“Our Federalism”: Supreme Court to Decide Federal Court Abstention Case

As CSG implements its Focus on Federalism Initiative, the Supreme Court is a good place to keep an eye on.  The Court relied heavily on federalism when striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act last term.  Sprint Communications Company v. Jacobs won’t be a blockbuster decision like those two cases, but the Justices will take into account federalism when ruling in this case.  CSG signed onto a State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) Supreme Court amicus brief in this case.

Younger abstention requires federal courts to refrain from interfering with ongoing state court proceedings in some circumstances.  The question before the Supreme Court in Sprint is when exactly does Younger abstention apply? Should federal courts abstain from deciding a case when there is a related state proceeding that is “remedial” not “coercive”?

The underpinnings of Younger abstention are what Justice Black called “Our Federalism” in his 1971 majority opinion in Younger v. Harris.  “Our Federalism” “is a system in which there is sensitivity to the legitimate interests of both State and National Governments, and in which the National Government, anxious though it may be to vindicate and protect federal rights and federal interests, always endeavors to do so in ways that will not unduly interfere with the legitimate activities of the States.”

Sprint refused to pay intrastate access charges to an Iowa communications company for a service and filed a complaint with the Iowa Utility Board (IUB) seeking a declaration that it was under no obligation to do so. The IUB ordered Sprint to pay, and Sprint challenged the IUB’s decision in federal and state courts simultaneously.  Applying the Younger abstention doctrine, the Eighth Circuit ruled that the federal district court should not hear the case, if at all, until the state court review of the IUB decision was complete. The Supreme Court will decide whether it matters for the purposes of abstention that Sprint initially asked the IUB for approval—a remedial proceeding—or if Younger abstention only applies where the state brings a party before a state court or administrative board in a coercive proceeding.

The SLLC’s brief argues what should matter in determining whether Younger abstention applies is the strength of the state interest in the proceeding not the label of “remedial” or “coercive.”  And the integrity of the judicial process is maintained by state courts being allowed to resolve issues initiated before them that directly affect state and local government. 

Register for the SLLC’s FREE Supreme Court Preview webinar to be held on October 22 to learn more about cases affecting state government to be decided during the Court’s upcoming term.