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18

By Lisa Soronen

Any one of these is a bad sign: a unanimous opinion, a short opinion, and an opinion early in the Supreme Court’s term. But all three at once means you probably never stood a chance.

Well this is what happened in Sprint Communications Company v. Jacobs. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case, which NCSL joined.

The Court held that a federal court should not have abstained from deciding a case where a state court also was reviewing a decision of the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) because the IUB proceedings did not “resemble . . . state enforcement actions” where abstention is appropriate. 

The facts of Sprint Communications Company v. Jacobs are a bit complicated. Sprint withheld payment of intercarrier access fees for Voice over Internet Protocol calls to an Iowa communications company, Windstream, and filed a complaint with the IUB asking it to prevent Windstream from discontinuing service to Sprint. The IUB ordered Sprint to pay, and Sprint challenged the IUB’s decision in federal and state courts simultaneously. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, held that Younger abstention does not apply in this case. The court reasoned that Younger abstention only applies in three “exceptional circumstances,” including civil enforcement proceedings. The IUB proceedings in this case did not resemble state enforcement actions because they were not “akin to criminal prosecution” and were not initiated by “the state in its sovereign capacity.”  Instead, Sprint initiated the action and no state authority investigated Sprint or filed a complaint against Sprint.

The SLLC’s brief argued that what should matter in determining whether Younger abstention applies is the strength of the state interest in the proceeding.  And the integrity of the judicial process is maintained by state courts being allowed to resolve issues initiated before them that directly affect state and local government. The court was unsympathetic to the SLLC’s arguments saying it was unwilling to “extend Younger to virtually all parallel state and federal proceedings, at least where a party could identify a plausible important state interest.”  

Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center. She writes frequently on Supreme Court cases for the NCSL Blog.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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