Stanton v. District of Columbia Court of Appeals, 96-7041

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
Citation326 U.S. App. D.C. 404,127 F.3d 72
Docket NumberNo. 96-7041,96-7041
Decision Date03 December 1997

Page 72

127 F.3d 72
326 U.S.App.D.C. 404
John STANTON, Appellant,
No. 96-7041.
United States Court of Appeals,
District of Columbia Circuit.
Argued Sept. 2, 1997.
Decided Oct. 17, 1997.
Rehearing Denied Dec. 3, 1997.

Page 73

[326 U.S.App.D.C. 405] Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 95cv01952).

John Stanton, appearing pro se, argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant.

Richard M. Wyner argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief were Jo Anne Robinson, Interim Corporation Counsel, Charles L. Reischel, Deputy Corporation Counsel, Washington, DC, and Donna M. Murasky, Assistant Corporation Counsel, Washington, DC.

Before: WALD, WILLIAMS and GINSBURG, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge STEPHEN F. WILLIAMS.


This case is the latest episode in a serial dispute between appellant John Stanton and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ("DCCA"). Having been suspended from the bar under rules that did not automatically restore him on the lapse of his suspension, Stanton has thrice petitioned the DCCA for reinstatement. While the third petition was pending with that court, he filed suit in federal court posing constitutional challenges

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[326 U.S.App.D.C. 406] both to the substantive provisions of the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct (with which an applicant for reinstatement must be ready to comply in order to show fitness to practice), and to the procedures governing reinstatement.

The district court dismissed the claim on grounds of abstention under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 43-54, 91 S.Ct. 746, 750-55, 27 L.Ed.2d 669 (1971), because of the pending proceeding in the D.C. judicial system. But the Younger abstention has now been mooted by the end of that proceeding, In re Stanton, 682 A.2d 655 (D.C.1996), cert. den., --- U.S. ----, 118 S.Ct. 67, --- L.Ed. ---- (1997). So we would ordinarily vacate the district court's abstention disposition and remand the case. See Wood v. Several Unknown Metropolitan Police Officers, 835 F.2d 340, 342-44 (D.C.Cir.1987). Before doing so, however, we first inquire whether there are alternate grounds for affirming the dismissal. Id. at 343 (evaluating res judicata effect of concluded D.C. proceeding on appeal from Younger abstention). Cf. Helvering v. Gowran, 302 U.S. 238, 245, 58 S.Ct. 154, 158, 82 L.Ed. 224 (1937) (holding that "if the decision below is correct, it must be affirmed, although the lower court relied upon a wrong ground or gave a wrong reason"). Here the DCCA argues that we should affirm either because the district court lacked jurisdiction by virtue of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine's proscription of inferior federal court review of state judgments, or because Stanton's claims were barred by issue or claim preclusion. We find that Rooker-Feldman is indeed fatal to Stanton's substantive claim, but that neither it nor any preclusion doctrine disposes of the procedural claims. Accordingly we affirm in part and reverse in part.

* * *

On November 30, 1983 the DCCA issued two orders suspending Stanton from the practice of law. In both cases it found Stanton guilty of "neglect of a legal matter entrusted to him," in violation of then-applicable Disciplinary Rule ("DR") 6-101(A)(3), and "intentional failure to seek a client's lawful objectives," in violation of DR 7-101(A)(1). The DCCA ordered concurrent suspensions of a year and a day, In re Stanton, 470 A.2d 272 (D.C.1983) ("Stanton I"), and of 60 days, In re Stanton, 470 A.2d 281 (D.C.1983) ("Stanton II"). The details of the incidents leading to the suspensions are set out in the reports of the D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility, published with the suspension orders. The deficiencies recounted include failure to seek bond reviews at the request of clients (evidently extending the clients' pre-trial time in jail), failure to talk with clients about their cases, failure to investigate clients' cases, and finally, failure to assist clients who wished to plead guilty in their efforts to do so. The extra day of Stanton's year-and-a-day suspension is critical. Under rules then prevailing and continuing to govern attorneys suspended at that time, attorneys suspended for more than one year are not automatically restored to the bar on the lapse of their suspensions, but are required to file a petition for reinstatement; if denied reinstatement they may file their next petition no sooner than a year after the denial. 1 Stanton's reinstatement petitions having been uniformly denied, see In re Stanton, 532 A.2d 95 (D.C.1987) ("Stanton III"); In re Stanton, 589 A.2d 425 (D.C.1991) ("Stanton IV"); In re Stanton, 682 A.2d 655 (D.C.1996) ("Stanton V"), he remains under suspension.

