ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY C.A. No. 76-2230.
Adams and Higginbotham, Circuit Judges, and Bechtle, District Judge.*fn*
Legal precepts tend to expand, inexorably and sometimes imperceptibly. This is so, at least in part, because a broadly-formulated legal principle is by its very nature applicable to a wide range of situations. In any particular case, advocacy impels each party to claim the benefit of a potentially applicable doctrine, and in the absence of countervailing principles, consistency leads courts to decide in accordance with the suggested rule. But as a doctrine travels beyond the circumstances which generated it, the reasons which gave rise to that doctrine grow more attenuated, and the court is progressively more likely to encounter offsetting policies not present in the original application.
The abstention doctrine of Younger v. Harris has undergone such an expansion in recent years, as its equitable barrier to federal intrusion upon pending state prosecutions has been broadened to encompass a variety of other proceedings. In the present case, where we are called upon to review the application of Younger to a civil proceeding in which the state is a defendant, we must determine whether, in this new setting the policies undergirding Younger are sufficiently applicable to warrant further extension of the rule.
On September 15, 1976, the New Jersey State Board of Education amended regulations governing the qualifications of teachers in bilingual/bicultural education programs so as to require that all teachers - whether or not they held tenure - attain fluency in English, even if their teaching is conducted in Spanish. A month later, a statutory appeal from those regulations was filed in the New Jersey Superior Court on behalf of a class consisting of all bilingual/bicultural education teachers in New Jersey.
Upon being assured that no teacher would be terminated as a result of a denial of interlocutory relief, the Superior Court, without prejudice, denied a motion "for Emergency Ad Interim Stay of Enforcement". On November 17, 1976, the Superior Court again denied a motion for interim relief without prejudice.
The class thereupon, on November 22, 1976, filed an action in the New Jersey District Court. The federal action challenged the regulations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983,*fn1 on a number of constitutional grounds, and requested injunctive relief and declaratory judgment. After a hearing held on April 22, 1977, Judge George Barlow dismissed the complaint, on the ground that Younger v. Harris*fn2 interdicted injunctive relief, despite the teachers' offer to dismiss their state court action.*fn3 An appeal from that dismissal was timely filed.
In the interval between Judge Barlow's order and the oral argument before us, there were several relevant developments in the state courts. Thus, on April 25, 1977, the New Jersey Superior Court granted a stay against the operation of the challenged regulation. However, on July 12, 1977, the Superior Court sustained the regulations in a three-page per curiam opinion. That opinion, in addition to rejecting a number of purely state law challenges, held that the regulations were not "arbitrary or unreasonable" and went on to state:
To the extent appellants are concerned with that which they describe as an "irrefutable presumption," disfavored in law . . . we observe that the result in Berger v. Board of Psychologist Examiners, [172 U.S. App. D.C. 396], 521 F.2d 1056 (D.C. Cir. 1975) would unquestionably have been different had Berger there had the opportunity for individual review provided here. . . . We leave the application of the regulations to any individual to the particular record he established in such a case.*fn4
The teachers' request for certification was denied by the New Jersey Supreme Court, and no attempt was made to seek review in the United States Supreme Court.
New Jersey now contends that the appeal from the district court should be dismissed on the grounds of res judicata in light of the New Jersey court's actions.*fn5
Two issues are therefore presented in this proceeding: (1) the propriety of Judge Barlow's dismissal of the federal action on Younger grounds, and (2) the res judicata effect on the federal action of the subsequent state court determination.
Judge Barlow decided this case shortly after the Supreme Court handed down Juidice v. Vail.*fn6 Based on the holding in Juidice that Younger forbade an injunction against state contempt proceedings, even though such proceedings arose out of a dispute between private parties, Judge Barlow concluded that "because the plaintiffs have at least some prospect of vindicating their constitutional rights in the state court, this Court will not intervene in the controversy."*fn7
Such a declaration would represent a significant extension of the Younger doctrine. The heart of Younger lay in the area of a pending criminal prosecution. The "traditional reluctance" of courts of equity to enjoin on-going criminal proceedings*fn8 was combined with the somewhat distinct interest of comity, that federal courts not interfere unnecessarily with a state's attempts to enforce its criminal law in its own courts.*fn9 The result was a bar to federal interference in on-going state prosecutions, absent extraordinary circumstances. In contrast, the requested relief in the present controversy would affect a wholly civil proceeding brought by a private litigant. This distinction in our view takes the case before us outside the ambit of Younger.*fn10
Juidice is the only case in which the Supreme Court has accorded Younger deference to a private action in a state court. It is, moreover, one of only three cases in which Younger has been applied by the Supreme Court outside the domain of criminal ...