Review of Abstention: The Appealability of a Refusal to Refuse Jurisdiction


Linda S Mullenix

5 Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases 135


This article previews the issues and arguments in Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. v. Mayacamas, on the Supreme Court’s 1987-88 appellate docket. The issue in this case is whether a federal court's decision to deny a request that the court abstain from hearing a case is immediately appealable under three possible theories: (1) as a collateral order, (2) as a refusal to grant an injunction, or (3) as an abuse of discretion requiring a writ of mandamus. A corollary issue, addressed only partially by the parties, is whether a federal court should grant or deny this abstention in a diversity case where the state court defendant did not avail itself of removal jurisdiction, but instead instituted a new, separate suit in federal court.

Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and related statutes, a litigant has the right to appeal from an adverse ruling only after the court has arrived at a final decision. This proposition, the "final judgment rule," is based on the principle that those in lawsuits ought not be permitted to bog down an ongoing proceeding with innumerable appeals from a judge's rulings. Since the overarching philosophy of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive resolution of disputes, courts generally have viewed interlocutory appeals with disfavor. Notwithstanding this disfavor, interlocutory appeal is possible tinder both statutory and judicial exceptions to the final judgment rule.

In Gulfstreamn Aerospace, the Court will consider the viability of a doctrine that permits federal courts to refuse to hear a duplicative litigation in the interests of judicial economy. This legal doctrine, known as "Colorado River abstention," presents an appealable issue when the court determines to grant a request that the court decline to exercise its jurisdiction. Now the Supreme Court has the opportunity to determine whether there is also such an exception to the final judgment rule when a trial court denies a request for such abstention.

Those involved in Gulstream will be arguing three well-developed theories of interlocutory appeal: the collateral order doctrine, the injunction exception and the writ of mandamus review. Furthermore, although Gulfstream seeks to implicate the underlying merits of federal court abstention, the Supreme Court can avoid such discussion by narrowly focusing on the question of appellate jurisdiction over interlocutory review.

Apart from the issue of interlocutory review, Gulfstream also has attacked the lower federal court's ruling on the merits of the abstention question. Abstention for reasons of sound judicial administration permits a federal court to decline its jurisdiction when the court finds there are certain "exceptional circumstances" which counsel the surrender of federal jurisdiction in deference to a state court proceeding. Gulfstream argues, at length, that the federal plaintiff's failure to avail itself of removal jurisdiction (as the state defendant) should prevent relief in another distant federal forum.

Mayacamas has responded that removal jurisdiction is a procedural option, not a procedural requirement. Moreover, the availability of removal jurisdiction is not a factor that should enter into the "exceptional circumstances" evaluation.Since the judge did not abuse his discretion in finding a lack of exceptional circumstances, the lower court decision refusing abstention should stand. Therefore, in Gulfstream, the Court will have the opportunity to decide whether the possibility of removal in a state case should inveigh against duplicative federal court jurisdiction in another federal forum. If the Supreme Court adopts this position, it indeed will elevate a procedural option into another exceptional circumstance.

Full Citation

Linda S. Mullenix, Review of Abstention: The Appealability of a Refusal to Refuse Jurisdiction, 1987-88 Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases 135.