Since the original year-and-a-day suspension, Stanton has filed many actions in local and federal courts, all so far unavailing. In the present case, he asserts three claims. First, he argues that certain of D.C.'s Rules of Professional Conduct, successors of the rules he was originally found to have violated, deprive D.C. bar members of rights of free expression protected by the First Amendment. He specifically attacks Rule 1.2(a), insofar as it requires that in "a criminal case, the lawyer shall abide by the client's decision, after consultation with the lawyer, as to a plea to be entered," and Rule 1.3(a), which requires that a "lawyer shall

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[326 U.S.App.D.C. 407] represent a client zealously and diligently within the bounds of the law." As we shall see, these claims appear to be comprehensible--if at all--only in the context of Stanton's personal quarrel with the DCCA over the lawyer's role in the plea process.

In the procedural counts of his complaint, Stanton claims that the composition and procedures of the D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility violate the due process clause. (Stanton does not say, but he presumably means the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, as it is that which applies to D.C.) On all three claims Stanton seeks declaratory relief.

* * *

Because it is jurisdictional, we first consider the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, set forth in Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 415, 44 S.Ct. 149, 150, 68 L.Ed. 362 (1923), and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206 (1983). The doctrine is drawn from 28 U.S.C. § 1257, which channels directly to the Supreme Court all federal review of judicial decisions of state (and D.C.) courts of last resort. By making clear that the inferior federal courts lack jurisdiction over such decisions, Rooker-Feldman ensures that the Court's appellate jurisdiction is exclusive. See Feldman, 460 U.S. at 482, 103 S.Ct. at 1314-15. That Stanton's now-completed third reinstatement proceeding was judicial in nature is clear and undisputed. See, e.g., Richardson v. District of Columbia Court of Appeals, 83 F.3d 1513, 1514 (D.C.Cir.1996); see generally Feldman, 460 U.S. at 476-81, 103 S.Ct. at 1311-14.

In promulgating rather than applying bar rules, however, the DCCA acts in a legislative rather than a judicial capacity. Accordingly, a district court confronted with a simple challenge to the validity of such rules "is not reviewing a state-court judicial decision" and thus has subject matter jurisdiction. Feldman, 460 U.S. at 486, 103 S.Ct. at 1317. Applying Rooker-Feldman requires us to draw a line between permissible general challenges to rules and impermissible attempts to review judgments. And Feldman also tells us that even a constitutional claim pled as a general attack may be so "inextricably intertwined" with a state court decision that "the district court is in essence being called upon to review the state-court decision." Id. at 483-84 n. 16, 103 S.Ct. at 1316 n. 16; see also id. at 486-87, 103 S.Ct. at 1316-17.

How to detect the fatal "intertwining"? In Feldman itself plaintiffs attacked both a general rule of the DCCA and the refusal of that court to grant plaintiffs a waiver. The Court found the attack on the rule independent enough, noting that the rule did not even contemplate the waiver procedure that plaintiffs claimed had been applied unevenly. Id. at 487-88 & n. 18, 103 S.Ct. at 1317-18 & n. 18. Thus, as we said in Richardson, "the core of plaintiffs' generalized challenge was independent of the specific decision to deny a waiver." 83 F.3d at 1515 (emphasis added). Cf. Levin v. Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Comm'n of the Supreme Court of Ill., 74 F.3d 763, 766 (7th Cir.1996) (distinguishing "between plaintiffs who claim their injuries are directly attributable to an erroneous state court decision and plaintiffs who claim injury independent of any state court judgment"); see also GASH Associates v. Village of Rosemont, 995 F.2d 726, 728 (7th Cir.1993); David P. Currie, "Res Judicata: The Neglected Defense," 45 U. Chi. L.Rev. 317, 324-25 (1977).

None of Stanton's three claims lends itself to easy classification. The First Amendment count's assertion that Rules 1.2(a) and 1.3(a) "restrict and curtail expression and practice of the dissident," Complaint p 22, seems to pose a general challenge. And Stanton's request for a declaration that the rules are "in violation of the federal right to freedom of expression," id. p. 6, bespeaks a claim independent of his personal situation. Cf. Centifanti v. Nix, 865 F.2d 1422, 1429 (3rd Cir.1989) (noting plaintiff's quest for declaratory relief as well as generalized character of the injunction sought). But the Complaint stresses that the Board on Professional Responsibility--which initially handles petitions for reinstatement and forwards its...

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