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Reetz v. Bozanich

U.S.
Feb 25, 1970
397 U.S. 82 (1970)

Summary

recognizing that "[a]bstention certainly involves duplication of effort and expense and an attendant delay"

Summary of this case from Egres Soc'y, Corp. v. City of Brookhaven

Opinion

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF ALASKA

No. 185.

Argued January 13, 1970 Decided February 25, 1970

Appellees brought this action challenging, under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and under certain provisions of the Alaska Constitution relating to fish resources, the constitutionality of an Alaska statute and regulations limiting commercial salmon fishing licensees to defined groups of persons. Appellants' motion to dismiss or alternatively to stay the proceedings pending state-court determination with respect to the Alaska constitutional provisions (which have never been interpreted by an Alaska court) was denied and appellees' motion for summary judgment was granted, the three-judge District Court holding the Act and regulations invalid under both the Federal and State Constitutions. Held: The District Court should have abstained from deciding the case on the merits pending resolution of the state constitutional questions by the state courts, a procedure that could conceivably avoid any decision under the Fourteenth Amendment and any possible irritant in the federal-state relationship. City of Meridian v. Southern Bell Tel. Tel. Co., 358 U.S. 639. Pp. 85-87.

297 F. Supp. 300, vacated and remanded.

Charles K. Cranston, Assistant Attorney General of Alaska, argued the cause for appellants. With him on the brief were G. Kent Edwards, Attorney General, and Robert L. Hartig, Assistant Attorney General.

Robert Boochever argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief was Seth Warner Morrison III.


This is an appeal from the judgment of a three-judge District Court, convened under 28 U.S.C. § 2281, 2284, declaring certain fishing laws of Alaska and regulations under them unconstitutional and enjoining their enforcement. 297 F. Supp. 300. We noted probable jurisdiction. 396 U.S. 811.

The laws in question, passed in 1968, concern salmon net gear licenses for commercial fishing, not licenses for other types of salmon fishing. They are challenged because they limit licensees to a defined group of persons. The Act in material part provides:

Alaska Stat. § 16.05.536 (1968). Subd. (b) of that section specifies the data to be supplied in applications for a gear license. Section 16.05.540 provides that the licensee shall "personally operate or assist in the operation of the licensed fishing gear"; that he shall "personally own or lease the licensed fishing gear"; and that the license is "transferable."

"Persons eligible for gear licenses. (a) Except in cases of extreme hardship as defined by the Board of Fish and Game, a salmon net gear license for a specific salmon registration area may be issued only to a person who

"(1) has previously held a salmon net gear license for that specific salmon registration area; or

"(2) has, for any three years, held a commercial fishing license and while so licensed actively engaged in commercial fishing in that specific area."

The regulations provide that except in cases of "extreme hardship . . . a salmon net gear license for a specific salmon registration area may be issued only to a person who:

Alaska Commercial Fishing Regulations § 102.09(a) (1969).

As defined in the regulations, id., § 102.09(a)(2).

"(A) has held in 1965 or subsequent years a salmon net gear license for that specific salmon registration area; or

"(B) has, for any three years since January 1, 1960, held a commercial fishing license and while so licensed actively engaged in commercial fishing in that specific area."

Appellees are nonresident who applied for commercial salmon net gear licenses. They apparently are experienced net gear salmon fishermen but they cannot qualify for a salmon net gear license to fish in any of the 12 regions or areas described in the Act and the regulations.

While the original complaint challenged the 1968 regulations, it was amended to challenge the 1968 Act and the 1969 regulations under it, which regulated the 1969 fishing season.

Appellees filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the Act and regulations deprived them of their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and also their rights under the Alaska Constitution. That constitution provides in Art. VIII, § 3:

"Wherever occurring in their natural state, fish, wildlife, and waters are reserved to the people for common use."

And it provides in Art. VIII, § 15:

"No exclusive right or special privilege of fishery shall be created or authorized in the natural waters of the State."

Appellants filed a motion to dismiss or alternatively to stay the proceedings in the District Court pending the determination of the Alaska constitutional question by an Alaska court.

Appellants' motion to dismiss or to stay was denied. Appellees' motion for summary judgment was granted, the three-judge District Court holding that the Act and regulations in question were unconstitutional both under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and under the Constitution of Alaska. 297 F. Supp., at 304-307.

This case is virtually on all fours with City of Meridian v. Southern Bell Tel. Tel. Co., 358 U.S. 639, where a single district judge in construing a Mississippi statute held that it violated both the Federal and the State Constitutions. The Court of Appeals affirmed and we vacated its judgment and remanded to the District Court with directions to hold the case while the parties repaired to a state tribunal "for an authoritative declaration of applicable state law." Id., at 640.

