When Federal Court Should Abstain: Should State Grand Juries Be Getting Any Younger?


Linda S Mullenix

2 Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases 53


This article previews the issues and arguments in Deakins v. Monaghan, on the Supreme Court’s 1987-88 appellate docket. The issue in this case is whether the Younger doctrine of abstention requires a federal district court to dismiss an action for alleged violations of constitutional rights,as well as for the return of seized documents, when there is an ongoing state grand jury investigation of those who instituted the federal action.

There is no more hotly contested or frequently litigated jurisdictional issue than the requirement that federal courts decline to hear constitutional challenges if to do so would impede an ongoing state court proceeding. Yielding federal court jurisdiction where a parallel state court case can adjudicate such claims is justified to preserve and protect amicable federal-state relations. This general principle and its theoretical accoutrements now goes by the lofty slogan of "Our Federalism," a term coined by Supreme Court Justice Black in Younger v. Harris (401 U.S. 37 (1971)), the landmark case first setting out this doctrine of federal judicial abstention.

Since its first articulation in 1971, the Supreme Court has repeatedly returned to examine and redefine the contours of Younger abstention. Deakins v. Monaghan represents yet another annual visitation by the Supreme Court in its efforts to inform the lower federal courts concerning the extent of this abstention doctrine. This time the Court will focus its attention on how the doctrineapplies to state grand jury proceedings in a criminal investigation. Pitted against the state's right to proceed with its grand jury investigation unimpeded by a tandem federal lawsuit, is a party's right to seek independent federal redress for alleged violation of the constitutional right to be free from illegal search and seizure.

Beyond the narrow legal arguments, this case involves broader policy questions concerning the relationship between the state and federal judicial systems. New Jersey contends that the Supreme Court must affirm application of the Younger doctrine here because if it fails to do so, the state's ability to proceed with a criminal investigation will be hopelessly impeded. The state argues that if Monaghan prevails, potential targets of grand jury investigations will have the ability to frustrate state investigations by suing in federal court for the return of seized documents that may be crucial to a state's ongoing criminal investigation. Monaghan, on the contrary, points out that this case presents precisely the situation where an aggrieved citizen ought to be able to seek relief in federal court for alleged rights violations free from the local bias that might attend litigation in the same state court that is actively investigating the aggrieved parties.

The Supreme Court may decide to avoid the Younger issue altogether if it adopts Monaghan's view of the case as currently presented to the Court. In an unusual turn of procedural posturing, Monaghan now has informed the Court that by virtue of the New Jersey indictments and a state order requiring return of certain seized documents, the injunctive, equitable claims are moot. In addition, Monaghan and his associates have also informed the Court that since there is now an actual ongoing state criminal proceeding, they have agreed to stay their request for damages, costs and attorneys' fees pending the end of the state trial. In short, having litigated all the way to the Supreme Court, Monaghan and company now argue that their case is not worthy of hearing.

Full Citation

Linda S. Mullenix, When Federal Court Should Abstain: Should State Grand Juries Be Getting Any Younger?, 1987-88 Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases 53.