Monday, September 21, 2015

Federalism vs. Individual Rights in Suit Against Court

By Professor Karl Manheim

This op-ed originally appeared in the Sept. 21, 2015 edition of the Daily Journal.

California’s budget crises of recent years had a deleterious effect on state court funding. The same story was repeated around the country as state courts became convenient targets of budget cuts. Unsurprisingly, such cuts adversely affect the administration of justice. Also unsurprisingly, the effect is often uneven, creating special hardship for certain populations.

Los Angeles County Superior Court (LASC) responded to the funding crisis by closing courtrooms around the county and consolidating certain categories of cases into a few “hub” courts. It closed the majority of courtrooms hearing unlawful detainer (eviction) actions, while leaving many other types of civil cases mostly unaffected.

Los Angeles County is the largest in the nation in population and one of the largest in size. Half of its 10 million residents are renters. In 2013, the 26 neighborhood courts that heard eviction actions were “consolidated” into five courts spread across the county. For some tenants facing eviction, now getting to the courthouse became an almost insurmountable obstacle. This was especially true for poor and disabled renters who had to rely on public transportation.

Civil rights groups representing these vulnerable groups filed suit against LASC in federal court under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other statutory and constitutional claims. They cited Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509 (2004), which permitted a litigant with disabilities to sue a state court over impediments to courthouse access. Lane rejected state sovereign immunity to such ADA claims.
LASC invoked a different immunity defense in the ADA case, Miles v. Wesley (9th Cir. 2015); namely, that federal suits involving state courts violated federalism principles announced in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). While Younger involved a collateral attack in federal court to a pending state criminal case, its abstention doctrine was expanded a few years later to claims of systemic defects in state courts where the case would necessarily result in “an ongoing federal audit of state criminal proceedings.” O’Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, (1974).

O’Shea abstention applies where federal courts are asked to supervise the “day-to-day conduct of state trials.” In contrast, where structural defects in state judicial systems can be remedied by a federal judgment without case-specific interference, then abstention should not apply. At least that was the holding in L.A. County Bar Ass’n v. Eu, 979 F.2d 697 (1992) (LACBA), where the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that long delays in bringing civil cases to trial in LASC violated due process.

The exception noted in LACBA for systemic state court defects has not fared well recently. In Miles and an earlier case, E.T. v. Cantil-Sakauye, 682 F.3d 1121 (9th Cir. 2012), the court held abstention was required wherever a state court’s allocation of resources was challenged. In E.T., a challenge to inadequate representation of children in state dependency proceedings (court-appointed lawyers carried an average caseload of 395 cases per year) was also turned away from federal court because of its potential to require the state to beef up funding of state courts or affect their funding priorities. Whether children received due process before they were separated from parents and siblings, sometimes in hearings lasting as short as two minutes, is not a matter for federal court. Whether a disabled person who would need to spend hours on a bus in each direction for an eviction hearing has effective access to justice is not a matter for federal court.

Abstention can be a pernicious doctrine, especially in civil rights cases. Its effect is to close the federal courthouse door to claimants challenging constitutional violations by state courts. In theory, such claims should be brought in state courts themselves. While that might work in the original Younger scenario, where an underlying matter was already pending in state court, it doesn’t work where the claim is that state courts are functionally closed. Indeed, that very exception was noted in Younger.

Thus, expansion of Younger abstention to any case involving state judicial processes, as seems to be the consequence of E.T. and Miles, is both illogical and a very real diminution of civil rights. Younger was premised on general federalism principles, itself a judicially made doctrine not grounded in constitutional text. It has become a convenient way to avoid disfavored constitutional and statutory claims, masking the disfavor behind technical rules. It is thus part of a broader tendency to narrow federal jurisdiction through various justiciability doctrines. It is a far cry from the vision for a rights-protective constitutional court our nation had at the founding.

The ominous message from the 9th Circuit is clear: don’t mess around with state courts, no matter how illegal their actions may be. The principles of “our federalism” are simply more important than individual rights.

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