Scott Dodson is a Professor of Law at University of California Hastings College of the Law.

The seminal case Younger v. Harris requires federal courts to abstain from issuing an injunction against an ongoing state criminal prosecution.  “Our Federalism,” Justice Black famously wrote, envisions “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.”

Since that decision, the Supreme Court has expanded the Younger doctrine to a variety of civil contexts, including state civil enforcement proceedings (such as a bar disciplinary proceeding) and civil proceedings uniquely in furtherance of state courts’ ability to perform their judicial functions (such as a state appellate bond requirement used to compel compliance with a state judgment).

In a new case, Sprint Communications Co. v. Jacobs, Sprint was subject to an adverse decision by the Iowa Utilities Board (“IUB”) holding that federal law allowed non-Sprint providers to extract access charges for certain Sprint-originated VoIP calls.  Sprint appealed that decision to the Iowa state courts, as authorized by Iowa law.  Sprint also filed a suit in federal district court in Iowa, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against IUB officials.  The lower federal courts determined that Younger applied.  The question presented is whether, under these facts, Younger requires the federal district court to stay the federal lawsuit while the state lawsuit proceeds.

Background

Sprint is a telecommunications provider.  As is customary, it entered into business relationships with other providers to allow continuous service from Sprint subscribers to non-Sprint subscribers.  Under some of these relationships, the provider whose customer makes an outgoing call pays an “access charge” to the provider whose customer receives the call.

Who regulates the calls (and their attendance charges) depends upon the nature of the call.  For Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) calls, the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires “information services” to remain largely unregulated but “telecommunications services” to be regulated by both state and federal regulators.

This case stems from Sprint’s relationship with Windstream, a local provider.  Sprint determined that its Sprint-originated VoIP calls ending with Windstream subscribers was an “information service” not subject to regulation, and so it withheld payment of access charges for such calls.  In response, Windstream threatened to block such calls.

Sprint filed a complaint with the IUB seeking a declaration that Windstream was not permitted to discontinue service.  The parties construe Sprint’s IUB complaint somewhat differently.  Sprint contends that it did not ask the IUB to decide the underlying issue on the merits – whether the VoIP calls were “information services” or “telecommunications services” – because that is a question only the FCC and federal courts could answer.  The respondents contend that Sprint made the issue a “federal defense” that was naturally part of the dispute.

There is no dispute that the IUB decided the question.  It held that the VoIP calls were “telecommunications services” that the states can regulate, that access charges were allowed, and that Sprint owed Windstream all payments withheld.

Sprint then filed a complaint in federal district court seeking a declaration that because VoIP calls are “telecommunications services” under federal law, the IUB lacked authority to determine whether access charges apply to VoIP traffic.  Sprint also sought an injunction against enforcement of the IUB’s order.

Sprint also petitioned for review of the IUB decision in Iowa state court, as allowed by state law.  Sprint asserts that it did so to preserve its judicial remedies in the event the federal court declined to hear its case, and Sprint immediately moved to stay the state-court case pending resolution of the federal issues in the federal case.  By consent of the parties, that motion has been continued upon pending resolution of this federal appeal.

On motion by IUB, the federal court dismissed Sprint’s lawsuit based on Younger.  The Eighth Circuit agreed that Younger applied, holding that the state-court review of the IUB decision required protection from federal-court interference.  The Eighth Circuit vacated the dismissal order, however, and instead ordered the district court to enter a stay.  Sprint sought certiorari review, which the Supreme Court granted.  The case is set for oral argument on Tuesday, November 5, 2013.

Merits

Sprint argues that the federal nature of this case warrants federal-court review.  Sprint points to its federal-court complaint as raising only federal issues under the federal Telecommunications Act and the Supremacy Clause.  As Sprint repeatedly asserts, Sprint’s federal-law claims do not involve state law at all.  The district court undeniably had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.  Sprint therefore argues that it is entitled to federal-court review.

Of course, Congress has not made jurisdiction under the Telecommunications Act exclusively federal, as it has with some other federal statutes.  Accordingly, state courts clearly have jurisdiction to hear Sprint’s claims, even though they present significant federal issues.  Sprint’s point appears to be instead that the importance of the federal issues outweighs, or at least balances, any state interests that otherwise would justify federal abstention.

For their part, the IUB respondents (echoed by the Iowa Office of Consumer Advocate as amicus) point to the important state interests at play in the IUB and state proceedings, including the state interest of protecting Iowans from harm resulting from a dispute between telecommunications providers. They also point out that the state proceeding offers Sprint a full opportunity to air and press its federal-law arguments.  Because state courts are fully competent to decide such questions of federal law, the IUB respondents argue, state courts should be allowed to do so free from federal collateral interference when the case presents questions of important state interests.

