Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Tenth Circuit Denies Jurisdiction for Lawsuit among Oklahoma Supreme Court Justices Pursuant to Ex Parte Young

Per Opala v. Watt, 454 F.3d 1154 (10th Cir. July 21, 2006):

Before Justice Opala filed this suit, Chief Justice Watt was re-elected to his post, and Justice Opala was succeeded as Vice-Chief Justice by Justice Winchester. Because we are only permitted to grant prospective equitable relief under Ex Parte Young, we cannot undo this election. Moreover, a declaration that New Rule 4 [of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma] is unconstitutional will not remedy Justice Opala's claimed injury that he was not able to stand for election under Old Rule 4 while serving as Vice-Chief Justice. Accordingly, we reverse the district court's denial of defendants' motions to dismiss, and remand with instructions that the district court dismiss the complaint for want of jurisdiction.

Because this suit is against the members of the Oklahoma Supreme Court in their official capacities, federal jurisdiction is limited by sovereign immunity. . . A state's immunity from suit by private individuals in federal court is not absolute. It may be overcome in three instances: (1) the state consents to suit; (2) Congress expressly abrogates the states' immunity; or (3) the citizen sues a state official pursuant to Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908) . . . This third exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity is now before us.

. . .

In determining whether a suit falls within the Ex Parte Young exception, this court applies a four-part test . . . The district court found that Justice Opala's suit satisfied all four criteria for the Ex Parte Young exception . . . Not only must the requested relief be prospective in nature (to satisfy Ex Parte Young), a ruling from this court must be capable of redressing the alleged injury for Justice Opala to have standing to file his suit.

. . .

However, we lack the power to "reinstate the pre-determined sequential order to that which existed prior to the Rule 4 amendment." We simply cannot make Justice Opala Vice-Chief Justice again. This is precisely the type of retroactive equitable relief prohibited under the Ex Parte Young doctrine. The relief sought in the complaint--a declaration that New Rule 4 is unconstitutional--would not place Justice Opala in the position he was in on November 3, 2004. There is no prospective remedy that can unring that bell. Justice Opala's claimed injury is simply not redressable with prospective relief. Thus, the federal courts lack the power to resolve this dispute.


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