Article III, Section 2, Clause 2:
In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be a Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the Supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.
Federal courts primarily interfere with state courts in three ways: by enjoining proceedings in them, by issuing writs of habeas corpus to set aside convictions obtained in them, and by adjudicating cases removed from them. With regard to all three but particularly with regard to the first, there have been developed certain rules plus a statutory limitation designed to minimize needless conflict.
"[T]he notion of ‘comity,’" Justice Black asserted, is composed of "a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate state governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways. This, perhaps for lack of a better and clearer way to describe it, is referred to by many as ‘Our Federalism’. . . ." 1 Comity is a self-imposed rule of judicial restraint whereby independent tribunals of concurrent or coordinate jurisdiction act to moderate the stresses of coexistence and to avoid collisions of authority. It is not a rule of law but "one of practice, convenience, and expediency," 2 which persuades but does not command.
Perhaps the fullest expression of the concept of comity may be found in the abstention doctrine. The abstention doctrine instructs federal courts to abstain from exercising jurisdiction if applicable state law, which would be dispositive of the controversy, is unclear and a state court interpretation of the state law question might obviate the necessity of deciding a federal constitutional issue. 3 Abstention is not proper, however, where the relevant state law is settled, 4 or where it is clear that the state statute or action challenged is unconstitutional no matter how the state court construes state law. 5 Federal jurisdiction is not ousted by abstention; rather it is postponed. 6 Federal-state tensions would be ameliorated through federal-court deference to the concept that state courts are as adequate a protector of constitutional liberties as the federal courts and through the minimization of the likelihood that state programs would be thwarted by federal intercession. Federal courts would benefit because time and effort would not be expended in decision of difficult constitutional issues which might not require decision. 7
During the 1960s, the abstention doctrine was in disfavor with the Supreme Court, suffering rejection in numerous cases, most of them civil rights and civil liberties cases. 8 Time-consuming delays 9 and piecemeal resolution of important questions 10 were cited as a too-costly consequence of the doctrine. Actions brought under the civil rights statutes seem not to have been wholly subject to the doctrine, 11 and for awhile cases involving First Amendment expression guarantees seemed to be sheltered as well, but this is no longer the rule. 12 Abstention developed robustly with Younger v. Harris, 13 and its progeny.
Exhaustion of State Remedies
A complainant will ordinarily be required, as a matter of comity, to exhaust all available state legislative and administrative remedies before seeking relief in federal court. 14 To do so may make unnecessary federal-court adjudication. The complainant will ordinarily not be required, however, to exhaust his state judicial remedies, inasmuch as it is a litigant's choice to proceed in either state or federal courts when the alternatives exist and a question for judicial adjudication is present. 15 But when a litigant is suing for protection of federally guaranteed civil rights, he need not exhaust any kind of state remedy. 16
For reasons unknown, 17 Congress in 1793 enacted a statute to prohibit the issuance of injunctions by federal courts to stay state court proceedings. 18 Over time, a long list of exceptions to the statutory bar was created by judicial decision, 19 but in Toucey v. New York Life Ins. Co., 20 the Court in a lengthy opinion by Justice Frankfurter announced a very liberal interpretation of the anti-injunction statute so as to do away with practically all the exceptions that had been created. Congress’s response was to redraft the statute and to indicate that it was restoring the pre-Toucey interpretation. 21 Considerable disagreement exists over the application of the statute, however, especially with regard to the exceptions it permits. The present tendency appears to be to read the law expansively and the exceptions restrictively in the interest of preventing conflict with state courts. 22 Nonetheless, some exceptions exist, either expressly or implicitly in statutory language, 23 or through Court interpretation. 24 The Court's general policy of application, however, seems to a considerable degree to effectuate what is now at least the major rationale of the statute, deference to state court adjudication of issues presented to them for decision. 25
Both the Constitution and a contemporaneously enacted statute require federal courts to give "full faith and credit" to state court judgments, to give, that is, preclusive effect to state court judgments when those judgments would be given preclusive effect by the courts of that state. 26 The present Court views the interpretation of "full faith and credit" in the overall context of deference to state courts running throughout this section. "Thus, res judicata and collateral estoppel not only reduce unnecessary litigation and foster reliance on adjudication, but also promote the comity between state and federal courts that has been recognized as a bulwark of the federal system." 27 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is not an exception to the mandate of the res judicata statute. 28 An exception to § 1738 "will not be recognized unless a later statute contains an express or implied partial repeal." 29 Thus, a claimant who pursued his employment discrimination remedies through state administrative procedures, as the federal law requires her to do (within limits), and then appealed an adverse state agency decision to state court will be precluded from bringing her federal claim to federal court, since the federal court is obligated to give the state court decision "full faith and credit." 30
Closely related is the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, holding that federal subject-matter jurisdiction of federal district courts does not extend to review of state court judgments. 31 The Supreme Court, not federal district courts, has such appellate jurisdiction. The doctrine thus prevents losers in state court from obtaining district court review, but "does not otherwise override or supplant preclusion doctrine or augment the circumscribed doctrines that allow federal courts to stay or dismiss proceedings in deference to state-court actions." 32
Three-Judge Court Act
When the Court in Ex parte Young 33 held that federal courts were not precluded by the Eleventh Amendment from restraining state officers from enforcing state laws determined to be in violation of the federal Constitution, serious efforts were made in Congress to take away the authority thus asserted, but the result instead was legislation providing that suits in which an interlocutory injunction was sought against the enforcement of state statutes by state officers were to be heard by a panel of three federal judges, rather than by a single district judge, with appeal direct to the Supreme Court. 34 The provision was designed to assuage state feeling by vesting such determinations in a court more prestigious than a single-judge district court, to assure a more authoritative determination, and to prevent the assertion of individual predilections in sensitive and emotional areas. 35 Because, however, of the heavy burden that convening a three-judge court placed on the judiciary and that the direct appeals placed on the Supreme Court, the provisions for such courts, save in cases "when otherwise required by an Act of Congress" 36 or in cases involving state legislative or congressional districting, were repealed by Congress in 1976. 37