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MOORE V. SIMS, 442 U. S. 415 (1979)

U.S. Supreme Court

Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415 (1979)

Moore v. Sims

No. 78-6

Argued February 26, 1979

Decided June 11, 1979

442 U.S. 415


When school authorities reported suspected abuse of one of adult appellees' children to the Texas Department of Human Resources (Department), the Department took temporary custody of all three of appellees' minor children and instituted suit in the Harris County, Tex., Juvenile Court for their emergency protection under Title 2 of the Texas Family Code. The Juvenile Court entered an emergency ex parte order giving temporary custody to the Department. Appellees then filed a motion to modify the ex parte order, but when they were unable to obtain an immediate hearing, they filed a habeas corpus petition in Harris County rather than renewing the motion or appealing the ex parte order. The Harris County court ultimately entered an order transferring venue to the Montgomery County Juvenile Court, and, at the Harris County judge's direction, the Department filed another suit, which was also transferred to Montgomery County, while temporary custody of the children was continued in the Department. Rather than attempting to expedite a hearing in the Montgomery County court, appellees filed an action in Federal District Court, broadly challenging the constitutionality of the interrelated parts of Title 2's statutory scheme defining the contours of the parent-child relationship and the permissible areas and modes of state intervention. The District Court denied appellees a temporary restraining order, but later held that the state court's temporary orders had expired and that the children had to be returned to their parents. The Department then filed a new suit in the Montgomery County court, which issued a show-cause order and writ of attachment ordering that the child suspected of being abused be delivered to the temporary custody of his grandparents. Appellees countered by filing in the Federal District Court a second application for a temporary restraining order addressed to the Montgomery County Juvenile Court, and this was granted. A three-judge District Court thereafter preliminarily enjoined the Department and other defendants from filing or prosecuting any state suit under the challenged state statutes until a final determination by the three-judge court. Subsequently, this determination was made, the court concluding that abstention under the doctrine of Younger v. Harris, 401 U. S. 37, was unwarranted because the litigation was "multifaceted,"

Page 442 U. S. 416

involved custody of children, and was the product of procedural confusion in the state courts, and thereafter addressing the merits of the constitutional challenges.

Held: In light of the pending state proceedings, the Federal District Court should not have exercised its jurisdiction, but should have abstained under the doctrine of Younger v. Harris, supra, which, in counseling federal court abstention when there is a pending state proceeding, reflects a strong policy against federal intervention in state judicial processes in the absence of great and immediate irreparable injury to the federal plaintiff. Pp. 442 U. S. 423-435.

(a) The basic concern -- the threat to our federal system posed by displacement of state courts by those of the National Government -- is applicable not only to state criminal proceedings but also to civil proceedings in which important state interests are involved. Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U. S. 592. As was the case in Huffman, the State here was a party to the state proceedings, and the temporary removal of a child in the child abuse context is, like the public nuisance statute involved in Huffman, "in aid of and closely related to criminal statutes." Id. at 420 U. S. 604. P. 442 U. S. 423.

(b) While the District Court's reference to the litigation as being "multifaceted" as a reason for refusing abstention is unclear, it appears that this reference meant either that the appellees' constitutional challenge could not have been raised in the pending state proceedings or that, in view of the breadth of such challenge, abstention was inappropriate. However, with respect to the pertinent inquiry whether the state proceedings afford an adequate opportunity to raise the constitutional claims, Texas law appears to raise no procedural barriers. And the breadth of a challenge to a complex state statutory scheme has traditionally militated in favor of abstention, not against it. Pp. 442 U. S. 424-428.

(c) There are three distinct considerations that counsel abstention when broad-based challenges are made to state statutes. First is the concern of Railroad Comm'n v. Pullman Co., 312 U. S. 496, that a federal court will be forced to interpret state law without the benefit of state court consideration, and therefore under circumstances where a constitutional determination is predicated on a reading of the statute that is not binding on state courts and may be discredited at any time, such dangers increasing with the breadth of the challenge. Second is the need for a concrete case or controversy, a concern also enhanced by the scope of the challenge and one that is demonstrated by the instant case. The third concern is the threat to our federal system of government posed by

"the needless obstruction to the domestic policy of the states

Page 442 U. S. 417

by forestalling state action in construing and applying its own statutes."

Alabama State Federation of Labor v. McAdory, 325 U. S. 450, 325 U. S. 471. Almost every constitutional challenge -- and particularly one as far-ranging as that involved here -- offers the opportunity for narrowing constructions that might obviate the constitutional problem and intelligently mediate federal constitutional concerns and state interests. Pp. 442 U. S. 428-430.

(d) With respect to appellees' argument that delay in affording them a hearing in state court made Younger abstention inappropriate, the federal injunction did, in fact, address the state proceeding, and it was unnecessary to obtain release of the children, as they had already been placed in appellees' custody pursuant to federal court order. Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U. S. 103, distinguished. Furthermore, such argument cannot be distinguished from conventional claims of bad faith and other sources of irreparable harm; in this case, the state authorities' conduct evinced no bad faith, and, while there was confusion, confusion is not bad faith. Pp. 442 U. S. 430-432.

(e) In the absence of bad faith, there remain only limited grounds for not applying Younger. Here, no claim could be properly made that the state proceedings were motivated by a desire to harass or that the challenged statute is "flagrantly and patently violative of express constitutional prohibitions in every clause, sentence and paragraph,'" Huffman, supra at 420 U. S. 611. Nor were there present in this case other

"extraordinary circumstances in which the necessary irreparable injury can be shown even in the absence of the usual prerequisites of bad faith and harassment,"

Younger, supra, at 401 U. S. 53. Unless it were held that every attachment issued to protect a child creates great, immediate, and irreparable harm warranting federal court intervention, it cannot be properly concluded that, with the state proceedings here in the posture they were at the time of the federal action, federal intervention was warranted. Pp. 442 U. S. 432-435.

438 F.Supp. 1179, reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 442 U. S. 435.

Page 442 U. S. 418

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