460 U.S. 462 (1983), 81-1335, District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman

Docket Nº:No. 81-1335
Citation:460 U.S. 462, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206
Party Name:District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman
Case Date:March 23, 1983
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 462

460 U.S. 462 (1983)

103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206

District of Columbia Court of Appeals

v.

Feldman

No. 81-1335

United States Supreme Court

March 23, 1983

Argued December 8, 1982

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondents filed petitions in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals asking for waivers of that court's District of Columbia Bar admission rule that requires applicants to have graduated from a law school approved by the American Bar Association. The court issued per curiam orders denying the petitions. Respondents then filed complaints in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, challenging the District of Columbia Court of Appeals' denials of their waiver petitions and also challenging the constitutionality of the bar admission rule. The District Court dismissed the complaints on the ground that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed and remanded.

Held:

1. The proceedings before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals were judicial in nature. They involved a "judicial inquiry" in which the court was called upon to investigate, declare, and enforce "liabilities as they [stood] on present or past facts and under laws supposed already to exist." Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line Co., 211 U.S. 210, 226. With respect to both respondents, the court adjudicated claims of a present right to admission to the Bar. Pp. 476-482.

2. United States district courts have no jurisdiction over challenges to state court decisions in particular cases arising out of judicial proceedings even if those challenges allege that the state court's action was unconstitutional. Review of those decisions may be had only in this Court. Thus, to the extent that respondents sought review in the District Court of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals' denials of their petitions for waiver, the District Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over their complaints. But United States district courts do have subject matter jurisdiction over general challenges to state bar rules promulgated by state courts in nonjudicial proceedings, which do not require review of a final state court judgment in a particular case. Accordingly, here the District Court has jurisdiction over the elements of respondents' complaints involving a general attack on the constitutionality of the District of Columbia Bar admission rule. Pp. 482-488.

[103 S.Ct. 1305] 213 U.S.App.D.C. 119, 661 F.2d 1295, vacated and remanded.

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BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 488.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

We must decide in this case what authority the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit have to review decisions of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in bar admission matters. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, reversing the United States District Court, held that the District Court had jurisdiction to review the District of Columbia Court of Appeals' denials of the respondents' requests for waivers of a bar admission rule that requires applicants to have graduated from an approved law school. We vacate the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and remand the case for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I

We have discussed in detail in earlier opinions the changes in the structure of the District of Columbia court system effected by the District of Columbia Court Reform and Criminal Procedure Act of 1970. Pub.L. 91-358, 84 Stat. 473. See Key v. Doyle, 434 U.S. 59 (1977); Palmore v. United States, 411 U.S. 389 (1973). For purposes of this case,

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three provisions of that legislation are crucial. One provision made

[f]inal judgments and decrees of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals . . . reviewable by the Supreme Court of the United States in accordance with section 1257 of title 28, United States Code.

§ 111, 84 Stat. 475 (codified at D.C.Code § 11-102 (1981)). Another provision amended 28 U.S.C. § 1257 to specify that the term "highest court of a State" as used in § 1257 includes the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. § 172(a)(1), 84 Stat. 590. These provisions make the judgments of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, like the judgments of state courts, directly reviewable in this Court. Cases no longer have to proceed from the local courts to the United States Court of Appeals and then to this Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1254. See Key v. Doyle, supra, at 64. The third provision authorized the District of Columbia Court of Appeals to

make such rules as it deems proper respecting the examination, qualification, and admission of persons to membership in its bar, and their censure, suspension, and expulsion.

§ 111, 84 Stat. 521 (codified at D.C.Code § 11-2501(a) (1981)). This provision divested the United States District Court of its former authority to supervise admission to the District of Columbia Bar.

Pursuant to its new rulemaking authority, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals adopted, as part of its general rules, Rule 46I (1973), which governs admission to the bar. Rule 46I(b)(3) states:

(3) Proof of Legal Education. An applicant who has graduated from a law school that at the time of graduation was approved by the American Bar Association or who shall be eligible to be graduated from an approved law school within 60 days of the date of the examination will be permitted to take the bar examination. Under no circumstances shall an applicant be admitted to the bar without having first submitted to the Secretary to

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the Committee [on Admissions] a certificate verifying that he has graduated from an approved law school.1

[103 S.Ct. 1306] Neither of the respondents graduated from an approved law school. Their efforts to avoid the operation of Rule 46I(b)(3) form the foundation of this case.

A

Respondent Feldman did not attend law school. Instead, he pursued an alternative path to a legal career provided by the State of Virginia involving a highly structured program of study in the office of a practicing attorney. See Va.Code § 54-62 (1982). In addition to his work and study at a law firm in Charlottesville, Va., Feldman formally audited classes at the University of Virginia School of Law. For the final six months of his alternative course of study, Feldman served as a law clerk to a United States District Judge.

Having passed the Virginia bar examination, Feldman was admitted to that State's Bar in April, 1976. In March of that year he had begun working as a staff attorney for the Baltimore, Md. Legal Aid Bureau. He continued in that job until January, 1977. Like the District of Columbia, Maryland has a rule limiting access to the bar examination to graduates of ABA-approved law schools, but the Maryland Board of Law Examiners waived the rule for Feldman. Feldman passed the Maryland examination and later was admitted to that State's Bar.

In November, 1976, Feldman applied to the Committee on Admissions of the District of Columbia Bar for admission to the District Bar under a rule which, prior to its recent amendment, allowed a member of a bar in another jurisdiction to seek membership in the District Bar without examination.

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In January, 1977, the Committee denied Feldman's application on the ground that he had not graduated from an approved law school. Initially, the Committee stated that waivers of Rule 46I(b)(3), or exceptions to it, were not authorized. Following further contact with the Committee, however, Feldman was granted an informal hearing. After the hearing, the Committee reaffirmed its denial of Feldman's application, and stated that only the District of Columbia Court of Appeals could waive the requirement of graduation from an approved law school.

In June, 1977, Feldman submitted to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals a petition for admission to the bar without examination. App. 1a. Alternatively, Feldman requested that he be allowed to sit for the bar examination. Id. at 5a. In his petition, Feldman described his legal training, work experience, and other qualifications. He suggested that his professional training and education were "equal to that received by those who have attended an A.BA.-approved law school." Id. at 4a. In view of his training, experience, and success in passing the bar examinations in other jurisdictions, Feldman stated that

the objectives of the District of Columbia's procedures and requirements for admission to the Bar will not be frustrated by granting this petition.

Ibid.

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals did not act on Feldman's petition for several months. In March, 1978, Feldman's counsel wrote to the Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals to urge favorable action on Feldman's petition. The letter stated that Feldman had "abundantly demonstrated his fitness to practice law," and suggested that "it would be a gross injustice to exclude him from the Bar without even considering his individual qualifications." Id. at 6a. The letter went on to state that,

[i]n the unique circumstances of his case, barring Mr. Feldman from the practice of law merely because he has not graduated from an accredited law school would raise important questions

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under the United States Constitution and the federal...

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