The Rooker-Feldman doctrine: toward a workable role.

AuthorMcLain, Adam


The Rooker-Feldman doctrine is the product of two cases decided by the Supreme Court six decades apart: appropriately, Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co.(1) and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman.(2) Stated in its simplest and most uncontroversial form, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine provides that federal courts other than the Supreme Court lack jurisdiction to hear appeals from state court decisions.(3) This conclusion is based on inferences drawn from 28 U.S.C. [subsections] 1257 and 1331.(4) In practice, lower federal courts are using Rooker-Feldman in a wide variety of circumstances to conclude that they are unable to hear cases in which prior state court judgments are implicated.(5)

Despite receiving very little treatment by the Supreme Court,(6) Rooker-Feldman has experienced "explosive growth" in lower federal courts, where the number of cases relying on the doctrine is astonishing.(7) This growth has led to some questionable and controversial outcomes.(8) A few critics have responded,(9) almost uniformly concludingthat Rooker-Feldman should be abolished. Nevertheless, it appears unlikely that the doctrine will disappear in the near future.(10) Thus, refining--and, if necessary, redefining--the doctrine is an important goal.

This Comment examines the present usage of Rooker-Feldman and the criticisms it has engendered and attempts to establish a clear theoretical role for the doctrine. Part I introduces several other doctrines that are relevant to a discussion of Rooker-Feldman. Part II examines the history and present usage of Rooker-Feldman. Part III discusses the two major criticisms of Rooker-Feldman as it is presently applied: that it is duplicative and that it leads to bad results. Part IV presents a conceptual framework for Rooker-Feldman and reconsiders the objections discussed in Part III in light of that framework, concluding that the scholarly criticisms are misguided and that Rooker-Feldman, properly applied, avoids the problems currently associated with the doctrine. Finally, Part V offers a hypothetical situation indicating when and how this framework would apply in practice.


    Rooker-Feldman necessarily arises in interjurisdictional contexts in which other doctrines, such as preclusion and abstention, also apply. Before addressing Rooker-Feldman in any detail, it is important to consider these other doctrines to provide context for the discussion. As discussed below, one of the major criticisms of Rooker-Feldman is that it "does no work"(11) because all of the good outcomes it creates would be created anyway by some combination of the doctrines discussed here.(12) A basic understanding of these other doctrines is necessary before this criticism can be evaluated.

    The first relevant set of doctrines is the preclusion doctrines: res judicata (or claim preclusion) and collateral estoppel (or issue preclusion). The details of these doctrines vary across jurisdictions, but res judicata generally bars parties or their privies from asserting claims that were raised or could have been raised in prior litigation arising from the same nucleus of operative facts, while collateral estoppel precludes relitigation of issues that were actually litigated and necessarily decided in prior litigation. These doctrines address the issue of how courts should treat prior judgments and protect the rights of parties established by litigation. They save resources, create finality and certainty, and protect winning parties from harassment. In practice, the relationship between the preclusion doctrines and Rooker-Feldman has been difficult to define.(13)

    There are several sources of law relating to the preclusion doctrines, especially in interjurisdictional contexts. In suits within a single jurisdiction, the preclusion law of that jurisdiction generally governs subsequent cases. When a judgment is rendered in one state and a subsequent suit is filed in another, the second state is obliged, under the Full Faith and Credit Clause and the Full Faith and Credit statute, to give the judgment of the first state at least as much preclusive effect as it would receive in the first state.(14) If the subsequent suit is filed in federal court rather than in another state, the preclusion law of the rendering state still applies, under the Full Faith and Credit statute.(15) Finally, the source of law governing the preclusive effects of federal judgments appears to be federal common law.(16)

    The second relevant set of doctrines is the abstention doctrines.(17) These doctrines allow federal courts, in certain circumstances, to abstain from exercising their jurisdiction in the interests of federalism and comity. Federal courts can abstain and require litigants to initiate state court suits(18) or they can abstain and defer to ongoing state suits.(19) Abstention doctrines address interactions between federal and state courts and instruct federal courts about when it is or is not proper to hear certain cases. This Comment will argue that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine serves a similar function after state suits have ended.(20)

