Burford Abstention — General Principles — Good Quotes (Anti-Abstention)

From Chico Serv. Station, Inc. v. SOL Puerto Rico Ltd., 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 1568 (1st Cir. Jan. 26, 2011):

A. Burford Abstention

1. General Principles

Abstention occupies an uneasy position in the jurisprudence of federal court jurisdiction. As the common refrain goes, "federal courts have a 'virtually unflagging obligation . . . to exercise the jurisdiction given them.'" Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 705, 112 S. Ct. 2206, 119 L. Ed. 2d 468 (1992) (quoting Colo. River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817, 96 S. Ct. 1236, 47 L. Ed. 2d 483 (1976))***. This all but unyielding duty to exercise jurisdiction rests on "the undisputed constitutional principle that Congress, and not the Judiciary, defines the scope of federal jurisdiction within the constitutionally permissible bounds." New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc. v. Council of New Orleans (NOPSI), 491 U.S. 350, 359, 109 S. Ct. 2506, 105 L. Ed. 2d 298 (1989); see also Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. 264, 404, 5 L. Ed. 257 (1821) (federal courts "have no more right to decline the exercise of jurisdiction which is given, than to usurp that which is not").

Against the backdrop of this duty to exercise jurisdiction, Supreme Court precedent has carved out a discrete set of "exceptional circumstances" in which the exercise of jurisdiction may be declined. As a general proposition, these "exceptional circumstances" lie "where denying a federal forum would clearly serve an important countervailing interest," such as "regard for federal-state relations" or "wise judicial administration." Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 706, 716, 116 S. Ct. 1712, 135 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1996) (internal quotation marks omitted). The circumstances that fit this mold are rare. Indeed, because abstention runs so firmly against the jurisprudential grain, we have repeatedly emphasized that abstention must always be "the exception, not the rule." ***

The particular species of abstention at issue here grew out of the Supreme Court's decision in Burford v. Sun Oil Co. , 319 U.S. 315, 63 S. Ct. 1098, 87 L. Ed. 1424 (1943). As we have observed on past occasions, the "fundamental concern in Burford is to prevent federal courts from bypassing a state administrative scheme and resolving issues of state law and policy that are committed in the first instance to expert administrative resolution." *** The Supreme Court has articulated a two-pronged analytical framework for identifying situations that implicate this concern:

Where timely and adequate state-court review is available, a federal court sitting in equity must decline to interfere with the proceedings or orders of state administrative agencies: (1) when there are "difficult questions of state law bearing on policy problems of substantial public import whose importance transcends the result in the case then at bar"; or (2) where the "exercise of federal review of the question in a case and in similar cases would be disruptive of state efforts to establish a coherent policy with respect to a matter of substantial public concern."

NOPSI, 491 U.S. at 361 (quoting Colo. River, 424 U.S. at 814).

While Burford’s principle of deference to state administrative bodies could be interpreted expansively, requiring that federal courts "abstain from hearing any case involving important state regulatory policies," *** we have declined to give it so broad a reading.... In light of the strong presumption in favor of the exercise of jurisdiction, we have held that "Burford abstention must only apply in 'unusual circumstances,' when federal review risks having the district court become the 'regulatory decision-making center.'" *** [S]ee also Fragoso, 991 F.2d at 882 (noting that, under the formulation in NOPSI, Burford abstention is limited to "narrowly circumscribed situations where deference to a state's administrative processes for the determination of complex, policy-laden, state-law issues would serve a significant local interest and would render federal-court review inappropriate"). Similarly, we have cautioned that the Burford doctrine does not require abstention merely because the federal action may impair operation of a state administrative scheme or overturn state policy. See Patch, 167 F.3d at 24 (citing Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 374, 379 n.5, 98 S. Ct. 673, 54 L. Ed. 2d 618 (1978)); see also Vaquerîa Tres Monjitas, 587 F.3d at 473-74.

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