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Buck v. Stankovic

May 1, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: A. Richard Caputo United States District Judge


Presently before the Court is Plaintiffs Heather Buck and Jose Guadelupe AriasMaravilla's Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and/or Preliminary Injunction prohibiting Defendant Dorothy Stankovic, Register of Wills for Luzerne County, her agents and employees, from requiring Plaintiff Arias to prove his lawful presence in the United States as a condition of obtaining a marriage license. (Doc. 3.) A hearing was held on Thursday, April 26, 2007, supplemental briefs were filed and Plaintiffs' motion is ripe for disposition. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiffs' motion will be granted. The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343(a), as well as 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The question before me is whether Defendant can, by prescribing a process for identifying an applicant for a marriage license, deny an undocumented alien and his citizen fiancé a marriage license. Defendant is charged with the duty of issuing marriage licenses for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the County of Luzerne. Defendant fashioned a policy of requiring: (1) photo identification; (2) a birth certificate, which, if in a foreign language, must be accompanied by a certified translation; (3) a divorce decree if one of the applicants was previously married; and (4) fifty dollars ($50.00). With respect to the photo identification, if the applicant is not a United States citizen, Defendant requires that the applicant, if a permanent resident, present his United States Permanent Resident Card, also known as a "Green Card", see Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, "Greencard", (last visited May 1, 2007), or, in the case of a foreign national like Mr. Arias, the applicant must present his foreign passport with a visa. "A visa is a document issued by a country giving an individual permission to formally request entrance to the country during a given period of time and for certain purposes and most always stamped or glued inside of a passport." Wikipedia, supra, "Visa (document)", It is the requirement that a non-citizen show proof of his lawful presence in the United States that is called into question by this case because the requirement effectively denies a marriage license to any undocumented alien, since only non-citizens in the United States legally have a visa or Green Card.

Plaintiff Heather Buck is a United States citizen. Plaintiff Jose Guadelupe AriasMaravilla is a citizen of Mexico who entered the United States without authorization. Since October 2005, Ms. Buck and Mr. Arias have lived together in their home in West Hazleton, Pennsylvania. On December 21, 2006, Plaintiffs had a son, Xavier Jose Arias.

On Tuesday, April 17, 2007, Plaintiffs went to Defendant's office in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to obtain a marriage license. Plaintiffs spoke with Deputy Register of Wills, Donald Williamson. Mr. Arias presented his birth certificate, accompanied by a certified English translation, his Mexican passport, and documents from his immigration proceedings before Immigration Judge Walter A. Durling, among which was an order granting Mr. Arias' application for voluntary departure until May 12, 2007. Mr. Williamson noted that he was satisfied with Mr. Arias' photo on his Mexican passport. However, because the passport did not contain a visa evidencing Mr. Arias' lawful presence in the United States, Mr. Williamson denied Plaintiffs' request for a marriage license. In so doing, Mr. Williamson refused to look at the documents from Mr. Arias' immigration proceeding.


In order to grant a motion for a preliminary injunction, a district court must address the following four factors: (1) whether the movant has shown a reasonable probability of success on the merits; (2) whether the movant will be irreparably harmed by denial of the relief; (3) whether granting relief will result in even greater harm to the nonmoving party; and (4) whether granting the preliminary relief will be in the public interest. A.C.L.U. v. Ashcroft, 322 F.3d 240, 250 (3d Cir. 2003).


I. Abstention

As an initial matter, Defendant asserts that the Court should abstain from adjudicating Plaintiffs' case, arguing that an uncertain issue of state law exists as to the interpretation of 23 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. § 1301(c), which provides that "[p]rior to issuance of the [marriage] license, the person issuing the license must be satisfied as to the identity of both of the applicants." Specifically, Defendant argues that the provision leaves unclear what documents are needed in order for a marriage license applicant to satisfactorily establish his identity. Defendant contends that this uncertain issue of state law is amenable to state court interpretation, noting that the Pennsylvania Marriage Law, 23 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. § 1308, provides for judicial review by the Orphans Court in cases where a marriage license is refused. Adjudication by the Orphans Court would potentially narrow the issues or even obviate the need for this Court to decide Plaintiffs' constitutional claims. Defendant also avers that this Court's erroneous construction of section 1301(c) would disrupt important state policy related to the social relation of marriage.

A. Legal Standard

Federal courts generally lack the authority to abstain from exercising jurisdiction that has been conferred. See New Orleans Pub. Serv. v. New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 358 (1989). "Underlying [this] assertion[ ] is the undisputed constitutional principle that Congress, and not the Judiciary, defines the scope of federal jurisdiction within the constitutionally permissible bounds." Id. "Nonetheless, because federal courts have discretion in determining whether to grant certain types of relief, abstention is appropriate in a few carefully defined situations." Gwynedd Props. v. Lower Gwynedd Twp., 970 F.2d 1195, 1199 (3d Cir. 1992). Abstention, however, "is the exception, not the rule." Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 813 (1976).

Abstention is "an extraordinary and narrow exception . . . [and is appropriate] only in the exceptional circumstances where the order to the parties to repair to the state court would clearly serve an important countervailing interest." County of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co., 360 U.S. 185, 188-89 (1959). Not only is abstention rarely proper, but abstention "is not an automatic rule applied whenever a federal court is faced with a doubtful issue of state law; it rather involves a discretionary exercise of a court's equity powers." Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 375 (1964). "Ambiguity in state law will not, standing alone, require abstention." Id.

Abstention under Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941), is appropriate only "when the plaintiff properly invokes the federal jurisdiction in the first instance and the federal court temporarily abstains from exercising its jurisdiction pending the state court decision on a state law question." Ivy Club v. Edwards, 943 F.2d 270, 280 (3d Cir. 1991). "[A]bstention under Pullman merely postpones the exercise of federal jurisdiction." Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 101 n. 17 (1980). The purpose of Pullman abstention is to avoid (1) unnecessary constitutional pronouncements that could ultimately be displaced by a state court adjudication of state law; and (2) undue influence with state programs and policies. Planned Parenthood of Central New Jersey v. Farmer, 220 F.3d 127, 149 (3d Cir. 2000) (citation omitted).

Pullman abstention is appropriate when "a federal court is presented with both a federal constitutional issue and an unsettled issue of state law whose resolution might narrow or eliminate the federal constitutional question." Pullman, 312 U.S. at 500 (1941). Three "special circumstances" must exist for a federal court to apply Pullman abstention:

(1) uncertain issues of state law underlying the federal constitutional claims brought in federal court; (2) state law issues amenable to a state court interpretation that would obviate the need for, or substantially narrow, the scope of adjudication of the constitutional claims; and (3) a federal court's erroneous construction of state law would be disruptive of important state policies. Chez Sez III Corp. v. Twp. of Union, 945 F.2d 628, 631 (3d Cir. 1991).

Even if all three special circumstances are present, the Court retains the discretion whether or not to abstain. As such, discretionary factors, such as (1) the availability of an adequate state remedy, (2) the length of time the litigation has been pending, and (3) the impact of delay to the litigants, should be considered in order to determine whether abstention is consistent with equity. Id. at 631-33. The party urging abstention ...

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