Monday, October 29, 2007

Judge McConnell on the Relitigation Exception

Courts and commentators have not uniformly interpreted the scope of the Anti-Injunction Act's relitigation exception.  This exception allows federal courts to enjoin state court proceedings to "protect or effectuate" a previous judgment of the federal court.  The Supreme Court seemed to make clear, in the Chick Kam Choo case, that, while the relitigation exception has its roots in res judicata and collateral estoppel, the scope of the exception is not so broad as to be coextensive with both claim and issue preclusion.  While there is some language in Chick Kam Choo that could, if viewed in isolation, support such a broad construction, I have always taught in my Federal Courts class that the err of the broad interpretation is just that -- that it views the language in isolation.  Judge McConnell is spot on in his analysis, which thoughtfully considers the impact of a previous Supreme Court case, Atlantic Coast Line, and the policies underlying preclusion and the AIA.  Several excerpts from Judge McConnell's opinion appear below (and are edited without notation for readability):

Since Chick Kam Choo, this Court has dealt with the AIA's relitigation exception three times, but we have never squarely addressed its scope. We do so now and, like the vast majority of circuits that have explicitly or implicitly considered this issue, conclude that Chick Kam Choo leaves little room for doubt: the AIA's third exception does not authorize a federal court to protect the full res judicata effect of its decisions. Instead, it authorizes injunctions against state adjudication of issues that "actually have been decided by the federal court." Chick Kam Choo, 486 U.S. at 148.

The Ninth Circuit appears to be the only circuit that has rejected the majority reading of Chick Kam Choo and continues to apply the broader conception of the relitigation exception. Some commentators have also taken issue with the majority view. Admittedly, the Chick Kam Choo opinion contains language pointing both ways. The Court broadly stated that the relitigation exception is rooted "in the well-recognized concepts of res judicata and collateral estoppel." 486 U.S. at 147. Given that res judicata extends beyond claims actually decided and includes those that could have been raised,this statement might be seen to conflict with the opinion's later statement that the exception applies only to "claims or issues ... actually ... decided by the federal court." Chick Kam Choo, 486 U.S. at 148. As the Ninth Circuit explained:

To read Choo as the other Circuits have ... would in essence be to read res judicata entirely out of section 2283. Any issue which was "actually  litigated" by the parties in a prior proceeding will be barred by collateral  estoppel ("issue preclusion"), without any need to rely on res judicata ("claim preclusion").

Be that as it may, we think Chick Kam Choo's specific explication of the scope of the relitigation exception, along with the case's actual outcome (and that of Atlantic Coast Lines ), leads to the conclusion that the relitigation exception does not encompass all aspects of claim preclusion. Whether or not this is the best interpretation of the statute, and whether or not this limitation undermines the rights that are supposed to attach to a federal judgment. Chick Kam Choo says what it says, and we must follow it.

In any event, we believe this interpretation is consistent with the dual purposes of the AIA: to respect comity while also "ensur[ing] the effectiveness and supremacy of federal law." Chick Kam Choo, 486 U.S. at 146. When a federal court affirmatively decides an issue, that decision is entitled to respect and finality. But when a federal court has not passed on a specific claim, the main concern raised by subsequent state litigation is harassment of the opposing party. That concern is not to be taken lightly, but it is the province of res judicata, a defense that a party is free to raise in the subsequent state-court suit--and that the state courts "are presumed competent to resolve," Chick Kam Choo, 468 U.S. at 150.

You can find the full opinion here. --RR

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