The Wexler Decision
During oral argument before the Court and again in their papers, the
state defendants have taken the position that this Court should not
attempt to adjudicate the final merits of plaintiffs' claims but rather
should abstain from assuming jurisdiction over the litigation under the
principle of abstention that the Supreme Court first espoused in Railroad
Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61S.Ct. 643 (1941).
The doctrine of "Pullman-type abstention," as this form
of federal court refusal to exercise jurisdiction over cases the court has
the power to adjudicate has come to be known, provides that where
unsettled questions of state law may, depending on their resolution, make
it unnecessary to decide the issues of federal constitutional law the
action involves, a federal court should abstain from wielding its
jurisdiction over the litigation until a state court has determined the
state law questions in dispute. The state defendants contend that since
New York state courts have not ruled on whether plaintiffs' specific
situations and religious beliefs fall with the coverage of § 2164(9)'s
religious exemption, a federal court should abstain from exercising its
jurisdiction over plaintiffs' claims.
A court, however, should not lightly turn its back on cases properly
invoking the court's jurisdiction over purported violations of the
guarantees of individual liberties made by the United States Constitution.
As Justice Brennan noted in Colorado River Water Conservation District
v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 813, 96 S.Ct. 1236, 1244 (1976):
Abstention from the exercise of federal jurisdiction is the
exception, not the rule. "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.
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." County of
Allegheny v. Frank Marshuda Co., 360 U.S. 185, 188-1S9 (1950).
The Supreme Court has emphasized that "[t]he abstention doctrine
is not an automatic rule to be applied whenever a federal court is faced
with a doubtful issue of state law" but "rather involves a
discretionary exercise of a court's equity powers" on a case-by-case
basis. Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 375, 84 S.Ct. 1316, 1344
(1964). The Second Circuit, furthermore, has seen invocation of the
Pullman-type abstention doctrine to be warranted only if three essential
conditions have been met, namely, (1) the state statute involved is
unclear or the issue of state law uncertain; (2) resolution of the federal
issue depends upon the interpretation to be given to the state law; and
(3) the state law is susceptible of an interpretation that would avoid or
modify the federal constitutional issue. McRedmond v. Wilson, 533
F.2d 757, 761 (2d Cir. 1976).
The Court finds that the circumstances the Sherrs and Levy's actions
present are not of the "exceptional" nature that the Supreme
Court has indicated to be required for a federal court to abstain from its
duty fully to adjudicate cases and controversies properly placed before it
and that the first of the three necessary conditions for abstention
delineated by the Second Circuit is lacking in the situation now before
the Court. If § 2164's religious exemption were to be interpreted so as
to except from the statute's immunization requirements the children of
individuals whose religious beliefs prohibit vaccinations against disease
even if these persons do not belong to a "recognized religious
organization," plaintiffs' constitutional challenges to the statute
and defendants' application of the law to them might well be mooted. Also,
there can be little question that § 2164 can reasonably be interpreted in
a manner that would alter the constitutional questions presented or make
it unnecessary for the court to reach them: Those state courts that have
addressed the scope of § 2164's religious exemption appear uniformly to
have found that the exemption cannot be limited to members of recognized
religious groups. E.g., Brown v. City School District of the City of
Corning, 104 Misc. 2d 796, 429 N.Y.S.2d 355 (Sup. Ct. Steuben Co.
1980), affirmed, 83 A.D.2d 755, 444 N.Y.S.2d 878 (4th Dep't 1981); Matter
of Maria R., 81 Misc. 2d 286, 366 N.Y.S.2d 309 (Fam. Ct. N.Y. Co.
1975); Meier v. Besser, 73 Misc. 2d 241, 341 N.Y.S.2d 411 (Sup. Ct.
Onondaga Co. 1972).
