Friday, November 22, 2013
Rooker and Younger
In August, I wrote about Young v. Commonwealth, a § 1983 lawsuit by a teen-age girl who had a child as a result of a rape; the criminal court in Massachusetts ordered the convicted rapist (who was sentenced to 16 years probation) to initiate proceedings in state family court regarding paying child support and other matters, prompting the man to also seek visitation. The girl objected to that order because she did not want the man involved in her, or the child's, lives; she attempted to appeal the criminal court order to the Massachusetts SJC, but was found not to have state-law standing. She then ran to federal court. I pointed out a number of problems with the case and even used the complaint to illustrate some concepts and doctrines in Civil Rights.
Two weeks ago, District Judge Stearns of the District of Massachusetts dismissed the complaint, seemingly with prejudice (H/T: One of my alert students). The court dismissed for three reasons: 1) the suit is barred by the Eleventh Amendment because it named the Commonwealth as defendant and the attempt to instead name the state judges under Ex Parte Young is still barred because the suit does not seek prospective relief, but relief from a prior judgment (this last point is beyond wrong, although I leave that for another day); 2) it is barred by Burford Abstention, which requires federal abstention in deference to a unified state regulatory regime, which includes family courts); and 3) it is barred by Younger abstention, because the § 1983 action interferes with an ongoing state proceeding.
In my earlier post, I suggested that the real basis for dismissal should be Rooker-Feldman, which is also what I suggested to my students in class. The court's reliance on Younger instead of Rooker-Feldman reflects what may be a common, but unfortunate, confusion between the doctrines.Younger and Rooker-Feldman share similar underlying comity concerns--allowing state institutions, mainly as courts, to function according to their own processes and preventing federal district courts from hearing cases that interfere with or override those proceedings. And both doctrines rest on the premise that constitutional errors in state proceedings should be corrected by seeking appellate review in the state system and, if necessary, SCOTUS review of the final state-court judgment.
The difference is (or should be) the target of the federal suit. In the typical Younger case, the state is seeking to enforce its substantive law in a state proceeding and the state defendant asks a federal court to enjoin that enforcement effort, and thus to enjoin the ongoing state proceeding, because the underlying substantive law is defective (usually constitutionally, but also as a matter of federal statutory law). The federal defendant is usually the executive officer or agency who initiated the enforcement efforts. Younger prevents that end-run, forcing the party to defend in the state enforcement proceeding, present its constitutional challenge to the underlying law there, and appeal any adverse result. And if Scott Dodson is right about the case pending before SCOTUS, Younger's scope is going to be explicitly more confined to such coercive proceedings. By contrast, Rooker-Feldman applies where the constitutional injury to the would-be federal plaintiff is caused by an adverse judgment or order already issued in any type of ongoing state proceeding, where the federal injunction would functionally review and reverse that order.
The problem is that many courts (and presumably defendants, which is where this begins) immediately turn to Younger anytime the injunction touches a pending state proceeding, without stopping to consider the nature of the state proceeding, the source of the alleged constitutional injury, or the target of the sought federal injunction. Those features should mark the line between Younger and Rooker-Feldman. The Tyler court is not alone in this conflation. In SKS Assocs. v. Dart, the Seventh Circuit held that Younger barred a federal action to enjoin a General Order issued by the chief judge of the state court and applicable to all pending eviction actions in state court. The court similarly went straight for Younger, even though the challenge was to the constitutionality of the order issued (functionally) in a pending state case and not to the underlying applicable law. The court did acknowledge that this was not the typical Younger case because SKS was not a defendant in the state proceedings, but nevertheless insisted that Younger comity demanded abstention.
The Tyler court also seems to have missed the point of the lawsuit, which may add to the confusion. The court saw it as an effort to enjoin the family proceedings (which have not yet produced any final order), meaning there was no specific order to point to as the source of injury. But the complaint actually asks the court to enjoin the underlying criminal court order that sent the perpetrator to family court in the first instance, as order already issued and final. So, once again, the target of the federal action matters.
The further irony is that less than a decade ago, lower courts were overusing RF, having conflated it with claim preclusion. SCOTUS halted that with two decisions (Saudi Basic and Lance). Now the courts seem to be running away from RF's core application.
At some level, of course, it does not make a practical difference. A federal district court cannot hear Tyler's § 1983 action and Tyler's recourse lies in appellate review of state proceedings, with possible certiorari to SCOTUS. But there is nothing wrong with a little doctrinal consistency and accuracy.
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Why wouldn't preclusion apply here too?
Posted by: SparkleMotion | Nov 22, 2013 3:09:52 PM
It seems to me that, at least as it appears from the complaint, she is not trying to relitigate the underlying issues, but to challenge the (federal) constitutionality of the order.
Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 22, 2013 3:18:53 PM
Is that a distinction without a difference here?
Posted by: SparkleMotion | Nov 22, 2013 4:28:54 PM