New Jersey Education Association v. Burke: Res Judicata, the Younger Doctrine, and the Captive State Litigant


Principles of res judicata normally bar relitigation of either a cause of action or an issue essential to a prior judgment. By statute, federal courts are compelled to apply state principles of res judicata in determining the preclusive effect of a prior state court judgment. While most federal courts refuse to imply any exceptions to this statute, many cite overriding federal policies and ignore state rules of decision. The Supreme Court has failed to resolve the disagreement.

If general principles of res judicata are rigidly applied, an involuntary state party who unsuccessfully submits claims to a state court may be permanently denied access to a federal hearing for related constitutional claims, even if those claims were never raised in state court. In light of a clear congressional intent to open the federal courts to the civil rights claims of private citizens, this result is unfair and unwarranted.

In New Jersey Education Association v. Burke, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit adopted a res judicata test that bars from federal court only those claims previously argued before and decided by a state court; plaintiff is permitted to raise before the district court any federal civil rights claims that could have been raised but were not. This test, if applied in a manner designed to provide involuntary state civil litigants with access to a federal forum, suggests a substantial modification of the Younger v. Harris abstention doctrine. It would permit parties enmeshed in state civil proceedings who have been barred from federal court by Younger to withhold their federal claims or defenses from state adjudication and to raise them at a subsequent federal hearing. This Comment will argue that the Burke approach, while inappropriate to the facts of the Burke case, is consistent with policies favoring judicial economy, fairness to litigants, and federal primacy in resolving federal issues, and should therefore be adopted by the federal courts.

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