The Autonomy of State Courts
Noncompliance With and Disobedience of Supreme Court Orders by State Courts.

The United States Supreme Court when deciding cases on review from the state courts usually remands the case to the state court when it reverses for “proceedings not inconsistent” with the Court’s opinion. This disposition leaves open the possibility that unresolved issues of state law will be decided adversely to the party prevailing in the Supreme Court or that the state court will so interpret the facts or the Court’s opinion to the detriment of the party prevailing in the Supreme Court.1302 When it is alleged that the state court has deviated from the Supreme Court’s mandate, the party losing below may appeal again1303 or she may presumably apply for mandamus to compel compliance.1304 Statutorily, the Court may attempt to overcome state recalcitrance by a variety of specific forms of judgment.1305 If, however, the state courts simply defy the mandate of the Court, difficult problems face the Court, extending to the possibility of contempt citations.1306

The most spectacular disobedience of federal authority arose out of the conflict between the Cherokees and the State of Georgia, which was seeking to remove them and seize their lands with the active support of President Jackson.1307 In the first instance, after the Court had issued a writ of error to the Georgia Supreme Court to review the murder conviction of a Cherokee, Corn Tassel, and after the writ was served, Corn Tassel was executed on the day set for the hearing, contrary to the federal law that a writ of error superseded sentence until the appeal was decided.1308 Two years later, Georgia again defied the Court, when, in Worcester v. Georgia,1309 it set aside the conviction of two missionaries for residing among the Indians without a license. Despite the issuance of a special mandate to a local court to discharge the missionaries, they were not released, and the state’s governor loudly proclaimed resistance. Consequently, the two remained in jail until they agreed to abandon further efforts for their discharge by federal authority and to leave the state, whereupon the governor pardoned them.

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,1310 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,1311 and early Congresses imposed positive duties on state courts to enforce federal laws.1312 Reaction set in out of hostility to the Embargo Acts, the Fugitive Slave Law, and other measures,1313 and, in Prigg v. Pennsylvania,1314 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,1315 which the Court sustained,1316 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.1317

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.1318 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,”1319 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 that fell in a class of cases in which claims under state law would not be entertained.1320 “[T]here is nothing in the Act of Congress that purports to force a duty upon such Courts as against an otherwise valid excuse.”1321 However, “[a]n excuse that is inconsistent with or violates federal law is not a valid excuse: The Supremacy Clause forbids state courts to dissociate themselves from federal law because of disagreement with its content or a refusal to recognize the superior authority of its source.”1322

The fact that a state statute divests its courts of jurisdiction not only over a disfavored federal claim, but also over an identical state claim, does not ensure that the “state law will be deemed a neutral rule of judicial administration and therefore a valid excuse for refusing to entertain a federal cause of action.”1323 “Although the absence of discrimination [in its treatment of federal and state law] is necessary to our finding a state law neutral, it is not sufficient. A jurisdictional rule cannot be used as a device to undermine federal law, no matter how evenhanded it may appear.”1324

In Testa v. Katt,1325 the Court unanimously held that state courts, at least with regard to claims and cases analogous to claims and cases enforceable in those courts under state law, are required to enforce “penal” laws of the United States; the statute at issue in the case provided “that a buyer of goods at above the prescribed ceiling price may sue the seller ‘in any court of competent jurisdiction.’ ”1326 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.1327

State Interference with Federal Jurisdiction.

It seems settled, though not without dissent, that state courts have no power to enjoin proceedings1328 or effectuation of judgments1329 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.1330