Nonetheless, the fact that state courts in diverse regions of the State
of New York have fundamentally been at one in their reading and
application of § 2164(9) undercuts any claim that the state statute
plaintiffs call into question in this litigation is so unclear or the
issue of state law so uncertain that this Court should refrain from even
considering the merits of plaintiffs' contentions. The statute, moreover,
has been on the books since 1966 and it has remained unchanged in any
manner pertinent to plaintiffs' law suits since its enactment. The actions
at bar, therefore, offer a situation far different from those presented in
cases in which courts have deemed abstention warranted because of the
unsettled nature of recently enacted state laws that had never been
construed by any state courts. E.g., Lake Carriers' Assn. v. MacMullan,
406 U.S. 498, 92 S.Ct. 1749 (1972); Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U.S.
132, 96 S.Ct. 2857 (1976); Catlin v. Ambach, 820 F.2d 588 (2d Cir.
1987). Additionally, abstention is especially inappropriate in
circumstances where not only is the state law issue not particularly
unsettled but the delay that abstention necessarily entails would be
highly prejudicial to plaintiffs' interests in obtaining a judicial
determination that they hope will allow them to conduct their affairs in
conformance with their purportedly religious beliefs and allow their
children to continue their formal education without further obstacles. As
the Supreme Court noted in Baggett, "abstention operates to require
piecemeal adjudication in many courts, thereby delaying ultimate
adjudication on the merits for an undue length of time, a result quite
costly" where what is at stake is the "exercise of First
Amendment freedoms." 377 U.S. at 378-79, 84 S.Ct. at 1326 (citations
omitted). See also, e.g., Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 404,
94 S.Ct. 1800, 1807 (1974); Long Island Vietnam Moratorium Committee v.
Cahn, 437 F.2d 344 (2d Cir. 1970), affirmed, 418 U.S. 906, 94
S.Ct. 3197 (1974).
Maier v. Good, 325 F.Supp. 1268 (N.D.N.Y. 1971), which the state
defendants cite in their papers, does not require an opposite conclusion. Maier
v. Good, like the instant actions, involved a constitutional challenge
to the denial of a religious exemption to a family who claimed that
inoculation was prohibited by the dictates of their religious beliefs but
did not actually belong to any formal religious denomination. A three
judge court determined that it should abstain from deciding the
constitutional issues the Maiers' case presented. The court premised its
ruling on two separate grounds. First, the court noted that the statute
was a relatively new one and its application to facts similar to those
presented by the Maiers' lawsuit had not yet been ruled upon by the New
York state courts. Second, the court rejected the plaintiffs' argument
that an administrative appeal to the New York Commissioner of Education
would be futile and that therefore they need not exhaust the state
administrative remedy that N.Y. Educ. L. §§ 310, 311 made available to
them. Plaintiffs relied for their position upon the fact that, prior to
the enactment of § 2164, the State Department of Education had issued a
memorandum opposing the granting of any exemptions to the statute's
mandatory immunization requirements. The Court held that this
pre-enactment statement bore little weight upon how the Commissioner of
Education would interpret the statute as enacted.
Meier v. Good is easily distinguishable from the situation the
cases currently before the Court present. Section 2164 is no longer new
and the state courts have had ample time to rule upon the scope and
constitutionality of § 2164(9)'s religious exemption. In fact, one of the
cases in which a state court has construed § 2164 is the Maier family's
own action in state court after the federal court declined to hear their
case. Maier v. Besser, 73 Misc. 2d 241, 341 N.Y.S.2d 411.
Furthermore, since the federal court Maier decision was handed down, the
Commissioner of Education has ruled on a number of occasions that an
administrative appeal to the Commissioner cannot be used as a means of
challenging the constitutionality of a statute, and has declared it to be
his formal opinion that in order to secure an exemption to § 2164's
vaccination requirements, one must establish membership in a religious
organization whose teachings are contrary to immunization rather than
simply a personal, religiously mandated opposition to inoculation. E.g.,
Matter of Van Druff, 21Educ. Dept. Rep. 635 (1982); Matter of
Curtin, 20 Educ. Dept. Rep. 473 (1981); Matter of Maier, 12
Educ. Dept. Rep. 56 (1972).3/
Accordingly, the Court holds in its discretion that it should not
abstain from assuming jurisdiction over the Sherrs and Levys' actions.
3/ Matter of Maier is the administrative appeal to the
Commissioner that followed the Maier family's action in federal court and
preceded their state court action.
IV. STANDING - Wexler Decision
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