We said:

"Proper exercise of federal jurisdiction requires that controversies involving unsettled questions of state law be decided in the state tribunals preliminary to a federal court's consideration of the underlying federal constitutional questions. . . . That is especially desirable where the questions of state law are enmeshed with federal questions. . . . Here, the state law problems are delicate ones, the resolution of which is not without substantial difficulty — certainly for a federal court. . . . In such a case, when the state court's interpretation of the statute or evaluation of its validity under the state constitution may obviate any need to consider its validity under the Federal Constitution, the federal court should hold its hand, lest it render a constitutional decision unnecessarily." Id., at 640-641.

We are advised that the provisions of the Alaska Constitution at issue have never been interpreted by an Alaska court. The District Court, feeling sure of its grounds on the merits, held, however, that this was not a proper case for abstention, saying that "if the question had been presented to an Alaska court, it would have shared our conviction that the challenged gear licensing scheme is not supportable." 297 F. Supp., at 304. The three-judge panel was a distinguished one, two being former Alaska lawyers. And they felt that prompt decision was necessary to avoid the "grave and irreparable" injury to the "economic livelihood" of the appellees which would result, if they could not engage in their occupation "during this year's forthcoming fishing season." Ibid.

It is, of course, true that abstention is not necessary whenever a federal court is faced with a question of local law, the classic case being Meredith v. Winter Haven, 320 U.S. 228, where federal jurisdiction was based on diversity only. Abstention certainly involves duplication of effort and expense and an attendant delay. See England v. Louisiana State Board, 375 U.S. 411. That is why we have said that this judicially created rule which stems from Railroad Comm'n v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, should be applied only where "the issue of state law is uncertain." Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534. Moreover, we said in Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 248, that abstention was applicable "only in narrowly limited `special circumstances,'" citing Proper v. Clark, 337 U.S. 472, 492. In Zwickler, a state statute was attacked on the ground that on its face it was repugnant to the First Amendment; and it was conceded that state court construction could not render unnecessary a decision of the First Amendment question. 389 U.S., at 250. A state court decision here, however, could conceivably avoid any decision under the Fourteenth Amendment and would avoid any possible irritant in the federal-state relationship.

The Pullman doctrine was based on "the avoidance of needless friction" between federal pronouncements and state policies. 312 U.S., at 500. The instant case is the classic case in that tradition, for here the nub of the whole controversy may be the state constitution. The constitutional provisions relate to fish resources, an asset unique in its abundance in Alaska. The statute and regulations relate to that same unique resource, the management of which is a matter of great state concern. We appreciate why the District Court felt concern over the effect of further delay on these plaintiffs, the appellees here; but we have concluded that the first judicial application of these constitutional provisions should properly be by an Alaska court.

We think the federal court should have stayed its hand while the parties repaired to the state courts for a resolution of their state constitutional questions. We accordingly vacate the judgment of the District Court and remand the case for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


Summaries of

Reetz v. Bozanich

U.S.
Feb 25, 1970
397 U.S. 82 (1970)

recognizing that "[a]bstention certainly involves duplication of effort and expense and an attendant delay"

Summary of this case from Egres Soc'y, Corp. v. City of Brookhaven

recognizing that "[a]bstention certainly involves duplication of effort and expense and an attendant delay"

Summary of this case from Doe v. Baker

requiring abstention despite Fourteenth Amendment challenge

Summary of this case from Caldara v. City of Boulder

noting that “fish resources” was “an asset unique in its abundance in Alaska,” and that “the management [of fish resources was] a matter of great state concern”

Summary of this case from Courtney v. Goltz

relying on the Pullman doctrine to hold that the “federal court should have stayed its hand while the parties repaired to the state courts for a resolution of their state constitutional questions” that could have obviated the need to answer the federal constitutional claim

Summary of this case from Carver v. Nassau Cnty. Interim Fin. Auth.

relying on the Pullman doctrine to hold that the "federal court should have stayed its hand while the parties repaired to the state courts for a resolution of their state constitutional questions" that could have obviated the need to answer the federal constitutional claim

Summary of this case from Carver v. Nassau Cnty. Interim Fin. Auth.

abstaining under Pullman where provisions of Alaska Constitution had never been interpreted by Alaska court

Summary of this case from Columbia Basin Apt. Ass'n v. City of Pasco

In Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 90 S.Ct. 788, 25 L.Ed.2d 68 (1970), the Supreme Court reversed a district court that failed to abstain in a case challenging an Alaska fishing statute that was clear on its face, but that, when read in the light of state constitutional provisions, presented an unclear question of state law.

Summary of this case from Georgevich v. Strauss

In Reetz the basic issue concerned management of natural resources, which the Supreme Court stated was "a matter of great state concern."

