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,1373 those seeking to enjoin state court proceedings must overcome substantial prudential barriers, among them the abstention doctrine1374 and more important than that the equity doctrine that suits in equity “shall not be sustained in . . . the courts of the United States, in any case where plain, adequate and complete remedy may be had at law.”1375 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 that is both great and immediate, but also an inability to defend his constitutional rights 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.1376 The policy has never been stated as an absolute, in recognition of the fact that a federal court injunction could properly issue 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.1377

In Dombrowski v. Pfister,1378 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.1379 But the 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, he said, and prosecution under an overbroad statute,1380 such as 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. . . .”1381

In such cases, courts could no longer embrace “[t]he assumption that defense of a 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 the exercise of First Amendment rights.”1382 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 discourages 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.1383 These formulations were reaffirmed in Zwickler v. Koota,1384 in which a declaratory judgment was sought with regard to a statute prohibiting anonymous election literature. The Court deemed abstention improper,1385 and further held that adjudication for purposes of declaratory judgment is not hemmed in by considerations attendant upon injunctive relief.1386

The aftermath of Dombrowski and Zwickler 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.1387 However, these developments were highly controversial and, after three arguments on the issue, the Court in a series of 1971 cases receded from its position and circumscribed the discretion of the lower federal courts to a considerable and ever-broadening degree.1388 The important difference between the 1971 cases and the Dombrowski-Zwickler line was that, in the latter there were no prosecutions pending, whereas in the 1971 cases there were. Nevertheless, the care with which Justice Black for the majority in the 1971 cases undertook to distinguish Dombrowski signified a limitation of its doctrine.

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 its language, did not change the general rule, because extraordinary circumstances had existed. Thus, Justice Black, with considerable support from the other Justices,1389 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 that would be brought, and if the defendant may put in issue his federal-constitutional defense at the trial, then 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 over-broad statutes could be validly applied, so findings of 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 circumstance that would call for equitable relief.”1390

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.1391

Moreover, in a companion case, the Court held that, when prosecutions are pending in state court, the propriety of injunctive and declaratory relief should ordinarily be judged by the same standards.1392 A declaratory judgment is as likely to interfere with state proceedings as an injunction, whether the federal decision be treated as res judicata or 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 ‘[f]urther necessary or proper relief,’ 28 U.S.C. § 2202, 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. § 2283, and thus result in a clearly improper interference with the state proceedings.”1393

When, however, there is no pending state prosecution, the Court is clear that “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.1394 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.1395

Beyond criminal prosecutions, the Court extended Younger‘s general directive to bar interference with pending state civil cases that are akin to criminal prosecutions.1396 Younger abstention was also found appropriate when a judgment debtor in a state civil case sought to enjoin a state court order to enforce the judgment.1397 The Court further applied Younger‘s principles to bar federal court interference with state administrative proceedings of a judicial nature, in which important state interests were at stake.1398

Nonetheless, the Court has emphasized that “only exceptional circumstances justify a federal court’s refusal to decide a case in deference to the States.”1399 In Sprint Communications, Inc. v. Jacobs,1400 the Court made clear that federal forbearance under Younger was limited to three discrete types of state proceedings: (1) ongoing state criminal prosecutions; (2) particular state civil proceedings that are akin to criminal prosecutions; and (3) civil proceedings involving orders uniquely in furtherance of the state courts’ ability to perform their judicial functions.1401 In so doing, the Sprint Communications Court clarified that the types of cases previously held to merit abstention under the Younger line defined Younger’s scope and did not merely exemplify it.1402


28 U.S.C. § 2283 may be inapplicable because no state court proceeding is pending or because the action is brought under 42 U.S.C. § 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). back
See “Abstention,” supra. back
The quoted phrase setting out the general principle is from the Judiciary Act of 1789, § 16, 1 Stat. 82. back
The older cases are Fenner v. Boykin, 271 U.S. 240 (1926); Spielman Motor Sales Co. v. Dodge, 295 U.S. 89 (1935); Beal v. Missouri Pac. R.R., 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). back
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). back
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 YALE L. J. 1103 (1977). back
“[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.” 380 U.S. at 485–86. back
That is, a statute that reaches both protected and unprotected expression and conduct. back
380 U.S. at 486. back
380 U.S. at 486, 487. back
See Cameron v. Johnson, 381 U.S. 741 (1965); Cameron v. Johnson, 390 U.S. 611 (1968). back
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. back
It was clear that the statute could not be construed by a state court to render unnecessary a federal constitutional decision. 389 U.S. at 248–52. back
389 U.S. at 254. back
Maraist, Federal Injunctive Relief Against State Court Proceedings: The Significance of Dombrowski, 48 TEX. L. REV. 535 (1970). back
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). Justice Black wrote the majority opinion in the first four of these cases; the other two were per curiam opinions. back
Only Justice Douglas dissented. 401 U.S. at 58. Justices Brennan, White, and Marshall generally concurred in a restrained fashion. Id. at 56, 75, 93. back
401 U.S. at 54. On bad faith enforcement, see id. at 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), aff’d per curiam sub nom. Dexter v. Butler, 587 F.2d 176 (5th Cir.) (en banc), cert. denied, 442 U.S. 929 (1979). back
401 U.S. at 44. back
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). back
Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66, 72 (1971). back
Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452 (1974). back
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 Auth. v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229 (1984). back
Middlesex Cty. Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass’n, 457 U.S. 423 (1982); Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415 (1979); Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U.S. 434 (1977); Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327 (1977); Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592 (1975) (state action to close adult theater under the state’s nuisance statute and to seize and sell personal property used in the theater’s operations). back
Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1 (1987) (holding that federal abstention was warranted in a federal court action to block a state court order issued under the state’s “lien and bond” authority). It was “the State’s [particular] interest in protecting ‘the authority of the judicial system, so that its orders and judgments are not rendered nugatory’ ” that merited abstention, and not merely a general state interest in protecting ongoing civil proceedings from federal interference. Id. at 14 n.12 (quoting Juidice, 430 U.S. at 336 n.12). back
Oh. Civil Rights Comm’n v. Dayton Christian Sch., 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 (1989). back
See New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc., 491 U.S. at 368. back
571 U.S. ___, No. 12–815, slip op. (2013). back
Id. at 2. back
Id. at 8. back