Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Supreme Court Issues Opinion Discussing Relationship between Rooker-Feldman Doctrine and Preclusion Law

Per Professor Tom Rowe at Duke Law (from the Federal Courts listserv):

The Supreme Court last Tuesday reversed a Rooker-Feldman dismissal, applying its decision last Term in Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp., 544 U.S. 280 (2005). The decision is Lance v. Dennis --- S.Ct. ----, 2006 WL 386360 (U.S. Feb. 21, 2006) (per curiam). The decision below was one of the cases arising out of the Colorado legislative re-redistricting. A three-judge district court had dismissed on Rooker-Feldman grounds because it found the citizen plaintiffs in the case before it in privity with the Colorado General Assembly, which had been a losing party in state-court litigation also challenging the redistricting.

No, says the per curiam opinion for eight Justices. Reliance on preclusion law to determine privity for Rooker-Feldman purposes "erroneously conflated preclusion law with Rooker-Feldman." (In a footnote, the Court reserves decision on whether Rooker-Feldman might ever be applied against a prior nonparty, as when an estate tries a "de facto appeal" to federal court against an earlier state-court decision involving the decedent.) The opinion makes the interesting point that incorporating preclusion principles into Rooker-Feldman analysis risks subverting Congress's direction in ยง 1738 to look largely to state law in determining the preclusive effect of state-court judgments into a uniform federal body of law on their preclusive effect.

Significantly, as in Exxon Mobil v. Saudi Basic, the analytical part of the Court's opinion makes no use of the "inextricably intertwined" test that had been so prominent in much lower-court Rooker-Feldman jurisprudence since the Feldman decision in 1983. The opinion quotes the term in describing the proceedings below and doesn't say anything favorable or unfavorable about it. But once again we have an authoritative illustration that "inextricably intertwined"--whatever role might remain for it, which a co-author and I discuss in a shortly forthcoming article in the Federal Courts Law Review--is not a general or threshold test for the applicability of Rooker-Feldman.

Justice Stevens dissented, although he agreed that Rooker-Feldman did not apply. He would have reached the preclusion question and held the plaintiffs precluded under applicable Colorado law. He expresses the view that Feldman was erroneously decided (he dissented, I think alone, from Justice Brennan's opinion in Feldman) and characterizes Justice Ginsburg's "lucid" (I agree with that) opinion in Exxon Mobil as having "finally interred the so-called 'Rooker-Feldman doctrine.'" That seems to me to go a bit far, because Exxon Mobil did state narrow circumstances in which Rooker-Feldman does apply.

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Souter, joins the Court's opinion and adds that while the Stevens dissent argues "persuasively" that "issue preclusion warrants affirmance," that state-law issue is better left for remand. Justice Alito apparently participated, without writing, because there's no notation that he wasn't involved.

Thanks to Professor Rowe for this helpful post.