Parker v. Turner

Decision Date19 September 1980
Docket NumberNo. 78-1063,78-1063
Citation626 F.2d 1
PartiesJerry PARKER, Jr. et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Kenneth TURNER et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

Albert R. Thompson, Memphis Area Legal Services, Inc., Edward J. McKenney, Jr., Hanover, Walsh, Jalenak & Blair, Thomas M. Daniel, Memphis, Tenn., for plaintiffs-appellants.

D. Jack Smith, Memphis, Tenn., for defendants-appellees.

Before KEITH, MERRITT and MARTIN, Circuit Judges.

KEITH, Circuit Judge.

This case presents interesting questions concerning the abstention doctrine first outlined by the Supreme Court in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 664 (1971). The district judge felt that Younger principles applied here and dismissed the complaint. We agree and affirm.


The named plaintiffs filed this action on October 28, 1977. They sought to represent a class of indigent fathers who were under state court orders to pay alimony and child support. The plaintiffs claimed that the state juvenile court judges in Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee routinely denied basic due process rights in civil contempt proceedings to indigent fathers who were behind in their support payments. 1 Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the juvenile court judges, as a matter of policy, denied fathers their right to counsel, denied them the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, and denied them the right to testify and present witnesses in their behalf. According to the plaintiffs, the juvenile court judges in the Memphis area routinely jail fathers who owe support money without giving the fathers even the opportunity to present a defense. This means, claim the fathers, that many of them have been and will continue to be jailed even though they are destitute and cannot afford to make the support payments.

The plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief to ensure that the juvenile court followed basic due process. The plaintiffs also sought a declaration that every father cited for contempt had a right to an appointed attorney if he could not afford one. 2

The district court dismissed the complaint. The court stated that it was "not unsympathetic to plaintiffs' claims." However, the court thought that for it to adjudicate the suit would result in a "significant and unacceptable interference with the state judicial process," which might include ongoing supervision of the state juvenile court. The court relied on the abstention doctrine of Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 664 (1971), and its progeny. The question on appeal is whether the Younger doctrine properly applies here.


Younger v. Harris advanced the proposition that absent extraordinary circumstances, a federal court cannot enjoin a pending criminal trial in a state court. 3 This doctrine is based on considerations of judicial economy and proper state-federal relations. 4 Thus, in the typical Younger situation, a defendant who is being prosecuted in state court under a constitutionally suspect statute cannot go running into federal court seeking an adjudication of his rights and/or an injunction halting the pending criminal prosecution. 5 The defendant must first seek relief within the state system.

The Supreme Court has not yet extended Younger to all situations where a civil proceeding is pending in state court. However, the Court has applied Younger in various civil contexts. Thus, in Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 95 S.Ct. 1200, 43 L.Ed.2d 482 (1975), the Court refused to interfere with a civil nuisance action in state court in which the state sought to close down a movie theatre. Significantly, the state proceeding, although civil, was quasi-criminal in nature and the state was a party to it. In addition, the theatre owners had not appealed the adverse state court result, but had filed a new federal action, effectively trying to collaterally attack the state court judgment.

Although factually unique, Huffman did extend Younger restraint principles to civil cases in which important state concerns were present. Thus, in Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415, 99 S.Ct. 2371, 60 L.Ed.2d 994 (1979), the Court applied Younger to prevent interference with pending child abuse proceedings where children had been temporarily taken from their parents. The state was a party to the child abuse proceedings and had an obviously important interest in them. The Court also found important state concerns in Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U.S. 434, 97 S.Ct. 1911, 52 L.Ed.2d 436 (1977), where the state was seeking to use its prejudgment attachment procedures to collect money allegedly owed it. There, the important state interest was the state's safeguarding the fiscal integrity of its social services programs by moving quickly to collect monies owed. 6

From these cases, it appears that whether the state is a party to pending or completed civil proceedings is a key factor in determining whether to apply Younger's policy of restraint. However, important state interests may be present even if the state is not a party to the state court proceedings. In Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327, 97 S.Ct. 1211, 51 L.Ed.2d 376 (1977), the Court applied Younger in the context of state contempt proceedings brought by one civil litigant against another. The important state interest was preserving the integrity of its pending contempt orders which acted to vindicate the authority of its state judges.

We followed these principles in Kenner v. Morris, 600 F.2d 22 (6th Cir. 1979). There, a husband was involved in bitter divorce/alimony proceedings. He filed suit in federal court, claiming that Tennessee statutes which allowed women but not men to receive alimony were unconstitutional. This court applied Younger reasoning and affirmed the order of dismissal below. Although the state was not a party to the domestic relations proceeding, such proceedings are traditionally of deep state concern. We saw no need to interfere with the pending proceedings. 7

In this case, the plaintiffs seek relief affecting state civil contempt proceedings in domestic relations support cases. It is true that no underlying criminal proceedings are present. However, the state's interest in preserving the integrity of its contempt proceedings, Juidice, supra, as well as its domestic relations cases, Kenner, supra, requires us to analyze this case under Younger.


The plaintiffs argue that Younger does not apply because they are not seeking any federal relief which might impinge on a pending state proceeding. In their complaint, the plaintiffs state that they have been subjected to summary incarceration in the past; however, they do not seek to relitigate anything that happened in the past. Rather, they seek prospective relief to insure that they are accorded due process in future contempt proceedings should they be again charged with failure to make court-ordered support payments. 8 Also, there are no contempt proceedings pending against any of the named plaintiffs. 9 Thus, what the plaintiffs seek is a declaratory judgment that certain allegedly widespread practices in the juvenile court are unconstitutional.

We must agree with the plaintiffs' contentions, so far as they go. Younger restraint applies when there is a pending criminal or, as discussed supra, a pending civil proceeding. So long as an applicable proceeding is pending in state court, the federal court is barred from enjoining it or from granting declaratory relief. 10 However, Younger restraint is generally not applicable where there is no pending state proceeding. This is clear from Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452, 94 S.Ct. 1209, 39 L.Ed.2d 505 (1974), which allows a federal court to grant declaratory relief regarding a state statute or procedure. If there is no pending state court proceeding, a federal court is ordinarily free to adjudicate constitutional questions. 11

Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705, 97 S.Ct. 1428, 51 L.Ed.2d 752 (1977), illustrates this principle. In that case, plaintiff Maynard was prosecuted in state court on three separate occasions for covering up a segment of his license plates which he thought was offensive to his religious beliefs. He was convicted each time, accepted the punishment meted out and did not appeal. The plaintiff then filed suit in federal court, claiming that the state could not constitutionally prevent him from covering up the offending slogan on his license plates. The plaintiff did not ask the federal court to set aside his three convictions in state court. He simply sought relief against any further prosecutions in the future. Since there were no pending state proceedings, Younger restraint principles were inapplicable. The Supreme Court affirmed the entry of federal injunctive relief. 12

This case is similar to Wooley. As in Wooley, the plaintiffs have been subjected to past state court actions which are fully terminated. As in Wooley, the plaintiffs here do not seek to relitigate what occurred in the past, but only wish relief against future deprivation of constitutional rights. As in Wooley, there is no pending state court proceeding.

Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, there is one significant difference between this case and Wooley. Wooley presented a case where the plaintiff alleged that a state statute was unconstitutional as applied to him. The plaintiffs in this case do not challenge any state statute. Rather, they allege a pattern of unconstitutional practices in civil contempt proceedings in the state Juvenile Court in Memphis. The question is whether we should extend Younger and its principles of comity and federalism to bar relief solely because of possible undue interference with the conduct of state proceedings.


There exists much tension between Younger's endorsement of "longstanding public policy against federal court interference with state court p...

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