skip navigation

CRS Annotated Constitution

Article III -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next

Use of State Courts in Enforcement of Federal Law.—Although the states–rights proponents in the Convention and in the First Congress wished to leave to the state courts the enforcement of federal law and rights rather than to create inferior federal courts,1141 it was not long before they or their successors began to argue that state courts could not be required to adjudicate cases based on federal law. The practice in the early years was to make the jurisdiction of federal courts generally concurrent with that of state courts,1142 and early Congresses imposed positive duties on[p.796]state courts to enforce federal laws.1143 Reaction set in out of hostility to the Embargo Acts, the Fugitive Slave Law, and other measures,1144 and in Prigg v. Pennsylvania,1145 involving the Fugitive Slave Law, the Court indicated that the States could not be compelled to enforce federal law. After a long period, however, Congress resumed its former practice,1146 which the Court sustained,1147 and it went even further in the Federal Employers’ Liability Act by not only giving state courts concurrent jurisdiction but also by prohibiting the removal of cases begun in state courts to the federal courts.1148

When Connecticut courts refused to enforce an FELA claim on the ground that to do so was contrary to the public policy of the State, the Court held on the basis of the supremacy clause that when Congress enacts a law and declares a national policy, that policy is as much Connecticut’s and every other State’s as it is of the collective United States.1149 The Court’s suggestion that the Act could be enforced “as of right, in the courts of the States when their jurisdiction, as prescribed by local laws, is adequate to the occasion,”1150 leaving the impression that state practice might in some instances preclude enforcement in state courts, was given body when the Court upheld New York’s refusal to adjudicate an FELA claim which fell in a class of cases in which claims under state law would not be entertained.1151 “[T]here is nothing in the Act of Congress that purports to force a duty upon such Courts as against an otherwise valid excuse.”1152 However, “[a]n excuse that[p.797]is inconsistent with or violates federal law is not a valid excuse. . . .”1153

In Testa v. Katt,1154 the Court unanimously held that state courts, at least in regard to claims and cases analogous to claims and cases enforceable in those courts under state law, are as required to enforce penal laws of the United States as they are to enforce remedial laws. Respecting Rhode Island’s claim that one sovereign cannot enforce the penal laws of another, Justice Black observed that the assumption underlying this claim flew “in the face of the fact that the States of the Union constitute a nation” and the fact of the existence of the supremacy clause.1155

State Interference with Federal Jurisdiction.—It seems settled, though not without dissent, that state courts have no power to enjoin proceedings1156 or effectuation of judgments1157 of the federal courts, with the exception of cases in which a state court has custody of property in proceedings in rem or quasi in rem, where the state court has exclusive jurisdiction to proceed and may enjoin parties from further action in federal court.1158


Conflicts of Jurisdiction: Rules of Accommodation

Federal courts primarily interfere with state courts in three ways: by enjoining proceedings in them, by issuing writs of habeas corpus to set aside convictions obtained in them, and by adjudicating cases removed from them. With regard to all three but particularly with regard to the first, there have been developed certain rules plus a statutory limitation designed to minimize needless conflict.

Comity.—“[T]he notion of ‘comity,”’ Justice Black asserted, is composed of “a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate state governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways. This, perhaps for lack of a better and clearer way to describe it, is referred to by many as ‘Our Federalism’. . . .”1159 Comity is a self–imposed rule of judicial restraint whereby independent tribunals of concurrent or coordinate jurisdiction act to moderate the stresses of coexistence and to avoid collisions of authority. It is not a rule of law but “one of practice, convenience, and expediency”1160 which persuades but does not command.


