This article presents commentary and analysis in the appeal in Sprint Communications Co. v. Jacobs, to be argued on the Supreme Court’s November 2013 docket. The appeal concerns interpretation and application of Younger abstention, a judicially-created doctrine whereby federal courts refrain from exercising jurisdiction in deference to a pending state court proceeding. The Court will determine whether to endorse a refinement of Younger doctrine that would apply abstention when a state proceeding is “coercive” in nature, but would not apply when the state proceeding is merely “remedial.”
This appeal focuses on the evolutionary doctrinal nuances of Younger abstention doctrine. As originally conceived, Younger abstention was intended as a non-interference doctrine requiring federal courts to refrain from adjudicating a federal case where there was a parallel, pending state criminal proceeding. Over time, the Court extended Younger abstention to apply to quasi-criminal proceedings, and then further to state civil enforcement proceedings that were, by analogy, “coercive” in nature.
On appeal, Sprint argues that the Eighth Circuit’s decision to apply Younger abstention in deference to an Iowa administrative proceeding flies in the face of the policies underlying the Younger doctrine. Sprint contends that its federal complaint alleged only issues of federal law and that the Eighth Circuit’s novel application of Younger abstention is inconsistent with the Court’s longstanding rule that a state court’s determination of federal issues cannot be substituted for federal court litigation of such claims. Sprint further points out that the Court applied this rule to mandate federal review of state telecommunication regulator decisions, arguing that the Eighth Circuit’s decision was simply “incomprehensible.”
Sprint’s appeal in its dispute with an Iowa administrative agency over the applicability of Younger abstention is highly unlikely to garner excited media attention because it is based on complex federal and state regulatory schemes, involves complicated underlying facts replete with exotic telecommunications technology, and turns on issues of Younger abstention.
Instead, Sprint’s appeal has great cache for the academic community of federal court and constitutional law scholars, demonstrated by the law professors’ amicus brief expounding on the nuanced differences between Burford and Younger abstention. Thus, the case entails broad issues of federalism and comity, two subjects always calculated to inspire erudite academic attention. However, it remains to be seen whether the Court will agree with the Iowa state agency that Sprint and the law professors have set up a straw man argument, and whether the Court will be diverted in elaborating fine distinctions between Burford and Younger abstention.
Obviously, the Court’s decision will prove significant for Sprint, which desires to have its federal law claims adjudicated in federal court ― an interest that applies to all corporate entities subject to federal regulatory schemes. Equally important, the Iowa state agency wishes to preserve the domain of state law questions for all state proceedings, through an expansive embrace of Younger doctrine. Thus, the Court’s decision will have bearing on those broad issues of the allocation of authority between state and federal tribunals.
The appeal legitimately invites the Court to clarify whether the application of Younger abstention includes a distinction between coercive and remedial state proceedings, either as a determinative test or as another factor that federal courts should consider on a motion to abstain. What is certain, however, is that if the Court imports such as “coercive/remedial” distinction into the Younger abstention calculus, we are likely to see a spate of lower federal court decisions minutely evaluating whether a state proceeding is coercive or remedial.
For a Supreme Court that, in recent terms, has announced its preference for clear bright-lines rules, it will be interesting to see interest how the Court sorts out the request for such an additional Younger test.
Linda S. Mullenix, Clash of the Sovereigns II: Does the Younger Abstention Doctrine Distinguish Between Coercive and Remedial State Court Proceedings?, 2 Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases 67 (Nov. 4, 2013).