    Finally, it is important to note two other powers of federal courts: injunction of state suits under the exceptions to the Anti-Injunction Act (most notably the relitigation exception)(21) and removal of cases based on the authority conferred by the All Writs Act.(22) These procedures, like the abstention doctrines, are animated by the policies of federalism and comity. They, too, address interactions between state and federal courts, specifically relating to state court suits that threaten prior federal judgments. This Comment will argue that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine roughly mirrors these powers because a federal court deciding whether it lacks jurisdiction to hear a case based on Rooker-Feldman is making a judgment similar to the one it would make when considering whether to enjoin a state suit under the relitigation exception to the Anti-Injunction Act or whether to permit removal of a suit based on the All Writs Act.(23)


    This Part will begin with a discussion of the two cases that are central to the doctrine, Rooker and Feldman. It will then discuss the subsequent treatment of the doctrine by the Supreme Court and by lower federal courts, noting some of the major questions that remain unanswered and introducing some of the ways Rooker-Feldman is being used.

    1. Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co.

      Dora and William Rooker entered into a trust agreement with Fidelity Trust Company on October 11, 1909.(24) A dispute over the contract arose and, on October 30, 1912, the Rookers brought an action in an Indiana circuit court.(25) The trial court interpreted the trust agreement as a mortgage and ordered a foreclosure sale.(26) On appeal, the Indiana Supreme Court determined that the instrument at issue was "an absolute deed of trust" rather than "a deed of trust in the nature of a mortgage" and accordingly reversed the decision of the trial court and granted the Rookers' motion for a new trial.(27)

      In the subsequent proceeding, Fidelity Trust Co. prevailed again, this time under the law of trusts. The trial court held that Fidelity

      "ha[d] not mismanaged, repudiated, or abandoned its trust, but ha[d] faithfully performed its duties as trustee under the deeds and trust agreement set out in the pleadings and special findings ... and [held] the legal title to said lands as trustee for the sole purpose of completing its duties and obligations as such trustee by making sale of the same and by making distribution of the proceeds according to the terms of said deeds and trust agreement, and not otherwise, and in no other capacity."(28) The Rookers appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court, which concluded that "[n]o reversible error [was] shown in the record" and affirmed the judgment.(29) The Rookers petitioned for a reheating, alleging that the state statute in question violated the federal Constitution, but the petition was denied.(30) The United States Supreme Court then denied certiorari.(31) "[A]t the solicitation of the plaintiffs," however, the Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court allowed a writ of error to the United States Supreme Court.(32)

      The Rookers asserted two arguments for the writ of error. They first contended that the validity of the state statute had been challenged in state court, thus allowing Supreme Court review of the constitutionality of the state statute. Second, they argued that the decision in the second appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court "took and applied a view of the trust agreement different from that taken and announced on the first appeal,"(33) thereby violating the Contract Clause(34) as well as the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.(35) In response, Fidelity challenged the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, arguing that "the case is not one the judgment in which may be reviewed ... on writ of error."(36) The Court agreed and dismissed the Rookers' claims.

      On the first issue, the Court examined the record and concluded that the challenge to the constitutionality of the state statute had not been timely raised.(37) On the second issue, the Court stated that the Rookers' argument "amounted to nothing more than saying that in the plaintiffs' opinion the court should follow the first decision," and as such it "did not draw in question the validity of an authority exercised under a State."(38) "Plainly," the Court concluded, "this claim does not bring the case within the writ of error provision."(39) Accordingly, the writ of error was dismissed.

      The Rookers then filed suit in federal district court, presenting "a bill in equity to have a judgment of a circuit court in Indiana, which was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the State, declared null and void."(40) The bill was based on the same constitutional claims dismissed by the Supreme Court for lack of jurisdiction:


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