England v. Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners, 7

Citation375 U.S. 411,11 L.Ed.2d 440,84 S.Ct. 461
Decision Date13 January 1964
Docket NumberNo. 7,7
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 411-412 intentionally omitted] Russell Morton Brown, Washington, D.C., Floyd J. Reed, New Orleans, La., for appellants.

Robert E. LeCorgne, Jr., New Orleans, La., for appellees.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellants are graduates of schools of chiropractice who seek to practice in Louisiana without complying with the educational requirements of the Louisiana Medical Practice Act, Title 37, LSA Rev.Stat. §§ 1261—1290. They brought this action against respondent Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, seeking an injunction and a declaration that, as applied to them, he Act violated the Fourteenth Amendment. A statutory three-judge court1 invoked, sua sponte, the doctrine of abstention, on the ground that 'The state court might effectively end this controversy by a determination that chiropractors are not governed by the statute,' and entered an order 'staying further proceedings in this Court until the courts of the State of Louisiana shall have been afforded an opportunity to determine the issues here presented, and retaining jurisdiction to take such steps as may be necessary for the just disposition of the litigation should anything prevent a prompt state court determination.' D.C., 180 F.Supp. 121, 124.2

Appellants thereupon brought proceedings in the Louisiana courts. They did not restrict those proceedings to the question whether the Medical Practice Act applied to chiropractors. They unreservedly submitted for decision, and briefed and argued, their contention that the Act, if applicable to chiropractors, violated the Fourteenth Amendment.3 The state proceedings terminated with a decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court declining to review an intermediate appellate court's holding both that the Medical Practice Act applied to chiropractors and that, as so applied, it did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. La.App., 126 So.2d 51.

Appellants then returned to the District Court,4 where they were met with a motion by appellees to dismiss the federal action. This motion was granted, on the ground that 'since the courts of Louisiana have passed on all issues raised, including the claims of deprivation under the Federal Constitution, this court, having no power to review those proceedings, must dismiss the complaint. The proper remedy was by appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States.' The court saw the case as illustrating 'the dilemma of a litigant who has invoked the jurisdiction of a federal court to assert a claimed constitutional right and finds himself remitted to the state tribunals.' The dilemma, said the court, was that 'On the one hand, in view of Government & Civic Employees Organizing Committee (C.I.O.) v. Windsor, 353 U.S. 364, 77 S.Ct. 838, 1 L.Ed.2d 894, he dare not restrict his state court case to local law issues. On the other, if, as required by Windsor, he raises the federal questions there, well established principles will bar a relitigation of those issues in the United States District Court. * * * Since, in the usual case, no question not already passed on by the state courts will remain, he is thereby effectively deprived of a federal forum for the adjudication of his federal claims.' 194 F.Supp. 521, 522. Appellants appealed directly to this Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1253, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 372 U.S. 904, 83 S.Ct. 714, 9 L.Ed.2d 715. We reverse and remand to the District Court for decision on the merits of appellants' Fourteenth Amendment claims.

There are fundamental objections to any conclusion that a litigant who has properly invoked the jurisdiction of a Federal District Court to consider federal constitutional claims can be compelled, without his consent and through no fault of his own, to accept instead a state court's determination of those claims.5 Such a result would be at war with the unqualified terms in which Congress, pursuant to constitutional authorization, has conferred specific categories of jurisdiction upon the federal courts, and with the principle that 'When a Federal court is properly appealed to in a case over which it has by law jurisdiction, it is its duty to take such jurisdiction * * *. The right of a party plaintiff to choose a Federal court where there is a choice cannot be properly denied.' Willcox v. Consolidated Gas Co., 212 U.S. 19, 40, 29 S.Ct. 192, 195, 53 L.Ed. 382. Nor does anything in the abstention doctrine require or support such a result. Abstention is a judge-fashioned vehicle for according appropriate deference to the 'respective competence of the state and federal court systems.' Louisiana P. & L. Co. v. Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25, 29, 79 S.Ct. 1070, 1073, 3 L.Ed.2d 1058. Its recognition of the role of state courts as the final expositors of state law implies no disregard for the primacy of the federal judiciary in deciding questions of federal law.6 Accordingly, we have on several occasions explicitly recognized that abstention 'does not, of course, involve the abdication of federal jurisdiction, but only the postponement of its exercise.' Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167, 177, 79 S.Ct. 1025, 1030, 3 L.Ed.2d 1152; accord, Louisiana P. & L. Co. v. Thibodaux, supra, 360 U.S., at 29, 79 S.Ct. at 1073, 3 L.Ed.2d 1058.7

