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Posted: December 1, 2015

Suit Against State Court Judges Barred By Younger Abstention Doctrine

On November 12, 2015, the Second Circuit issued a decision in Falco v. Justices of the Matrimonial Parts of the Supreme Court of Suffolk County, 15-863-CV, affirming the dismissal of an action against New York State Supreme Court justices on Younger Abstention Doctrine grounds.

In Falco, the plaintiff was ordered by a Suffolk County matrimonial judge to pay half the cost of court-appointed counsel for his children in a divorce proceeding. The plaintiff refused and brought a Section 1983 action in the EDNY “challenging the constitutionality of the New York laws that authorize State judges to order parents to pay for attorneys appointed for their children.” The defendants moved to dismiss on Younger abstention grounds. The EDNY granted the motion. The Second Circuit affirmed.

The court began by discussing the standard for granting a motion to dismiss on Younger abstention grounds. It explained that the EDNY had erred in deciding the motion under the Second Circuit decision in Spargo v. New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct rather than the standard set forth in Sprint Communications, Inc. v. Jacobs, which the Supreme Court decided after Spargo. In Sprint, the Supreme Court “clarified that district courts should abstain from exercising jurisdiction only in three exceptional circumstances involving (1) ongoing state criminal prosecutions, (2) certain civil enforcement proceedings, and (3) civil proceedings involving certain orders uniquely in furtherance of the state courts’ ability to perform their judicial functions” and that “these three exceptional categories define Younger’s scope.”

The Second Circuit went to hold that:

[o]n de novo review, however, we independently conclude that [the plaintiff’s] case presents circumstances that qualify as “exceptional” under Sprint and that Younger abstention was therefore warranted. [The plaintiff’s] federal lawsuit implicates the way that New York courts manage their own divorce and custody proceedings—a subject in which the states have an especially strong interest. In particular, [the plaintiff] challenges the State court’s order that he pay half the fees of the attorney appointed to represent his children in the divorce proceeding. Although there is some disagreement among New York courts about whether the fees for such court-appointed counsel should be borne by the public or by the parents, . . . there is no discernible disagreement that orders relating to the selection and compensation of court-appointed counsel for children are integral to the State court’s ability to perform its judicial function in divorce and custody proceedings. The circumstances of this case therefore clearly fall within Sprint’s third category: pending State civil proceedings involving orders uniquely in furtherance of the state courts’ ability to perform their judicial functions.

(Internal quotations and citations omitted).

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