Inc.

After Windstream threatened to block all Sprint calls in retaliation for its refusal to pay the fee, Sprint asked the Iowa Utilities Board to enjoin Windstream from disrupting its service in the state. Although Windstream later withdrew its threat and Sprint withdrew its complaint before the board, the board continued its proceedings and concluded that intrastate fees could still be lawfully applied to Internet-based phone calls.

 In response to the board’s decision, Sprint filed separate lawsuits in both state and federal court. In its federal complaint, Sprint asked the district court to enjoin the board’s order based on the notion that its decision was preempted by the Telecommunications Act. It made the same argument in a petition filed with the Iowa state court, where it also asserted additional state law and procedural due process claims.

Sprint said that it filed the state suit as a protective measure in case the federal court decided to abstain after Iowa’s statute of limitations expired on its claims.

The federal district judge dismissed the suit based on Younger v. Harris (1971) 401 U. S. 37. Citing the pending state-court review of the same issue, the district court declined to entertain jurisdiction over the case.

On appeal, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Younger abstention was warranted, reasoning that the federal case encroached upon an ongoing state proceeding concerning Iowa’s “important state interest in regulating and enforcing its intrastate utility rates.” The court vacated the district court’s dismissal of the case, but ordered it to issue a stay during the pendency of the state-court action.

Sprint appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed.

Ginsburg said that federal courts were generally “obliged” to decide cases that they had jurisdiction over and that it was uncontested that the district court had jurisdiction to decide if federal law preempted the state board’s decision.

“Abstention is not in order simply because a pending state-court proceeding involves the same subject matter,” she wrote.

Ginsburg said that Supreme Court precedent has established that Younger abstention should only apply when the pending state case involves a criminal proceeding, civil proceedings that are akin to criminal prosecutions such as attorney discipline cases, or those involving orders that are “are uniquely in furtherance of the state courts’ ability to perform their judicial functions.”

She described the abstention categories as “exceptional circumstances” and said that they were to be considered the “exception, not the rule,” to exercising federal jurisdiction.

In discarding the Eighth Circuit’s decision, Ginsburg wrote that the appeals court misinterpreted the scope of the doctrine in allowing it to apply whenever there is “[1] an ongoing state judicial proceeding, which (2) implicates important state interests, and (3)…provide[s] an adequate opportunity to raise [federal] challenges.”

She said that following such an approach would give the abstention doctrine an “extraordinary breadth” that would wrongfully extend it, “to virtually all parallel state and federal proceedings, at least where a party could identify a plausibly important state interest.”

Ginsburg clarified that Younger abstention should apply to the three “exceptional circumstances” the Supreme Court had previously articulated, “but no further.”

She rejected the Iowa board’s argument that since Sprint withdrew its initial complaint and was not longer a willing participant, the proceedings before the board essentially became a civil enforcement action which resembled a criminal prosecution, and therefore justified abstention by the district court.

Ginsberg wrote:

“A private corporation, Sprint, initiated the action. No state authority conducted an investigation into Sprint’s activities, and no state actor lodged a formal complaint against Sprint....

The IUB’s adjudicative authority…was invoked to settle a civil dispute between two private parties, not to sanction Sprint for commission of a wrongful act. Although Sprint withdrew its complaint, administrative efficiency, not misconduct by Sprint, prompted the IUB to answer the underlying federal question.”

Subsequent to the court’s granting of certiorari in the case, the Iowa state court issued an opinion that rejected Sprint’s preemption claim on the merits. Ginsburg said that decision did not render the abstention issue moot since Sprint indicated that it would appeal the decision.


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