CRS Annotated Constitution

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Conflict between federal and state courts is inevitable when the federal courts are open to persons complaining about unconstitutional or unlawful state action which could as well be brought in the state courts and perhaps is so brought by other persons, but the various rules of restraint flowing from the concept of comity reduce federal interference here some considerable degree. It is rather in three fairly well defined areas that institutional conflict is most pronounced.

Federal Restraint of State Courts by Injunctions.—Even where the federal anti–injunction law is inapplicable, or where the question of application is not reached,1199 those seeking to enjoin state court proceedings must overcome substantial prudential barriers, among them the abstention doctrine1200 and more important[p.805]than that the equity doctrine that suits in equity are to be withheld “in any case where plain, adequate and complete remedy may be had at law.”1201 The application of this latter principle has been most pronounced in the reluctance of federal courts to interfere with a State’s good faith enforcement of its criminal law. Here, the Court has required of a litigant seeking to bar threatened state prosecution not only a showing of irreparable injury which is both great and immediate but an inability to defend his constitutional right in the state proceeding. Certain types of injury, such as the cost, anxiety, and inconvenience of having to defend against a single criminal prosecution, are insufficient to be considered irreparable in this sense. Even if a state criminal statute is unconstitutional, a person charged under it usually has an adequate remedy at law by raising his constitutional defense in the state trial.1202 The policy has never been stated as an absolute, recognizing that in exceptional and limited circumstances, such as the existence of factors making it impossible for a litigant to protect his federal constitutional rights through a defense of the state criminal charges or the bringing of multiple criminal charges, a federal court injunction could properly issue.1203

In Dombrowski v. Pfister,1204 the Court appeared to change the policy somewhat. The case on its face contained allegations and offers of proof that may have been sufficient alone to establish the “irreparable injury” justifying federal injunctive relief.1205 But the[p.806]formulation of standards by Justice Brennan for the majority placed great emphasis upon the fact that the state criminal statute in issue regulated expression. Any criminal prosecution under a statute regulating expression might of itself inhibit the exercise of First Amendment rights, it was said, and prosecution under an overbroad1206 statute like the one in this case might critically impair exercise of those rights. The mere threat of prosecution under such an overbroad statute “may deter . . . almost as potently as the actual application of sanctions.”

In such cases, courts could no longer embrace the assumption that defense of the criminal prosecution “will generally assure ample vindication of constitutional rights,” because either the mere threat of prosecution or the long wait between prosecution and final vindication could result in a “chilling effect” upon First Amendment rights.1207 The principle apparently established by the Court was two– phased: a federal court should not abstain when there is a facially unconstitutional statute infringing upon speech and application of that statute to discourage protected activities, and the court should further enjoin the state proceedings when there is prosecution or threat of prosecution under an overbroad statute regulating expression if the prosecution or threat of prosecution chills the exercise of freedom of expression.1208 These formulations were reaffirmed in Zwickler v. Koota,1209 in which a declaratory judgment was sought with regard to a statute prohibiting anonymous election literature. Abstention was deemed improper,1210 and further it was held that adjudication for purposes of declaratory judgment is not hemmed in by considerations attendant upon injunctive relief.1211

The aftermath of the Dombrowski–Zwickler decisions was a considerable expansion of federal–court adjudication of constitutional attack through requests for injunctive and declaratory relief, which gradually spread out from First Amendment areas to other constitutionally–protected activities.1212 However, these develop[p.807]ments were highly controversial and after three arguments on the issue, the Court in a series of cases receded from its position and circumscribed the discretion of the lower federal courts to a considerable and ever–broadening degree.1213 The important difference between this series of cases and Dombrowski–Zwickler was that in the latter for particular reasons there were no prosecutions pending whereas in the former there were. Nevertheless, the care with which Justice Black for the majority undertook to distinguish and limit Dombrowski signified a limitation of its doctrine, which proved partially true in later cases.

