407 U.S. 225 (1972), 70-27, Mitchum v. Foster

Docket Nº:No. 70-27
Citation:407 U.S. 225, 92 S.Ct. 2151, 32 L.Ed.2d 705
Party Name:Mitchum v. Foster
Case Date:June 19, 1972
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 225

407 U.S. 225 (1972)

92 S.Ct. 2151, 32 L.Ed.2d 705




No. 70-27

United States Supreme Court

June 19, 1972

Argued December 13, 1971




Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which authorizes a suit in equity to redress the deprivation under color of state law "of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution . . . ," is within that exception of the federal anti-injunction statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2283, that provides that a federal court may not enjoin state court proceedings "except as expressly authorized by Act of Congress." And in this § 1983 action, though the principles of equity, comity, and federalism that must restrain a federal court when asked to enjoin a state court proceeding (cf. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, and companion cases) are not questioned, the District Court is held to have erred in holding that the anti-injunction statute absolutely barred its enjoining a pending state court proceeding under any circumstances whatsoever. Pp. 228-243.

315 F.Supp. 1387, reversed and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all members joined except POWELLL and REHNQUIST, JJ., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, in which WHITE and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p.243.

Page 226

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The federal anti-injunction statute provides that a federal court

may not grant an injunction to stay proceedings in a State court except as expressly authorized by Act of Congress, or where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction, or to protect or effectuate its judgments.1

An Act of Congress, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, expressly authorizes a "suit in equity" to redress "the deprivation," under color of state law, "of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution. . . ."2 The question before us is whether this "Act of Congress" [92 S.Ct. 2154] comes within the "expressly authorized" exception of the anti-injunction statute so as to permit a federal court in a § 1983 suit to grant an injunction to stay a proceeding pending in a state court. This question, which has divided the federal courts,3 has lurked in the background of many of our recent cases, but we have not until today explicitly decided it.4

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The prosecuting attorney of Bay County, Florida, brought a proceeding in a Florida court to close down the appellant's bookstore as a public nuisance under the claimed authority of Florida law. The state court entered a preliminary order prohibiting continued operation of the bookstore. After further inconclusive proceedings in the state courts, the appellant filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, alleging that the actions of the state judicial and law enforcement officials were depriving him of rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Relying upon 42 U.S.C. § 1983,5 he asked for injunctive and declaratory relief against the state court proceedings on the ground that Florida laws were being unconstitutionally applied by the state court so as to cause him great and irreparable harm. A single federal district judge issued temporary restraining orders, and a three-judge court was convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281 and 2284. After a hearing, the three-judge court dissolved the temporary restraining orders and refused to enjoin the state court proceeding, holding that the

injunctive relief sought here

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as to the proceedings pending in the Florida courts does not come under any of the exceptions set forth in Section 2283. It is not expressly authorized by Act of Congress, it is not necessary in the aid of this court's jurisdiction, and it is not sought in order to protect or effectuate any judgment of this court.

315 F.Supp. 1387, 1389. An appeal was brought directly here under 28 U.S.C. § 1253,6 and we noted probable jurisdiction. 402 U.S. 941.


In denying injunctive relief, the District Court relied on this Court's decision in Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, 398 U.S. 281. The Atlantic Coast Line case did not deal with the "expressly authorized" exception of the anti-injunction statute,7 but the Court's opinion in that case does bring into sharp focus the critical importance of the question now before us. For, in that case, we expressly rejected the view that the anti-injunction statute merely states a flexible doctrine of comity,8 and made clear that the statute imposes an absolute ban upon the issuance of a federal injunction against a pending

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state court proceeding, in the absence of one of the recognized exceptions:

On its face, the present Act is an absolute prohibition against enjoining state court proceedings unless the injunction falls within one of three specifically defined exceptions. The respondents here have intimated that the Act only establishes a "principle of comity," not a binding rule on the power of the federal courts. The argument implies that, in certain circumstances, a federal court may enjoin state court proceedings even if that action cannot be justified by any of the three exceptions. We cannot accept any such contention. . . . [We] hold that any injunction against state court proceedings otherwise proper under general equitable principles must be based on one of the specific statutory exceptions to § 2283 if it is to be upheld. . . .

398 U.S. at 286-287.

It follows, in the present context, that, if 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is not within the "expressly authorized" exception of the anti-injunction statute, then a federal equity court is wholly without power to grant any relief in a § 1983 suit seeking to stay a state court proceeding. In short, if a § 1983 action is not an "expressly authorized" statutory exception, the anti-injunction law absolutely prohibits, in such an action, all federal equitable intervention in a pending state court proceeding, whether civil or criminal and regardless of how extraordinary the particular circumstances may be.

Last Term, in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, and its companion cases,9 the Court dealt at length with the subject of federal judicial intervention in pending

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state criminal prosecutions. In Younger, a three-judge federal district court in a § 1983 action had enjoined a criminal prosecution pending in a California court. In asking us to reverse that judgment, the appellant argued that the injunction was in violation of the federal anti-injunction statute. 401 U.S. at 40. But the Court carefully eschewed any reliance on the statute in reversing the judgment, basing its decision instead upon what the Court called "Our Federalism" -- upon "the national policy forbidding federal courts to stay or enjoin pending state court proceedings except under special circumstances." 401 U.S. at 41, 44.

In Younger, this Court emphatically reaffirmed "the fundamental policy against federal interference with state criminal prosecutions." 401 U.S. at 46. It made clear that even "the possible unconstitutionality of a statute `on its face' does not, in itself, justify an injunction against good faith attempts to enforce it." 401 U.S. at 54. At the same time, however, the Court clearly left room for federal injunctive intervention in a pending state court prosecution in certain exceptional circumstances -- where irreparable injury is "both great and immediate," 401 U.S. at 46, where the state law is "`flagrantly and patently violative of express constitutional prohibitions,'" 401 U.S. at 53, or where there is a showing of "bad faith, harassment, or . . . other unusual circumstances that would call for equitable relief." 401 U.S. at 54. In the companion case of Perez v. Ledesma, 401 U.S. 82, the Court said that

[o]nly in cases of proven harassment or prosecutions undertaken by state officials in bad faith without hope of obtaining a valid conviction and perhaps in other extraordinary circumstances where irreparable injury can be shown is federal injunctive relief against pending

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state prosecutions appropriate.

401 U.S. at 85. See also Dyson v. Stein, 401 U.S. 200, 203.

While the Court in Younger and its companion cases expressly disavowed deciding the question now before us -- whether § 1983 comes within the "expressly authorized" exception of the anti-injunction statute, 401 U.S. at 5 it is evident that our decisions in those cases cannot be disregarded in deciding this question. In the first place, if § 1983 is not within the statutory exception, then the anti-injunction statute would have absolutely barred the injunction issued in Younger, as the appellant in that case argued, and there would have been no occasion whatever for the Court to decide that case upon the "policy" ground of "Our Federalism." Secondly, if § 1983 is not within the "expressly authorized" exception of the anti-injunction statute, then we must overrule Younger and its companion cases insofar as they recognized the permissibility of injunctive relief against pending criminal prosecutions in certain limited and exceptional circumstances. For, under the doctrine of Atlantic Coast Line, the anti-injunction statute would, in a § 1983 case, then be an "absolute prohibition" against federal equity intervention in a pending state criminal or civil proceeding -- under any circumstances whatever.

The Atlantic Coast Line and Younger cases thus serve to delineate both the importance and the finality of the question now before us. And it is in the shadow of those cases that the question must be decided.



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