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Saturday, February 29, 2020

Judge Sutton hates Rooker and Feldman--So now what?

The Sixth Circuit reversed a Rooker-Feldman dismissal of a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act action, challenging the interest rate included in state writs of garnishment. (H/T: Volokh's Short Circuit round-up). Judge Sutton writes a concurrence begging district courts to stop applying RF except to cases in which the district court is asked to rule that a final state supreme court judgment violates the Constitution.

Sutton insists that RF cannot be used to stop federal actions seeking to second-guess all state court rulings, such as an unappealed state trial-court ruling (whether interlocutory or final-and-appealable). Some courts had justified RF not only on § 1257, but also on § 1331's grant of original (rather than appellate) jurisdiction to district courts. If that also explains RF, then limiting it to final state supreme court decisions is too narrow, at least where the federal plaintiff truly claims constitutional injury arising from a state judgment.*

[*] The majority supported its no-RF conclusion in part because a writ of garnishment is not a judgment.

Sutton argues that such a case be handled by issue and claim preclusion. So does that work? Take the paradigm case of a state trial-court judgment stripping a father of visitation rights. If the father does not appeal to the state intermediate appellate court but instead runs to federal court, Sutton would say RF does not apply. But would preclusion bar that claim, as it must if district courts are not to become reviewing courts for state trial-court judgments.

I also would be concerned that the doctrine that will rise up to replace RF is not preclusion but Younger. A number of lower courts have used that doctrine halt these sorts of challenges where the state proceeding is pending. Except Younger should be limited to challenges to the underlying state law being challenged rather than to complaints about the state court decision itself.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 29, 2020 at 10:38 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink

Comments

"there seems to be some vague concern on his part that some circuits have misread Exxon Mobil."

The concern isn't that judges are misreading Exxon; it is that they are paying lip service to it and then promptly ignoring it in favor of RF. I think the goal is to get judges to enforce Exxon rather than RF, or if they can't do that find some other means. But either way RF should just die.

Posted by: James | Mar 2, 2020 3:40:11 PM

" Judge Sutton writes a concurrence begging district courts to stop applying RF except to cases in which the district court is asked to rule that a final state supreme court judgment violates the Constitution."

That's just false. You can't find the latter limitation ("violates the Constitution") anywhere in the whole opinion. He would say Rooker-Feldman bars an action seeking to "appeal" or "reverse" (his terms) a state-court judgment on any ground. You also can't really find the first limitation ("final state supreme court judgment") anywhere in his opinion, save a feint in this direction in the opening paragraph. While he talks a lot about 1257, he also stresses that no statute gives federal courts the power to review state-court judgments outside of habeas, and throughout he talks about Rooker-Feldman appropriately barring "appeals from final state court decisions" and "state court judgments." My reading of this opinion is that it really only says that courts should follow Exxon Mobil. Given that reading, it's admittedly extremely difficult to understand its rhetoric or why it was written, but there seems to be some vague concern on his part that some circuits have misread Exxon Mobil.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Feb 29, 2020 11:26:21 PM

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