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Feds won’t speed up state court pace

Longstanding precedent holds that federal courts can’t enjoin state court proceedings, despite the state court defendant’s claim that the proceedings violate federal rights. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971).

Now, an Aug. 27 opinion from the Seventh Circuit adopts the corollary to the rule — federal courts must also abstain from forcing a state court to proceed, despite a claim by a plaintiff that delays in proceedings violate federal rights.

SKS & Associates Inc. owns and manages residential rental properties in Cook County, Ill. In 2008, the chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court ordered the sheriff not to carry out residential evictions over Christmas and during periods of extreme cold.

SKS has lost money from time to time because the order delays its ability to evict tenants who fail to pay rent. SKS brought suit in federal court under 42 U.S.C. 1983, against the chief judge and sheriff, arguing that the order denied it equal protection, deprived it of due process, and amounted to an establishment of religion.

The district court dismissed the case, concluding that SKS could pursue relief in state court by seeking a writ of mandamus.

SKS appealed, but the Seventh Circuit affirmed in an opinion by Judge David F. Hamilton.

The court acknowledged that “at a superficial level,” the lawsuit appears within the scope of Section 1983, because it alleges that federal constitutional rights are being violated by state actors.

But the court concluded that it would violate principles of equity, comity, and federalism, to grant relief.

The court concluded, “SKS is not a defendant in the pending state eviction actions, but it seeks to have a federal court tell state courts how to manage and when to decide a category of cases pending in the state courts. Federal adjudication of SKS’s claims on their merits would reflect a lack of respect for the state’s ability to resolve the cases properly before its courts.”

The court found that deciding the merits of the claim would constitute meddling with state courts.

The court further found that SKS failed to show that it has no adequate remedy at law. Although it has had several cases in state courts in which it could have raised the issue, the court found nothing to indicate that it has tried to do so.

The court added that SKS actually has three potential remedies: (1) it could ask the court in any pending eviction case to require the sheriff to carry out the eviction, notwithstanding the order; (2) it could file a separate suit in state court seeking to vacate the general order; or (3) it could seek a writ of mandamus in the state court of appeals.

The court acknowledged that there is no duty to exhaust state remedies before pursuing a Section 1983 action.

However, it concluded that, where the suit seeks to impose federal supervision over state court proceedings, federal courts must defer to the state’s sovereignty over its courts.

Case analysis

According to Tristan Pettit, an attorney with Petrie & Stocking, S.C., who practices landlord-tenant law, he is not aware of any Wisconsin counties with a similar moratorium.

Until 1991, however, Milwaukee County did have a longstanding policy of not executing writs of restitution during the two weeks around Christmas.

In that year, a landlord and the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to bring suit on the ground that the moratorium violated the Establishment Clause, because there was no comparable rule during Passover or Ramadan.

The county capitulated before any legal action was brought.

Judge Patrick T. Sheedy, then the chief judge in Milwaukee County, said in an interview with The New York Times at the time, “legally, there’s no defense for it, so we ended it.”

In recent years, however, some have advocated for moratoria on foreclosures. In light of the Seventh Circuit opinion, if any counties were to adopt such a moratorium, lenders would be limited to state court to raise constitutional challenges to it.

What the court held

Case: SKS & Associates, Inc., v. Dart, No. 09-3461

Issues: Can a landlord challenge a state court’s moratorium on executing writs of restitution in federal court?

Holdings: No. Comity requires that federal courts abstain from forcing state courts to proceed with a case.

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