Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Company v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers

Citation398 U.S. 281,26 L.Ed.2d 234,90 S.Ct. 1739
Decision Date08 June 1970
Docket NumberNo. 477,477
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Frank X. Friedmann, Jr., Jacksonville, Fla., and Dennis G. Lyons, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Allan Milledge, Miami, Fla., for respondents.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Congress in 1793, shortly after the American Colonies became one united Nation, provided that in federal courts 'a writ of injunction (shall not) be granted to stay proceedings in any court of a state.' Act of March 2, 1793, § 5, 1 Stat. 335. Although certain exceptions to this general prohibition have been added, that statute, directing that state courts shall remain free from interference by federal courts, has remained in effect until this time. Today that amended statute provides:

'A court of the United States may not grant an injunction to stay proceedings in a State court ex- cept as expressly authorized by Act of Congress, or where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction, or to protect or effectuate its judgments.' 28 U.S.C. § 2283.

Despite the existence of this longstanding prohibition, in this case a federal court did enjoin the petitioner, Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co. (ACL),1 from invoking an injunction issued by a Florida state court which prohibited certain picketing by respondent Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE). The case arose in the following way.

In 1967 BLE began picketing the Moncrief Yard, a switching yard located near Jacksonville, Florida, and wholly owned and operated by ACL.2 As soon as this picketing began ACL went into federal court seeking an injunction. When the federal judge denied the request, ACL immediately went into state court and there succeeded in obtaining an injunction. No further legal action was taken in this dispute until two years later in 1969, after this Court's decision in Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen v. Jacksonville Terminal Co., 394 U.S. 369, 89 S.Ct. 1109, 22 L.Ed.2d 344 (1969). In that case the Court considered the validity of a state injunction against picketing by the BLE and other unions at the Jacksonville Terminal, located immediately next to Moncrief Yard. The Court reviewed the factual situation surrounding the Jacksonville Terminal picketing and concluded that the unions had a federally protected right to picket under the Railway Labor Act, 44 Stat. 577, as amended, 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., and that that right could not be interfered with by state court injunctions. Immediately after a petition for rehearing was denied in that case, 394 U.S. 1024, 89 S.Ct. 1622, 23 L.Ed.2d 51 (1969), the respondent BLE filed a motion in state court to dissolve the Moncrief Yard injunction, arguing that under the Jacksonville Terminal decision the injunction was improper. The state judge refused to dissolve the injunction, holding that this Court's Jacksonville Terminal decision was not controlling. The union did not elect to appeal that decision directly, but instead went back into the federal court and requested an injunction against the enforcement of the state court injunction. The District Judge granted the injunction and upon application a stay of that injunction, pending the filing and disposition of a petition for certiorari, was granted. 396 U.S. 1201, 90 S.Ct. 9, 24 L.Ed.2d 23 (1969). The Court of Appeals summarily affirmed on the parties' stipulation, and we granted a petition for certiorari to consider the validity of the federal court's injunction against the state court. 396 U.S. 901, 90 S.Ct. 220, 24 L.Ed.2d 177 (1969).

In this Court the union contends that the federal injunction was proper either 'to protect or effectuate' the District Court's denial of an injunction in 1967, or as 'necessary in aid of' the District Court's jurisdiction. Although the questions are by no means simple and clear, and the decision is difficult, we conclude that the injunction against the state court was not justified under either of these two exceptions to the anti-injunction statute. We therefore hold that the federal injunction in this case was improper.


Before analyzing the specific legal arguments advanced in this case, we think it would be helpful to discuss the background and policy that led Congress to pass the anti-injunction statute in 1793. While all the reasons that led Congress to adopt this restriction on federal courts are not wholly clear,3 it is certainly likely that one reason stemmed from the essentially federal nature of our national government. When this Nation was established by the Constitution, each State surrendered only a part of its sovereign power to the national government. But those powers that were not surrendered were retained by the States and unless a State was restrained by 'the supreme Law of the Land' as expressed in the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States, it was free to exercise those retained powers as it saw fit. One of the reserved powers was the maintenance of state judicial systems for the decision of legal controversies. Many of the Framers of the Constitution felt that separate federal courts were unnecessary and that the state courts could be entrusted to protect both state and federal rights. Others felt that a complete system of federal courts to take care of federal legal problems should be provided for in the Constitution itself. This dispute resulted in compromise. One 'supreme Court' was created by the Constitution, and Congress was given the power to create other federal courts. In the first Congress this power was exercised and a system of federal trial and appellate courts with limited jurisdiction was created by the Judiciary Act of 1789, 1 Stat. 73.

While the lower federal courts were given certain powers in the 1789 Act, they were not given any power to review directly cases from state courts, and they have not been given such powers since that time. Only the Supreme Court was authorized to review on direct appeal the decisions of state courts. Thus from the beginning we have had in this country two essentially separate legal systems. Each system proceeds independently of the other with ultimate review in this Court of the federal questions raised in either system. Understandably this dual court system was bound to lead to conflicts and frictions. Litigants who foresaw the possibility of more favorable treatment in one or the other system would predictably hasten to invoke the powers of whichever court it was believed would present the best chance of success. Obviously this dual system could not function if state and federal courts were free to fight each other for control of a particular case. Thus, in order to make the dual system work and 'to prevent needless friction between state and federal courts,' Oklahoma Packing Co. v. Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co., 309 U.S. 4, 9, 60 S.Ct. 215, 218, 84 L.Ed. 537 (1940), it was necessary to work out lines of demarcation between the two systems. Some of these limits were spelled out in the 1789 Act. Others have been added by later statutes as well as judicial decisions. The 1793 anti-injunction Act was at least in part a response to these pressures.

On its face the present Act is an absolute prohibition a 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 'principles 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 excep- tions. We cannot accept any such contention. In 1955 when this Court interpreted this statute, it stated: 'This is not a statute conveying a broad general policy for appropriate ad hoc application. Legislative policy is here expressed in a clearcut prohibition qualified only by specifically defined exceptions.' Amalgamated Clothing Workers v. Richman Bros., 348 U.S. 511, 515 516, 75 S.Ct. 452, 455, 99 L.Ed. 600 (1955). Since that time Congress has not seen fit to amend the statute and we therefore adhere to that position and 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. Moreover since the statutory prohibition against such injunctions in part rests on the fundamental constitutional independence of the States and their courts, the exceptions should not be enlarged by loose statutory construction. Proceedings in state courts should normally be allowed to continue unimpaired by intervention of the lower federal courts, with relief from error, if any, through the state appellate courts and ultimately this Court.


In this case the Florida Circuit Court enjoined the union's intended picketing, and the United States District Court enjoined the railroad 'from giving effect to or availing (itself) of the benefits of' that state court order. App. 196. Both sides agree that although this federal injunction is in terms directed only at the railroad it is an injunction 'to stay proceedings in a State court.' It is settled that the prohibition of § 2283 cannot be evaded by addressing the order to the parties or prohibiting utilization of the results of a completed state proceeding. Oklahoma Packing Co. v. Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co., 309 U.S. 4, 9, 60 S.Ct. 215, 218, 84 L.Ed. 537 (1940); Hill v. Martin, 296 U.S. 393, 403, 56 S.Ct. 278, 282, 80 L.Ed. 293 (1935). Thus if the injunction against the Florida court proceedings is to be upheld, it must be 'expressly authorized by Act of Congress,' 'necessary in aid of (the District Court's) jurisdiction,' or 'to protect or effectuate (that court's) judgments.'

Neither party argues that there is any express congressional...

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