Footnotes

1302
Hart & Wechsler (6th ed.), supra at 431–531. Notable examples include Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 304 (1816); Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264 (1821); Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. (21 How.) 506 (1859). For studies, see Note, Final Disposition of State Court Decisions Reversed and Remanded by the Supreme Court, October Term 1931 to October Term 1940, 55 HARV. L. REV. 1357 (1942); Note, Evasion of Supreme Court Mandates in Cases Remanded to State Courts Since 1941, 67 H1941, 67 HARV. L. REV. 1251 (1954); Schneider, State Court Evasion of United States Supreme Court Mandates: A Reconsideration of the Evidence, 7 VALP. U. L. REV. 191 (1973). [Back to text]
1303
Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 304 (1816). See 2 W. CROSSKEY, POLITICS AND THE CONSTITUTION IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES 785–817 (1953); 1 C. WARREN, THE SUPREME COURT IN UNITED STATES HISTORY 442–453 (1926). For recent examples, see NAACP v. Alabama, 360 U.S. 240, 245 (1959); NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Flowers, 377 U.S. 288 (1964), after remand, 277 Ala. 89, 167 So.2d 171 (1964); Stanton v. Stanton, 429 U.S. 501 (1977); General Atomic Co. v. Felter, 436 U.S. 493 (1978). [Back to text]
1304
It does not appear that mandamus has ever actually issued. See In re Blake, 175 U.S. 114 (1899); Ex parte Texas, 315 U.S. 8 (1942); Fisher v. Hurst, 333 U.S. 147 (1948); Lavender v. Clark, 329 U.S. 674 (1946); General Atomic Co. v. Felter, 436 U.S. 493 (1978). [Back to text]
1305
Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 304 (1816); McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 437 (1819); Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 239 (1824); Williams v. Bruffy, 102 U.S. 248 (1880) (entry of judgment); Tyler v. Maguire, 84 U.S. (17 Wall.) 253 (1873) (award of execution); Stanley v. Schwalby, 162 U.S. 255 (1896); Virginia Coupon Cases (Poindexter v. Greenhow), 114 U.S. 270 (1885) (remand with direction to enter a specific judgment). See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1651(a), 2106. [Back to text]
1306
See 18 U.S.C. § 401. In United States v. Shipp, 203 U.S. 563 (1906), 214 U.S. 386 (1909); 215 U.S. 580 (1909), on action by the Attorney General, the Court appointed a commissioner to take testimony, rendered judgment of conviction, and imposed sentence on a state sheriff who had conspired with others to cause the lynching of a prisoner in his custody after the Court had allowed an appeal from a circuit court’s denial of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. A question whether a probate judge was guilty of contempt of an order of the Court in failing to place certain candidates on the ballot was certified to the district court, over the objections of Justices Douglas and Harlan, who wished to follow the Shipp practice. In re Herndon, 394 U.S. 399 (1969). See In re Herndon, 325 F. Supp. 779 (M.D. Ala. 1971). [Back to text]
1307
1 C. Warren, supra at 729–79. [Back to text]
1308
Id. at 732–36. [Back to text]
1309
31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515 (1832). [Back to text]
1310
See “Organization of Courts, Tenure, and Compensation of Judges,” supra. [Back to text]
1311
Judiciary Act of 1789, §§ 9, 11, 1 Stat. 76, 78; see also id. at § 25, 1 Stat. 85. [Back to text]
1312
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). [Back to text]
1313
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). [Back to text]
1314
41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539, 615 (1842). See also Houston v. Moore, 18 U.S. (5 Wheat.) 1, 69 (1820) (Justice Story dissenting); United States v. Bailey, 34 U.S. (9 Pet.) 238, 259 (1835) (Justice McLean dissenting). However, the Court held that states could exercise concurrent jurisdiction if they wished. Claflin v. Houseman, 93 U.S. 130 (1876), and cases cited. [Back to text]
1315
E.g., Act of June 8, 1872, 17 Stat. 323. [Back to text]
1316
Claflin v. Houseman, 93 U.S. 130 (1876). [Back to text]
1317
35 Stat. 65 (1908), as amended, 45 U.S.C. §§ 5160. [Back to text]
1318
Second Employers’ Liability Cases, 223 U.S. 1 (1912). [Back to text]
1319
223 U.S. at 59. [Back to text]
1320
Douglas v. New York, N.H. & H.R.R., 279 U.S. 377 (1929). [Back to text]
1321
279 U.S. at 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., 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.R., 342 U.S. 359 (1952), with Minneapolis & St. L. R.R. v. Bombolis, 241 U.S. 211 (1916). [Back to text]
1322
Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356, 371 (1990). See also Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131 (1988). [Back to text]
1323
Haywood v. Drown, 556 U.S. ___, No. 07–10374, slip op. at 8–9 (2009) (striking down New York statute that gave the state’s supreme courts—its trial courts of general jurisdiction—jurisdiction over suits brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, except in the case of suits seeking money damages from corrections officers, whether brought under federal or state law). [Back to text]
1324
556 U.S. ___, No. 07–10374, slip op. at 9 (New York statute found, “contrary to Congress’s judgment [in 42 U.S.C. § 1983,] that all persons who violate federal rights while acting under color of state law shall be held liable for damages”). [Back to text]
1325
330 U.S. 386 (1947). [Back to text]
1326
330 U.S. at 387. [Back to text]
1327
330 U.S. at 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. § 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. Bland, 369 U.S. 663 (1962). [Back to text]
1328
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.R. v. Kepner, 314 U.S. 44, 56 (1941) (Justice Frankfurter dissenting). In Riggs v. Johnson County, 73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 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. [Back to text]
1329
McKim v. Voorhies, 11 U.S. (7 Cr.) 279 (1812); Riggs v. Johnson County, 73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 166 (1868). [Back to text]
1330
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, 62 U.S. (21 How.) 506 (1859); Tarble’s Case, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 397 (1872). [Back to text]