Both parties characterize abstention – from Pullman to Burford to Younger – as reflecting the general principle that state courts should be allowed to administer state regulatory and enforcement regimes without federal-court interference.  The parties disagree, however, in how that principle applies to this case.  Sprint focuses on the federal action, asserting that because the federal court only need interpret federal law, it need not interfere in state telecommunications regulation.  The IUB respondents, however, focus on the state proceedings, which implicate state interests in intrastate telecommunications regulation.

The parties also spar over the Eighth Circuit’s interpretation of the Younger doctrine.  Sprint argues that the Eighth Circuit’s rule would apply Younger to all state-agency proceedings and their subsequent judicial challenges.  Sprint insists that the only way to limit Younger is to adhere to a distinction between “coercive” (Younger applicable) and “remedial” (Younger inapplicable) state civil action.  The IUB respondents reject that distinction as confusing and insufficiently deferential to the states and insist that Younger is already limited to state judicial proceedings, to relief that is equitable or discretionary, and to instances in which Congress has not affirmatively authorized federal review.  In any event, the respondents conclude, the IUB proceedings were coercive.

Third, Sprint argues that the Eighth Circuit incorrectly conflated the Younger doctrine with Burford abstention.  Sprint paints the case as a hybrid that fits into neither.  It involves a state regulatory regime, as the Burford abstention requires, but the Court has refused to apply Burford to garden-variety preemption claims.  It involves federal interference in a state proceeding, as Younger requires, but the Court has never extended Younger to this kind of civil proceeding.  Because the case does not fit into any of the abstention doctrines, Sprint argues, the Eighth Circuit should be reversed.  The IUB respondents agree that Burford is inapplicable but argue that Younger is broad enough to encompass this case without it.  Focusing on generalized federalism principles underlying Younger, the IUB respondents seek a broad prohibition on federal interference when state adjudicatory mechanisms can adequately and fairly consider any federal issues and when important state regulatory interests are at stake.

The amici put the federalism stakes of this case into clear relief. On Sprint’s side, a group of law professors criticizes the Eighth Circuit’s view of Younger for foreclosing federal courts from hearing federal-law challenges to state agency actions in a wide swath of circumstances. And the Chamber of Commerce points out that an expansive Younger doctrine will affect not just telecommunications businesses but also other regulated industries, such as electricity and oil and gas.  The Chamber worries that such broad restrictions on federal-court challenges to state regulatory regimes will negatively affect businesses in all of those areas. On the respondents’ side, twenty-two states emphasize that the federalism backbone of Younger should be strengthened, not winnowed, to protect state regulatory mechanisms from undue federal-court interference. An amicus brief filed by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association also stresses the deference federal courts should afford the states.

Interestingly, although supporting Sprint, the Chamber makes a fallback argument.  If the Court is inclined to uphold application of Younger, the Chamber argues, it should do so only because Sprint initiated the state administrative proceeding and the state-court review process.  In other words, the Chamber argues, Younger, if it applies, applies only because Sprint made it so.

Analysis

Sprint must convince the Court that its predicament is not of Sprint’s own making.  Sprint, after all, voluntarily invoked the authority of both the IUB and the state court.  State courts are open to hear federal-law challenges, and Sprint does not contend that the state court was an inadequate forum to hear and decide the federal issues Sprint has raised.  By invoking the adjudicative processes of both the state courts and the federal courts, Sprint’s own conduct makes it appear that Sprint is trying to have its cake and eat it too.

For their part, the IUB respondents have the opposite quandary.  They must convince the Court that concurrent litigation here is prohibited, and that states should be given unfettered opportunity to consider a broad swath of issues deemed important to them, even if important federal issues are also at stake.

Second, Sprint must convince the Court that the distinction between “coercive” and “remedial” is both sensible and workable.  The Court has been receptive to such heuristics in some cases but has viewed them with suspicion in others.  The IUB respondents and the state amici attempt to paint the test as difficult, inaccurate, and insufficiently deferential to the states.  To convince the Court that the heuristic is workable, Sprint may have to field questions probing what, exactly, is coercive and what is remedial.

Third, Sprint must avoid opening the door to a new kind of abstention doctrine.  As Justice Stewart noted in Pennzoil, the abstention doctrines are “not rigid pigeonholes into which federal courts must try to fit cases.  Rather, they reflect a complex of considerations designed to soften the tensions inherent in a system that contemplates parallel judicial processes.”  The Supreme Court has created new abstention doctrines before, such as in Colorado River.  And the IUB respondents have embraced a broad principles-based theory of Younger that would allow for substantial evolution.  Perhaps a Younger-Burford hybrid is not as chimerical as Sprint wishes to paint it.

Posted in Sprint Communications Company v. Jacobs, Featured, Merits Cases

Recommended Citation: Scott Dodson, Argument preview – The scope of the Younger doctrine, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 28, 2013, 12:01 PM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2013/10/argument-preview-the-scope-of-the-younger-doctrine/