1

This question presumes the following circumstances:

A party files for declaratory relief in federal court requesting a state statute be declared unconstitutional (facially or as-applied) but chooses not to seek injunctive relief aimed at preventing its enforcement. Judgment is entered for the plaintiff and the state doesn't appeal. Later the state prosecutes the plaintiff in violation of the decree (which it can do as the decree itself is non-binding). I am curious as to what recourse the plaintiff would have in this situation. Some states have followed the federal government in extending collateral estoppel to criminal actions and certainly in that circumstance the plaintiff could challenge the constitutionality of that statute in the state criminal proceeding and then estopp the state from defending against that challenge on grounds this issue had already been litigated. In the event that is not an option I am curious as to how Younger abstention would apply. The anti-injunction act would not apply as 42 USC 1983 explicitly permits federal courts to enjoin a state judicial officer when "a declaratory decree has been violated". The Court appeared to be somewhat split on this issue in Steffel v Thomson and explicitly reserved judgment on this question to a later date and I am unaware of any subsequent case law on that issue. Under 28 USC 2202 a federal court can issue all "necessary and proper relief" to enforce a declaratory judgment against an adverse party "after reasonable notice and hearing". However, my remedies text states that one has to file a separate suit to obtain an injunction under that statute. It provides no reference as to why. In fact, the U.S.C. notes for 2202 suggest that the intention was that the court would issue an order to show cause as to why the "further relief" requested should not be granted. Why couldn't the plaintiff just file for an injunction (under 2202) ordering the termination of the criminal proceedings under the original title and case number as a request for post-judgment relief? In that instance Younger abstention wouldn't apply as the suit would have predated the prosecution.

EDIT-- I'm going to clarify my question in response to a comment. I am not concerned with collateral estoppel, I just noted in passing that would be one possible recourse (federally it is automatic). The question presumes this is not an option. Younger abstention states that a party cannot pursue an injunction (in federal court) prohibiting the enforcement of an unconstitutional state criminal law once a criminal action has commenced against the would-be plaintiff for its violation (Younger v. Harris). In fact, a district court is required to abstain even if the civil case challenging the statute preceded the criminal action so long as the case is in its infancy.This would be a potential problem in the following sequence:

1.) Party A seeks declarative relief (and elects not to also pursue an injunction enjoining the government from enforcing it) and wins. The Court issues a decree stating the criminal statute is unconstitutional and that Party A has the right to engage in the conduct at issue in the case. There are good reasons that a person would choose to do this.

2.) Party A engages in said conduct, the declaration is non-binding and so the government elects to prosecute.

3.) The law says the Court may choose to issue an injunction to enforce a declaratory judgement (say by enjoining the government to terminate the criminal proceedings against Party A). However, if this requires filing a new pleading (and therefore technically a new case) by Party A, this case requesting enforcement of the declaration would follow the commencement of a criminal proceeding, and it seems reasonable that the Court be required to dismiss the action under Younger. However, I don't see any reason why this request should not be pursuable in the original action. The law only requires "reasonable notice and hearing" be given to the party that lost the declaration. It is not uncommon for persons to seek ancillary orders as post judgement relief in a case. I don't see why a NEW case needs to be filed to enforce the declaration. If the injunction can be pursued in the original case than Younger abstention is most definitely not triggered (the original case preceded the filing of charges),and the judge could order the prosecution terminate the criminal proceedings. I'm having a difficult time finding a definitive answer on this as almost always the injunction is pursued simultaneously with the declaration.

  • This question doesn't contain enough information to know. Generally collateral estoppel applies only to parties to an action and court judgments are only effective against the parties. So, it would depend upon who was a party to the declaratory judgment action and whether the person bringing it had standing to do so. – ohwilleke Apr 17 at 22:26
  • @ohwilleke Please see my edit. I'm hoping this helps clarify my question. This question does not presume a new party attempts to take advantage of the declaration; it also presumes collateral estoppel is not an option. – David Reed Apr 17 at 23:20
  • @ohwilleke I will also mention, since you brought it up, that a new party (other than a privy) would definitively NOT be able to use collateral estoppel against the government to take advantage of the declaration. It could only be used as persuasive precedent. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that (in federal courts) non-mutual offensive collateral estoppel is unavailable against a public defendant. However, as mentioned, this is not the scenario this question presumes. – David Reed Apr 17 at 23:33
  • @ohwilleke Did that clarify my question at all? Effectively I'm trying to determine whether a person desiring to enforce a declaration under 28 USC 2202 needs to file a new action to do so (as opposed to making that request in the original action that they obtained the declaration in). – David Reed Apr 21 at 19:14
  • Is the state the defendant? The Governor? The AG? The county? The DA? The Sheriff? – ohwilleke Apr 21 at 22:15
1
+50

A party files for declaratory relief in federal court requesting a state statute be declared unconstitutional (facially or as-applied) but chooses not to seek injunctive relief aimed at preventing its enforcement. Judgment is entered for the plaintiff and the state doesn't appeal. Later the state prosecutes the plaintiff in violation of the decree (which it can do as the decree itself is non-binding). I am curious as to what recourse the plaintiff would have in this situation.

If the party against whom the declaratory judgment was obtained was the same party as the one bringing the state criminal charges, the defendant could assert the declaratory judgment as an affirmative defense in the state criminal case, but would not have a federal court remedy to enforce the declaratory judgment (short of (1) a petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court after state direct appeal options are exhausted, or (2) a collateral attack on a criminal guilty verdict in state court brought after all state law remedies are exhausted in a federal district court as in any other criminal case, followed by any direct appeals of the federal district court ruling in the federal courts).

There is no good reason that the state court shouldn't accept this affirmative defense upon presentation with a certified copy of the federal court judgment and dismiss the charges if they really are within the scope of what was declared in the declaratory judgment action in federal court.

Indeed, the state court might very well sanction the individual attorney prosecuting the case if the attorney failed to withdraw the charges after having the existence of a clearly controlling declaratory judgment declaring the statute to be unconstitutional disclosed to that individual.

Honestly, it would be quite surprising for a state prosecutor to bring charges following a loss in a declaratory judgment action without at least trying to distinguish the charges brought from what the declaratory judgment determined in some material and significant way. And if the charges brought were distinguishable from those declared to be unconstitutional, the issue would be whether the new charges are within the scope of the issues decided by the declaratory judgment in federal court.

Also, a declaratory judgment is binding against the party against whom it is brought without an injunction. It is a binding determination of a question of law as applied to particular facts that is usually self-executing without further action from the court issuing the order.

The federal court that issued the declaratory judgment could not order the state court to discontinue the state court criminal proceedings, because that would not be part of the remedy sought in the declaratory judgment action. It would be a new and different in kind remedy sought in federal court that is injunctive in nature, and federal courts are not allowed to enjoin pending state court criminal cases, as you note.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.