Summary of this case from Daniel v. Waters

In Reetz, the Court likewise ordered abstention in a case where a state court decision "could conceivably avoid any decision under the Fourteenth Amendment and would avoid any possible irritant in the federal-state relationship."

Summary of this case from Johns-Manville Products Corporation v. Doyal

In Reetz, a three-judge federal court declared that certain Alaska statutes and regulations thereunder concerning salmon net-gear licenses for commercial fishermen violated the equal protection clause.

Summary of this case from Iowa Indep. Bankers v. Bd. of Gov. of F.R.S

In Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 90 S.Ct. 788, 25 L.Ed.2d 68 (1970), the Court reversed a three-judge district court which had enjoined the enforcement of an Alaskan statute and regulations governing the issuance of licenses for commercial fishing as violative of the fourteenth amendment.

Summary of this case from Reid v. Board of Education of City of New York

abstaining under Pullman when unclear state law involved matters of particular state concern

Summary of this case from Zuffa, LLC v. Schneiderman

In Reetz, the plaintiff presented a challenge to Alaskan fishing laws and regulations under both the Alaska Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. 397 U.S. at 83-84.

Summary of this case from Entman v. City of Memphis

In Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 90 S.Ct. 788, 25 L.Ed.2d 68 (1970), certain non-residents of Alaska challenged the state's restrictions on who could obtain commercial salmon fishing licenses.

Summary of this case from Club Ass'n of West Virginia, Inc. v. Wise

In Reetz, Alaska's fishing laws were challenged as unconstitutional under the United States Constitution and as violating specific provisions of the Alaska Constitution dealing with fishing rights.

Summary of this case from Rodrigues v. County of Hawaii

In Reetz, the Court vacated the decision of a three-judge district court declaring certain Alaska fishing statutes invalid under both the federal and Alaska Constitutions. The Court held that the panel should have abstained under Pullman because a state court decision "could conceivably avoid any decision under the Fourteenth Amendment and would avoid any possible irritant in the federal-state relationship."

Summary of this case from Independence Public Media of Philadelphia, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Public Television Network Commission

In Reetz, the Supreme Court faced a federal equal protection challenge by non-residents to an Alaskan statute limiting the issuance of commercial licenses for net salmon fishing to those who had previously held such a license or to those who had engaged in commercial fishing for the past three years.

Summary of this case from Nehring v. Ariyoshi

In Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 86-87, 90 S.Ct. 788, 25 L.Ed.2d 68 (1970), the Supreme Court held that the District Court in Alaska should have abstained "... while the parties repaired to the state courts for a resolution of their state constitutional questions [because a] state court decision here... could conceivably avoid any [federal constitutional] decision... and would avoid any possible irritant in the federal-state relationship."

Summary of this case from Cristina v. Department of State, of New York

In Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 90 S.Ct. 788, 25 L.Ed.2d 68 (1969) the Supreme Court vacated and remanded a decision of a Three-Judge District Court holding invalid an Act of the Alaska Legislature under both the Federal and Alaskan Constitutions. The Court held that the District Court should have abstained from deciding the case on the merits pending resolution of the state constitutional questions by the state courts.

Summary of this case from BT Investment Managers, Inc. v. Dickinson

In Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 90 S.Ct. 788, 25 L.Ed.2d 68 (1970), a three-judge District Court enjoined the enforcement of certain of Alaska's fishing licensing laws.

Summary of this case from United A., A., A.I.W. of America v. State Farm M.A.I. Co.

In Reetz, the Supreme Court only recently applied the abstention principle in reversing the decision of a three-judge district court declaring an Alaska statute unconstitutional under both the federal and state constitutions.

Summary of this case from Lipman v. Van Zant

In Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 90 S.Ct. 788, 25 L.Ed.2d 68 (1970), the Court discussed the rules pertaining to the judicially created doctrine of abstention, first laid down by the Court in Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1941).

Summary of this case from Shames v. State of Nebraska

In Reetz, the Court found the abstention doctrine to be based upon "`the avoidance of needless friction' between federal pronouncements and state policies * * *."

Summary of this case from Keenan v. Board of Law Examiners of State of N.C.

In Reetz certain commercial fishing laws of the State of Alaska were challenged as depriving plaintiffs of rights secured to them by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and by the Alaska Constitution. The Supreme Court noted that regulation of Alaska's unique fishing resources was a matter of great state concern and held that the case was a classic one for application of the Pullman doctrine since "the nub of the whole controversy may be the state Constitution."

Summary of this case from Geiger v. Jenkins
Case details for

Reetz v. Bozanich

Case Details

Full title:REETZ, COMMISSIONER OF FISH AND GAME OF ALASKA, ET AL. v . BOZANICH ET AL

Court:U.S.

Date published: Feb 25, 1970

Citations

397 U.S. 82 (1970)
90 S. Ct. 788

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