So Much for “Our Federalism…”

Federal court abstention may not rank among the highest priorities with those who care about federalism, including of course, CSG, who is in the midst of a Focus on Federalism Initiative.  However, it was Justice Black (and not me) who described the underpinning of Younger abstention as “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.”

However, “Our Federalism” wasn’t enough in the Court’s most recent Younger abstention ruling.  Sprint Communications Company v. Jacobs was short, unanimous, and issued early in the Court’s Term.  The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case, which CSG joined. 

The Court held that a federal court should not have abstained from deciding a case where a state court also was reviewing a decision of the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) because the IUB proceedings did not “resemble . . . state enforcement actions” where abstention is appropriate. 

The facts of Sprint Communications Company v. Jacobs are a bit complicated.  Sprint withheld payment of intercarrier access fees for Voice over Internet Protocol calls to an Iowa communications company, Windstream, and filed a complaint with the IUB asking it to prevent Windstream from discontinuing service to Sprint.  The IUB ordered Sprint to pay, and Sprint challenged the IUB’s decision in federal and state courts simultaneously.  The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, held that Younger abstention does not apply in this case.  The Court reasoned that Younger abstention only applies in three “exceptional circumstances,” including civil enforcement proceedings.  The IUB proceedings in this case did not resemble state enforcement actions because they were not “akin to criminal prosecution” and were not initiated by “the State in its sovereign capacity.”  Instead, Sprint initiated the action and no state authority investigated Sprint or filed a complaint against Sprint.

The SLLC’s brief argued that what should matter in determining whether Younger abstention applies is the strength of the state interest in the proceeding.  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.   The Court was unsympathetic to the SLLC’s arguments saying it was unwilling to “extend Younger to virtually all parallel state and federal proceedings, at least where a party could identify a plausible important state interest.”