Saturday, February 4, 2012
The Seventh Circuit ruled last week in Brown v. Bowman that a bar applicant's claim in federal district court for constitutional violations in his bar application and appeal process was barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. (The Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents lower federal courts from hearing cases by losers in state court cases that ended before the federal district court case started. "The reason, quite simply, is that no matter how erroneous or unconstitutional the state court judgment may be, only the Supreme Court of the United States has jurisdiction to review it." Op. at 9.) The court said that the applicant's efforts to side-step the doctrine by pleading only constitutional violations, and not seeking a reversal of his ultimate rejection by state courts, failed, because the federal court would still have to review a state court decision.
The applicant, Brown, filed in federal district court after he was rejected by the Indiana Board of Law Examiners, and after his appeals through the Indiana courts and the U.S. Supreme Court all failed. (The Indiana high court wrote an order stating that the BLE decision should stand; the U.S. Supreme Court denied cert.) Brown alleged that a psychologist and a psychiatrist who evaluated him as part of his application drew conclusions that violated his speech, religion, and assembly rights under the First Amendment (among others). The district court dismissed Brown's complaint under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and ruled that individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The court ruled that Brown's effort to dodge the doctrine, by pleading only his constitutional claims in federal court and not by seeking to overturn the state courts' ultimate ruling, was insufficient:
Here, appellant's artful pleading cannot get him around Rooker-Feldman when the gravaman of his complaint requires the district court to review the state judicial proceeding. . . . Though Brown focuses much of his appeal on the allegedly religiously biased JLAP evaluations and the conduct of JLAC members, these actions are intimately connected with the Indiana Supreme Court's adjudication. . . . Because Brown's claims of religious bias require a federal district court to review the judicial process followed by the Indiana Supreme Court in deciding the merits of Brown's bar admission application, Brown's claims are "inextricably intertwined" and fall squarely under Rooker-Feldman's jurisdictional bar.
Op. at 12-13.