It is true that, after a postabstention determination and rejection of his federal claims by the state courts, a litigant could seek direct review in this Court. NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 83 S.Ct. 328, 9 L.Ed.2d 405; Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections, 360 U.S. 45, 79 S.Ct. 985, 3 L.Ed.2d 1072. But such review, even when available by appeal rather than only by discretionary with of certiorari, is an inadequate substitute for the initial District Court determination—often by three judges, 28 U.S.C. § 2281—to which the litigant is entitled in the federal courts. This is true as to issues of law; it is especially true as to issues of fact. Limiting the litigant to review here would deny him the benefit of a federal trial court's role in constructing a record and making fact findings. How the facts are found will often dictate the decision of federal claims. 'It is the typical not the rare, case in which constitutional claims turn upon the resolution of contested factual issues.' Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293, 312, 83 S.Ct. 745, 756, 9 L.Ed.2d 770. 'There is always in litigation a margin of error, representing error in factfinding * * *.' Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 525, 78 S.Ct. 1332, 1342, 2 L.Ed.2d 1460. Thus in cases where, but for the application of the abstention doctrine, the primary fact determination would have been by the District Court, a litigant may not be unwillingly deprived of that determination.8 The possibility of appellate review by this Court of a state court determination may not be substituted, against a party's wishes, for his right to litigate his federal claims fully in the federal courts. We made this clear only last Term in NAACP v. Button, supra, 371 U.S., at 427, 83 S.Ct., at 335, 9 L.Ed.2d 405, when we said that 'a party has the right to return to the District Court, after obtaining the authoritative state court construction for which the court abstained, for a final determination of his claim.'

We also made clear in Button, however, that a party may elect to forgo that right. Our holding in that case was that a judgment of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upon federal issues submitted to the state tribunals by parties remitted thereunder the abstention doctrine was 'final' for purposes of our review under 28 U.S.C. § 1257. In so determining, we held that the petitioner had elected 'to seek a complete and final adjudication of (its) rights in the state courts' and thus not to return to the District Court, and that it had manifested this election 'by seeking from the Richmond Circuit Court 'a binding adjudication' of all its claims and a per- manent injunction as well as declaratory relief, by making no reservation to the disposition of the entire case by the state courts, and by coming here directly on certiorari.' 371 U.S., at 427—428, 83 S.Ct., at 335, 9 L.Ed.2d 405. We fashioned the rule recognizing such an election because we saw no inconsistency with the abstention doctrine in allowing a litigant to decide, once the federal court has abstained and compelled him to proceed in the state courts in any event, to abandon his original choice of a federal forum and submit his entire case to the state courts, relying on the opportunity to come here directly if the state decision on his federal claims should go against him. Such a choice by a litigant serves to avoid much of the delay and expense to which application of the abstention doctrine inevitably gives rise; when the choice is voluntarily made, we see no reason why it should not be given effect.

In Button, we had no need to determine what steps, if any, short of those taken by the petitioner there would suffice to manifest the election. The instant case, where appellants did not attempt to come directly to this Court but sought to return to the District Court, requires such a determination. The line drawn should be bright and clear, so that litigants shunted from federal to state courts by application of the abstention doctrine will not be exposed, not only to unusual expense and delay, but also to procedural traps operating to deprive them of their right to a District Court determination of their federal claims.9 It might be argued that nothing short of what was done in Button should suffice—that a litigant should retain the right to return to the District Court unless he not only litigates his federal claims in the state tribunals but seeks review of the state decision in this Court.10...

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