UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT
submitted: June 21, 1976.
ADAM J. CHLYSTEK AND HELEN CHLYSTEK, APPELLANTS
RITA WILSON KANE, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS REGISTER OF WILLS AND EX OFFICIO CLERK OF COURTS OF THE ORPHANS' COURT OF ALLEGHENY COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE
ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (C.A. No. 75-545).
Adams, Hunter and Weis, Circuit Judges.
ADAMS, Circuit Judge.
This is the third time that the petitioner's request for the convening of a three-judge court has been before us. Previously, this Court decided that the cause of action involved a "substantial federal question."*fn1 Now we must determine whether the complaint alleges a basis for granting equitable relief.
The petition for summary reversal relates, and the respondents do not deny, the following statement of the case: Adam Chlystek was divorced from his wife on the ground of his adultery. For the last thirty-five years he has lived with Helen Chlystek, the co-respondent in the divorce action. Under the relevant Pennsylvania statutes it would appear that Adam and Helen may not marry or obtain a marriage license so long as the former Mrs. Chlystek is alive.*fn2 Unless their cohabitation is recognized as a marriage, Helen will be denied Social Security benefits either as Adam's wife or as his widow. Consequently, in order to legitimate their relationship, the Chlysteks have come to the federal courts seeking an injunction against the enforcement of the applicable Pennsylvania statutes and a declaration that such statutes are unconstitutional. To obtain this equitable relief, they asked the district judge to convene a three-judge court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281 and 2284.
The district court initially refused to call for a three-judge tribunal on the ground that the Chlysteks did not present a substantial federal question. Although mandamus was denied the Chlysteks, this Court subsequently reversed the decision of the district court and ordered it to request a three-judge court, if "the other conditions precedent to convening a three-judge court were satisfied, i.e., whether the complaint formally alleged a basis for equitable relief and whether the action sought to enjoin a state official from executing a statute of statewide application."*fn3
On remand the district court found that the action did seek to enjoin a state official, the Register of Wills of Allegheny County, from executing a statute of statewide application. The district court, however, declined to ask the Chief Judge to convene a three-judge court because, he stated, remedies other than an injunction were available, specifically a proceeding under the Pennsylvania Declaratory Judgment Act or, in the alternative, a federal declaratory judgment. Central to the denial was the district court's belief that "the state courts are the more appropriate forum in view of the questions presented involving interpretation of state statutes and public policy." In addition, the entire action was dismissed without consideration of the prayer for a federal declaratory judgment.
The duty of a district judge in considering an application for a statutory three-judge court is set forth in Idlewild Bon Voyage Liquor Corp. v. Epstein.*fn4
The court's inquiry is appropriately limited to determining whether the constitutional question raised is substantial, whether the complaint at least formally alleges a basis for equitable relief, and whether the case presented otherwise comes within the requirement of the three-judge statute.
With respect to whether a substantial federal question is present, we are governed by the law-of-the-case doctrine. With respect to whether an injunction against a state officer enforcing a law of statewide application is involved, we are bound by the determination of the district court, which has not been appealed. The sole remaining issue therefore, is whether the complaint alleged an adequate basis for equitable relief. The district court ruled that it did not, and its conclusion was bottomed on the existence of what it considered to be adequate alternative remedies at law. We cannot agree with the district court's analysis in this regard.
The current state of the law of Pennsylvania would not appear to provide any relief to the Chlysteks.*fn5 Moreover, the availability of a state adjudication of the consistency between the Pennsylvania statutes and the federal constitution cannot preclude resort to the federal courts, since the Supreme Court has declared:
Congress imposed the duty upon all levels of the federal judiciary to give due respect to a suitor's choice of a federal forum for the hearing and decision of his federal constitutional claims. Plainly, escape from that duty is not permissible merely because the state courts also have the solemn responsibility, equally with the federal courts, ". . . to guard, enforce, and protect every right granted or secured by the Constitution of the United States."*fn6
When an injunction requiring the convening of a three-judge court is requested, the Supreme Court has not regarded the availability of declaratory relief as an alternative and adequate remedy at law which would preclude a grant of equitable relief and thus provide a predicate for refusing to convene a three-judge statutory court.*fn7 As the Supreme Court observed in Great Lakes Co. v. Huffman, a suit for a declaratory judgment is "essentially an equitable cause of action."*fn8 Thus, a declaratory judgment can hardly be treated as an alternative remedy at law, as that concept has been understood, the existence of which would in itself make the issuance of an injunction inappropriate. Nor does there appear to be any basis for regarding declaratory relief as providing a remedy as complete as that offered by an injunction. This is so because, although a declaratory judgment will provide the same relief as an injunction if it is heeded, its force depends primarily on voluntary compliance by the defendant. By its nature, declaratory relief does not furnish the assurance of obedience that is contained in the contempt sanction of an injunction. To a party suffering irreparable harm from the present and continuing enforcement of a state statute, a mere declaration of rights might prove inadequate.
More significantly, the question for the district court is not whether equitable relief should issue, but whether the complaint on its face alleges a sufficient basis for such relief. The availability of a declaratory judgment and stipulations of compliance may properly affect the ultimate decision of the three-judge court,*fn9 but the single district judge is confined in his adjudication to the formal allegations of the complaint*fn10 and may not speculate about possible subsequent stipulations or voluntary action by the defendant.*fn11
Accordingly, the judgment will be reversed and the cause remanded to the district court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.*fn12