1141 Supra, pp.597–598.
1142 Judiciary Act of 1789, §§ 9, 11, 1 Stat. 76, 78 , and see id., Sec. 25, 1 Stat. 85 .
1143 E.g., Carriage Tax Act, 1 Stat. 373 (1794); License Tax on Wine & Spirits Act, 1 Stat. 376 (1794): Fugitive Slave Act, 1 Stat. 302 (1794); Naturalization Act of 1795, 1 Stat. 414 ; Alien Enemies Act of 1798, 1 Stat. 577 . State courts in 1799 were vested with jurisdiction to try criminal offenses against the postal laws. 1 Stat. 733, 28 . The Act of March 3, 1815, 3 Stat. 244 , vested state courts with jurisdiction of complaints, suits, and prosecutions for taxes, duties, fines, penalties, and forfeitures. See Warren, Federal Criminal Laws and State Courts, 38 Harv. L. Rev. 545, 577–581 (1925).
1144 Embargo Acts, 2 Stat. 453, 473, 499, 506, 528, 550, 605, 707 (1808–1812); 3 Stat. 88 (1813); Fugitive Slave Act, 1 Stat. 302 (1793).
1145 16 Pet. (41 U.S.) 539, 615 (1842), See also Houston v. Moore, 5 Wheat. (18 U.S.) 1, 69 (1820) (Justice Story dissenting); United States v. Bailey, 9 Pet. (34 U.S.) 238, 259 (1835) (Justice McLean dissenting). However, it was held that States could exercise concurrent jurisdiction if they wished. Claflin v. Houseman, 93 U.S. 130 (1876), and cases cited.
1146 E.g., Act of June 8, 1872, 17 Stat. 323 .
1147 Claflin v. Houseman, 93 U.S. 130 (1876).
1148 35 Stat. 65 (1908), as amended, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51 –60.
1149 Second Employers’ Liability Cases (Mondou v. New York, N.H. & H. R. Co.), 223 U.S. 1 (1912).
1150 Id., 59.
1151 Douglas v. New York, N.H. & H.R. Co., 279 U.S. 377 (1929).
1152 Id., 388. For what constitutes a valid excuse, compare Missouri ex rel. Southern Ry. v. Mayfield, 340 U.S. 1 (1950), with McKnett v. St. Louis & S.F. Ry. Co., 292 U.S. 230 (1934). It appears that generally state procedure must yield to federal when it would make a difference in outcome. Compare Brown v. Western Ry. of Alabama, 338 U.S. 294 (1949), and Dice v. Akron, C. & Y. R. Co., 342 U.S. 359 (1952), with Minneapolis & St. L. R. Co. v. Bombolis, 241 U.S. 211 (1916).
1153 Howlett by Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356, 371 (1990). See also Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131 (1988).
1154 330 U.S. 386 (1947).
1155 Id., 389. See, for a discussion as well as an extension of Testa, FERC v. Mississippi, 456 U.S. 742 (1982). Cases since Testa requiring state court enforcement of federal rights have generally concerned federal remedial laws. E.g., Charles Dowd Box Co. v. Courtney, 368 U.S. 502 (1962); Sullivan v. Little Hunting Park, 396 U.S. 229 (1969). The Court has approved state court adjudication under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 , Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1, 3 n. 1 (1980), but curiously in Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277, 283 n. 7 (1980) (emphasis by Court), it noted that it has “never considered . . . the question whether a State must entertain a claim under 1983.” See also Arkansas Writers’ Project, inc. v. Ragland, 481 U.S. 221, 234 n. 7 (1987) (continuing to reserve question). But with Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131 (1988), and Howlett by Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356 (1990), it seems dubious that state courts could refuse. Enforcement is not limited to federal statutory law; federal common law must similarly be enforced. Free v. Brand, 369 U.S. 663 (1962).
1156 Donovan v. City of Dallas, 377 U.S. 408 (1964), and cases cited. Justices Harlan, Clark, and Stewart dissented, arguing that a State should have power to enjoin vexatious, duplicative litigation which would have the effect of thwarting a state–court judgment already entered. See also Baltimore & Ohio R. Co. v. Kepner, 314 U.S. 44, 56 (1941) (Justice Frankfurter dissenting). In Riggs v. Johnson County, 6 Wall. (73 U.S.) 166 (1868), the general rule was attributed to the complete independence of state and federal courts in their spheres of action, but federal courts, of course may under certain circumstances enjoin actions in state courts.
1157 McKim v. Voorhies, 7 Cr. (11 U.S.) 279 (1812); Riggs v. Johnson County, 6 Wall. (73 U.S.) 166 (1868).
1158 Princess Lida v. Thompson, 305 U.S. 456 (1939). Nor do state courts have any power to release by habeas corpus persons in custody pursuant to federal authority. Ableman v. Booth, 21 How. (62 U.S.) 506 (1859); Tarble’s Case, 13 Wall. (80 U.S.) 397 (1872).
1159 Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 44 (1971). Compare Fair Assessment in Real Estate Assn. v. McNary, 454 U.S. 100 (1981), with id., 119–125 (Justice Brennan concurring, joined by three other Justices).
1160 Mast, Foos & Co. v. Stover Manufacturing Co., 177 U.S. 458, 488 (1900). Recent decisions emphasize comity as the primary reason for restraint in federal court actions tending to interfere with state courts. E.g., O’Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 499–504 (1974); Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 599–603 (1975); Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U.S. 434, 441 (1977); Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415, 430 (1979). The Court has also cited comity as a reason to restrict access to federal habeas corpus. Francis v. Henderson, 425 U.S. 536, 541 and n. 31 (1976); Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 83, 88, 90 (1977); Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 128–129 (1982). See also Rosewell v. LaSalle National Bank, 450 U.S. 503 (1981); Fair Assessment in Real Estate Assn. v. McNary, 454 U.S. 100 (1981) (comity limits federal court interference with state tax systems). And see Missouri v. Jenkins, 495 U.S. 33 (1990).
Article III -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next