Supreme Court Action: The Younger Doctrine in One Case and an Oopsie in Another

The Supreme Court issued one opinion this morning and dismissed a second case as improvidently granted.  The case that was dismissed is Unite Here Local 355 v. Mulhall (12-99).  That case concerned an agreement between a union and an employer over organizing and other considerations.  The details are in the dissenting opinion by Justice Breyer, and joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan.

The second case is Sprint Communications, Inc. v. Jacobs (12-815).  The issue in the case is whether a federal court should abstain from deciding a regulatory dispute between a state regulatory board and a communications carrier when there are parallel proceedings in state and federal court.  Sprint withheld payments for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls to a local Iowa carrier, Windstream Iowa Communications,  after concluding that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 preempted intrastate regulation of VoIP traffic.  Windstream threatened to block Sprint customer calls.  Sprint responded by asking the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) to enjoin Windstream from blocking calls.  Windtsream backed down and Sprint withdrew its filing.  The IUB continued the action as the issue could come up again.  It held against Sprint, deciding that fees applied.

Sprint filed parallel actions against the IUB in state and federal court.  The federal court invoked the abstention doctrine developed in Younger v. Harris and subsequent cases.  The court found that Iowa had an interest in regulating and enforcing state utility rates.  The Eighth Circuit affirmed.  The Supreme Court reversed.  It concluded that the three types of cases to which Younger applied was not appropriate in this situation.

The exceptions included state criminal proceedings, certain state civil proceedings that are akin to criminal proceedings, and civil proceedings involving orders that are uniquely in furtherance of a state courts’ ability to perform its judicial function.  Rejecting arguments to the contrary, the Court said the facts of this case do not apply to any of the exceptions.  The Court characterized the dispute as ultimately between two private parties who had invoked the state to settle a dispute between them.  The Eighth Circuit’s interpretation of case law would have the potential to extend the Younger doctrine to virtually all parallel civil proceedings.  Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.


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