Justice Black reviewed and reaffirmed the traditional rule of reluctance to interfere with state court proceedings except in extraordinary circumstances. The holding in Dombrowski, as distinguished from some of the language, did not change the general rule, because extraordinary circumstances had existed. Thus, Justice Black, with considerable support from the other Justices,1214 went on to affirm that where a criminal proceeding is already pending in a state court, if it is a single prosecution about which there is no allegation that it was brought in bad faith or that it was one of a series of repeated prosecutions which would be brought, and the defendant may put in issue his federal–constitutional defense at the trial, federal injunctive relief is improper, even if it is alleged that the statute on which the prosecution was based regulated expression and was overbroad.

Many statutes regulating expression were valid and some overbroad statutes could be validly applied and attacks on facial unconstitutionality abstracted from concrete factual situations was not a sound judicial method. “It is sufficient for purposes of the present case to hold, as we do, that the possible unconstitutionality of a statute ‘on its face’ does not in itself justify an injunction against good faith attempts to enforce it, and that appellee Harris has failed to make any showing of bad faith, harassment, or any other unusual circumstances that would call for equitable relief.”1215


The reason for the principle, said Justice Black, flows from “Our Federalism,” which requires federal courts to defer to state courts when there are proceedings pending in them.1216

Moreover, in a companion case, the Court held that when prosecutions are pending in state court, ordinarily the propriety of injunctive and declaratory relief should be judged by the same standards.1217 A declaratory judgment is as likely to interfere with state proceedings as an injunction, whether the federal decision be treated as res judicata or whether it is viewed as a strong precedent guiding the state court. Additionally, “the Declaratory Judgment Act provides that after a declaratory judgment is issued the district court may enforce it by granting ‘further necessary or proper relief’ and therefore a declaratory judgment issued while state proceedings are pending might serve as the basis for a subsequent injunction against those proceedings to ‘protect or effectuate’ the declaratory judgment, 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2283 , and thus result in a clearly improper interference with the state proceedings.”1218

When, however, there is no pending state prosecution, the Court is clear, “Our Federalism” is not offended if a plaintiff in a federal court is able to demonstrate a genuine threat of enforcement of a disputed criminal statute, whether the statute is attacked on its face or as applied, and becomes entitled to a federal declaratory judgment.1219 And, in fact, when no state prosecution is pending, a federal plaintiff need not demonstrate the existence of the Younger factors to justify the issuance of a preliminary or permanent injunction against prosecution under a disputed state statute.1220

Of much greater significance is the extension of Younger to civil proceedings in state courts1221 and to state administrative[p.809]proceedings of a judicial nature.1222 The principle is that the Younger principle applies whenever in civil or administrative proceedings important state interests are involved which the State, or its officers or agency, is seeking to promote. Indeed, the presence of important state interests in state proceedings has been held to raise the Younger bar to federal relief in proceedings which are entirely between private parties.1223 Comity, the Court said, requires abstention when States have “important” interests in pending civil proceedings between private parties,1224 as long as litigants are not precluded from asserting federal rights. Thus, the Court explained, “proper respect for the ability of state courts to resolve federal questions presented in state court litigation mandates that the federal court stay its hand.”1225


