9th Cir: Younger Abstention in Challenge to Attorney Caseloads in Foster Care Cases

In a per curiam opinion, the Ninth Circuit upheld a district court’s decision to abstain from adjudicating a lawsuit brought by a group of foster children under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. E.T. v. Cantil-Sakauye, 657 F.3d 902 (9th Cir. 2011). As with the district court, the Ninth Circuit concluded that O’Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488 (1974), prevented the district court from adjudicating the Plaintiffs’ lawsuit, which alleged that the excessive caseloads of the Sacramento County Dependency Court and its court-appointed attorneys violate the Plaintiffs’ Due Process rights and their right to effective assistance of counsel. Quoting approvingly to the district court’s decision, the Ninth Circuit stated that the Plaintiffs’ lawsuit, which sought declarative and injunctive relief, would “necessarily require the [district] court to intrude upon the state’s administration of its government, and more specifically, its court system.” E.T. v. George, 681 F. Supp. 2d 1151, 1164 (E.D. Cal. 2010).

The Ninth Circuit also rejected the Plaintiffs’ contention that their challenge on appeal – which the Plaintiffs’ narrowed to a prayer solely for declaratory relief – sufficiently resembled a similar case in which the Ninth Circuit held that O’Shea did not prohibit the adjudication of a county bar association’s constitutional challenge of a state statute prescribing the number of judges on the county’s superior court. See Los Angeles Cnty. Bar Ass’n v. Eu, 979 F.2d 697 (9th Cir. 1992). The Ninth Circuit distinguished Los Angeles County Bar Association on the grounds that the remedy there – increasing the number of judges – was simple, whereas the potential remedies in the instant lawsuit – for instance, tweaking the judicial branch’s budget and examining the administration of a large number of individual cases – were “so intrus[ive] in the administration of the Sacramento County Dependency Court as to require abstention under O’Shea.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit declined the Plaintiffs’ request to consider in isolation their prayer for declaratory relief. While not squarely addressing whether granting the declaratory relief would violate O’Shea, the Ninth Circuit declined to do so on the grounds that such an action would be “laying the groundwork for a future request for more detailed relief which would violate the comity principles in Younger and O’Shea . . . .” Luckey v. Miller, 976 F.2d 673, 679 (11th Cir. 1992) (per curiam).

Scott Herrig, University of California, Berkeley-School of Law 2012


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