Monday, May 20, 2013

Split Widened: Can a Court Bypass Rooker-Feldman to Dismiss on Merits?

Per Cawley v. Celeste (8th Cir. May 9, 2013)

Rooker-Feldman is one of the more esoteric doctrines of federal jurisdiction.  In brief, it prevents state court losers from using a federal case to appeal their defeat.  Importantly, in 2005's SABIC decision, the Supreme Court clarified that the doctrine is statutory, based on 28 U.S.C. 1257, not constitutional.

Nearly every time that Rooker-Feldman could apply, the federal defendant will also have a strong preclusion defense.  After all, for Rooker-Feldman to apply, there must already be a state court decision on the issue.

The circuits have split on whether district courts must adjudicate the Rooker-Feldman jurisdictional issue first, or may reach the preclusion issue on the merits without determining jurisdiction.  The CAs 3,6,and 7 all have published decisions saying that Rooker-Feldman must go first, and the CAs 9, 10, and 11 agree in unpublished decisions.

On the other hand, this CA8 opinion joins  published opinions from the CAs 1 and 7 (yes, the CA7 has published on both sides), and unpublished authority from the CAs 2, 3, and 10 (the latter two demonstrating another intra-circuit split) to hold that the court may reach the merits.

The CA8's reasoning is so clearly correct that I cannot improve upon it:

Steel Co. acknowledged that a federal court may reach a merits question before deciding a statutory standing question because the merits inquiry and the statutory standing inquiry often overlap, and it would be artificial to draw a distinction between the two.  That rationale may not support bypassing all questions of statutory jurisdiction.  But we think it does allow a federal court to decide a question of preclusion without first resolving a murky problem under Rooker-Feldman, because our inquiries under preclusion law and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine would similarly overlap.
(p. 6 (citations omitted).)

Indeed, the interplay between Rooker-Feldman and preclusion seems to fall perfectly within footnote 2 of Steel Co.  A court should, in the interests of judicial economy, be permitted to bypass a difficult Rooker-Feldman question if the preclusion result is much simpler.

On an aside--and part of my reason for selecting this case for comment--the topic of Rooker-Feldman allows me to pay tribute to my favorite legal publication, The Green Bag.  Right after SABIC and another Supreme Court case, the journal published an amusing obituary for the entire Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

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