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Law School Case Brief

Mitchum v. Foster - 407 U.S. 225, 92 S. Ct. 2151 (1972)


42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 is a product of a vast transformation from the concepts of federalism that had prevailed in the late 18th century when the anti-injunction statute, 22 U.S.C.S. § 2283, was enacted. The very purpose of § 1983 is to interpose the federal courts between the states and the people, as guardians of the people's federal rights: to protect the people from unconstitutional action under color of state law, whether that action be executive, legislative, or judicial. In carrying out that purpose, Congress plainly authorized the federal courts to issue injunctions in § 1983 actions, by expressly authorizing a "suit in equity" as one of the means of redress. Federal injunctive relief against a state court proceeding can in some circumstances be essential to prevent great, immediate, and irreparable loss of a person's constitutional rights. For these reasons, under the criteria established in previous decisions construing the anti-injunction statute, § 1983 is an Act of Congress that falls within the "expressly authorized" exception of that law


The prosecuting attorney sought to close down Mitchum, DBA Book Mart, as a public nuisance. The bookstore owner alleged that the state officers were depriving him of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. He sought injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 on the ground that the state court was unconstitutionally applying Florida laws so as to cause him great and irreparable harm. The owner relied on a federal civil rights statute authorizing suits in equity to redress the deprivation, under color of state law, of federal constitutional rights. A three-judge District Court was convened and held that injunctive relief was precluded by the anti-injunction statute, 22 U.S.C.S. § 2283, prohibiting federal courts from granting injunctions staying state court proceedings "except as expressly authorized by Act of Congress.”


Were federal courts prohibited from granting injunctions staying state court proceedings "except as expressly authorized by Act of Congress”?




The Supreme Court of the United States held that federal injunctive relief was appropriate only where the irreparable injury was both great and immediate, the state law was flagrantly unconstitutional, or there was a showing of bad faith that would call for equitable relief. The Court added that to qualify under one of those expressly authorized exceptions, the federal law did not have to expressly reference § 2283. The test was whether an act of Congress, clearly creating a federal right enforceable in a federal court of equity, could be given its intended scope only by the stay of a state proceeding. The Court held that 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 fell within the exception. The Court reversed the district court's order denying injunctive relief and remanded the case for further proceedings because the statute under which the bookstore owner sought relief was an authorized exception to the Anti-Injunction Act.

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