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U.S. Supreme Court

County of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co., 360 U.S. 185 (1959)

County of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co.

No. 347

Argued April 2, 1959

Decided June 8, 1959

360 U.S. 185


1. A federal district court may not abstain from exercising its properly invoked diversity jurisdiction in a state eminent domain case in which the exercise of that jurisdiction would not entail the possibility of a premature and perhaps unnecessary decision of a serious federal constitutional question, would not create the hazard of unsettling some delicate balance in the area of federal-state relationships, and would not even require the District Court to guess at the resolution of uncertain and difficult issues of state law. Pp. 360 U. S. 186-198.

2. While a proceeding to assess damages for the condemnation of land for an airport was pending in a Pennsylvania state court, the landowners, properly invoking jurisdiction on the ground of diversity of citizenship, sued in a Federal District Court for a judgment of ouster, on the ground that the taking was for private use and therefore contrary to state law. There was no federal constitutional question involved; the state law on the point was clear and well settled; the case turned on the purely factual question whether the taking was for private, rather than public, use; and, under state procedure, the issue of the validity of the taking could be litigated in a separate suit. However, the District Court dismissed the suit on the ground that it should not interfere with the administration of the affairs of a political subdivision acting under color of state law in a condemnation proceeding.

Held: no exceptional circumstances justifying abstention appear in this case, and the District Court should have adjudicated the claim. Pp. 360 U. S. 186-198.

(a) The doctrine of abstention, under which a district court may decline to exercise or postpone the exercise of its jurisdiction, is an extraordinary and narrow exception to the duty of a district court to adjudicate a controversy properly before it. P. 360 U. S. 188.

(b) Abdication of the obligation to decide cases can be justified under this doctrine only in the exceptional circumstances where the order to the parties to repair to the state court would clearly serve an important countervailing interest. Pp. 360 U. S. 188-189.

Page 360 U. S. 186

(c) An order to the parties to repair to the state court in this case would not entail the possibility of mooting a federal constitutional issue or changing its posture. P. 360 U. S. 189.

(d) Adjudication of the issues in this case by the District Court would present no hazard of disrupting federal-state relations, since the District Court would be acting toward the pending state condemnation proceeding in the same manner as would a state court. Pp. 360 U. S. 189-191.

(e) The fact that this case concerns the exercise of a State's power of eminent domain did not justify the District Court in abstaining from exercising its jurisdiction. Pp. 360 U. S. 191-196.

(f) This case illustrates the unnecessary delay and expense that results from refusal of the District Court to exercise its properly invoked jurisdiction. Pp. 360 U. S. 196-197.

(g) Refusal to exercise jurisdiction could not be justified on the ground that the state court had assumed jurisdiction over the res, since the pending state proceeding was simply an in personam suit to determine the amount the State should pay for the property. P. 360 U. S. 197.

(h) A decision by the District Court holding that the taking was invalid would not be barred by 28 U.S.C. § 2283, which provides that a federal court may not grant an injunction to stay proceedings in a state court except as expressly authorized by Act of Congress or where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction or to protect or effectuate its judgments, since respondents do not seek an injunction in this case. Pp. 360 U. S. 197-198.

256 F.2d 241 affirmed.

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