This article previews the issues and arguments in Lake Coal Co. v. Roberts & Schaefer Co., on the Supreme Court’s 1985-86 appellate docket. The issue in this case is whether a federal districtcourt with properly invoked diversity jurisdiction may decline jurisdiction in deference to a concurrent state action, where some exceptional circumstances counsel against exercising federal jurisdiction. As pressures have increased and legislation has failed to alleviate the growing problem of overcrowded federal dockets, a significant number of courts have seized the initiative to relieve the overcrowding through a previously underutilized abstention doctrine. This doctrine permits a federal court to stay or dismiss a case because there is a parallel state court proceeding where the dispute can be resolved satisfactorily.
The Supreme Court has twice affirmed the principle that a federal district court may refuse to hear a properly docketed case if there are "exceptional circumstances" encouraging federal deference to a concurrent state court adjudication. Although the Supreme Court has given its imprimatur to this rule as a method of avoiding duplicative litigation, some regard this doctrine more cynically as an impermissible means merely to serve the convenience of the federal courts.
In this case, the Supreme Court will once again have the opportunity to assess the propriety of this type of federal court abstention. Of all the challenges to this doctrine that the Supreme Court has evaluated in recent years, the facts of this case most strikingly present the competing values the Court must weigh in the balance.
For years, this so-called fourth type of abstention doctrine has been infrequently invoked by counsel, rarely applied by the district courts and never appropriately sanctioned by the Supreme Court. The Court first gave the doctrine qualified approval nine years ago in Colorado River Water Conervation Dist. v. United States (424 U.S. 800 (1976)). That case established the general principle that the ability of a federal district court to decline to exercise its jurisdiction is "an extraordinary and narrow exception" to its duty to adjudicate a controversy properly before it.
The Court declined to delineate a hard-and-fast rule for spotting "exceptional circumstances" where such deferral was appropriate, but it did articulate four factors it deemed relevant to the decision. These are: (1) which court has jurisdiction over the property in dispute; (2) the relative convenience or inconvenience of the federal court for adjudicating the claims; (3) the desirability of avoiding piecemeal litigation in two court systems, and (4) the order in which jurisdiction was obtained by the state and federal courts. The Supreme Court stressed that no one factor was determinative, but that a combination of factors would be required to defer federal jurisdiction.
Lake Coal Company v. Roberts & Schaefer Company will be the fourth time in nine years that the Supreme Court will revisit the issue of the propriety of federal abstention for reasons of "wise judicial administration." The legal significance of this case depends largely on the approach the Court takes to resolving this issue. On one hand, the Court can simply reaffirm the embellished Colorado River test, and review the district court's application of those standards. This approach seems highly unlikely as the Supreme Court does not usually review lower court applications of discretionary standards unless there is a clear abuse of discretion.
On the other hand, the Court may reconsider the propriety of this type abstention altogether―especially since some dissenting Justices have, in tile past, characterized the doctrine as containing "an ominous potential for the abdication of federal court jurisdiction." Should the Court reconsider the wisdom of this fourth type of abstention and reject it, then federal courts may be precluded from surrendering jurisdiction for administrative expediency grounds.
Linda S. Mullenix, Federal Abstention of the Fourth Kind: The Judicial Administration Exception, 1985-86 Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases 20.