1199 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2283 may be inapplicable because no state court proceeding is pending or because the action is brought under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 . Its application may never be reached because a court may decide that equitable principles do not justify injunctive relief. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 54 (1971).
1200 Supra, pp.798–800.
1201 The quoted phrase setting out the general principle is from the Judiciary Act of 1789, Sec. 16, 1 Stat. 82 .
1202 The older cases areFenner v. Boykin 271 U.S. 240 (1926); Spielman Motor Sales Co. v. Dodge, 295 U.S. 89 (1935); Beal v. Missouri Pac. R. Co., 312 U.S. 45 (1941); Watson v. Buck, 313 U.S. 387 (1941); Williams v. Miller, 317 U.S. 599 (1942); Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157 (1943). There is a stricter rule against federal restraint of the use of evidence in state criminal trials. Stefanelli v. Minard, 342 U.S. 117 (1951); Pugach v. Dollinger, 365 U.S. 458 (1961). The Court reaffirmed the rule in Perez v. Ledesma, 401 U.S. 82 (1971). State officers may not be enjoined from testifying or using evidence gathered in violation of federal constitutional restrictions, Cleary v. Bolger, 371 U.S. 392 (1963), but the rule is unclear with regard to federal officers and state trials. Compare Rea v. United States, 350 U.S. 214 (1956), with Wilson v. Schnettler, 365 U.S. 381 (1961).
1203 E.g., Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157, 163–164 (1943); Stefanelli v. Minard, 342 U.S. 117, 122 (1951). See also Terrace v. Thompson, 263 U.S. 197, 214 (1923), Future criminal proceedings were sometimes enjoined. E.g., Hague v. CIO, 307 U.S. 496 (1939).
1204 380 U.S. 479 (1965). Grand jury indictments had been returned after the district court had dissolved a preliminary injunction, erroneously in the Supreme Court’s view, so that it took the view that no state proceedings were pending as of the appropriate time. For a detailed analysis of the case, see Fiss, Dombrowski, 86 L. J.1103 (1977).
1205 “[T]he allegations in this complaint depict a situation in which defense of the State’s criminal prosecution will not assure adequate vindication of constitutional rights. They suggest that a substantial loss of or impairment of freedoms of expression will occur if appellants must await the state court’s disposition and ultimate review in this Court of any adverse determination. These allegations, if true, clearly show irreparable injury.” Id., 380 U.S., 485–486.
1206 That is, a statute which reaches both protected and unprotected expression and conduct.
1207 Id., 486–487.
1208 See Cameron v. Johnson, 381 U.S. 741 (1965); Cameron v. Johnson, 390 U.S. 611 (1968.)
1209 389 U.S. 241 (1967). The state criminal conviction had been reversed by a state court on state law grounds and no new charge had been instituted.
1210 It was clear that the statute could not be construed by a state court and thus a federal constitutional decision rendered unnecessary. Id., 248–252.
1211 Id., 254.
1212 Maraist, Federal Injunctive Relief Against State Court Proceedings: The Significance of Dombrowski, 48 L. Rev.535 (1970).
1213 Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66 (1971); Boyle v. Landry, 401 U.S. 77 (1971); Perez v. Ledesma, 401 U.S. 82 (1971); Dyson v. Stein, 401 U.S. 200 (1971); Byrne v. Karalexis, 401 U.S. 216 (1971).
1214 Only Justice Douglas dissented. Id., 58. Justices Brennan, White, and Marshall generally concurred in somewhat restrained fashion. Id., 56, 75, 93.
1215 Id., 54. On bad faith enforcement, see id., 56 (Justices Stewart and Harlan concurring); 97 (Justices Brennan, White, and Marshall concurring in part and dissenting in part). For an example, see Universal Amusement Co. v. Vance, 559 F. 2d 1286, 1293–1301 (5th Cir. 1977), affd. per curiam sub nom., Dexter v. Butler, 587 F. 2d 176 (5th Cir. (en banc), cert. den., 442 U.S. 929 (1979).
1216 Id., 44.
1217 Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66 (1971). The holding was in line with Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. v. Huffman, 319 U.S. 293 (1943).
1218 Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66, 72 (1971).
1219 Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452 (1974).
1220 Doran v. Salem Inn, 422 U.S. 922 (1975) (preliminary injunction may issue to preserve status quo while court considers whether to grant declaratory relief); Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1977) (when declaratory relief is given, permanent injunction may be issued if necessary to protect constitutional rights). However, it may not be easy to discern when state proceedings will be deemed to have been instituted prior to the federal proceeding. E.g., Hicks v. Miranda, 422 U.S. 332 (1975); Huffman v. Pursue. Ltd., 420 U.S. 592 (1975); see also Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229, 238 (1984).
1221 Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592 (1975); Judice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327 (1977); Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U.S. 434 (1977); Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415 (1979); Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Assn, 457 U.S. 423 (1982).
1222 Ohio Civil Rights Comm. v. Dayton Christian Schools, Inc., 477 U.S. 619 (1986). The “judicial in nature” requirement is more fully explicated in New Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 366–373 (1989).
1223 Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1 (1987).
1224 “[T]he State’s interest in protecting ‘the authority of the judicial system, so that its orders and judgments are not rendered nugatory”’ was deemed sufficient. Id., 14 n. 12 (quoting Judice v. Vail, 430U.S. 327, 336 n. 12 (1977)).
1225 Id., 14.
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