Middlesex County Ethics Comm. v. Bar Assn.
457 U.S. 423 (1982)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Middlesex County Ethics Comm. v. Bar Assn., 457 U.S. 423 (1982)

Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Association

No. 81-460

Argued March 31, 1982

Decided June 21, 1982

457 U.S. 423

Syllabus

Under rules promulgated by the New Jersey Supreme Court pursuant to its authority under the State Constitution to license and discipline attorneys admitted to practice in the State, a claim of unethical conduct by an attorney is first considered by a local District Ethics Committee appointed by the Supreme Court. If a complaint is issued, the attorney whose conduct is challenged is served with the complaint and has 10 days to answer. Upon a determination that a prima facie case of unethical conduct exists, a formal hearing is held. The attorney charged may have counsel, discovery is available, and all witnesses are sworn. The Committee may ultimately dismiss the complaint, issue a private letter of reprimand, or forward a presentment to the statewide Disciplinary Review Board, which is also appointed by the Supreme Court. After a de novo review, the Board is required to make formal findings and recommendations to the Supreme Court, which reviews all decisions beyond a private reprimand and which permits briefing and oral argument for cases involving disbarment or suspension for more than one year. Respondent Hinds, a member of the New Jersey Bar, was served by petitioner, a local Ethics Committee, with a formal statement of charges of violating certain Supreme Court disciplinary rules. Instead of filing an answer to the charges, Hinds and the three respondent organizations of lawyers filed suit in Federal District Court, contending that the disciplinary rules violated their rights under the Federal Constitution. The court dismissed the complaint on the basis of the abstention principles of Younger v. Harris,401 U. S. 37. The Court of Appeals reversed on the ground that the disciplinary proceedings did not provide a meaningful opportunity to adjudicate constitutional claims, notwithstanding an affidavit stating that the New Jersey Supreme Court would directly consider Hinds' constitutional challenges and would consider whether such a procedure should be made explicit in the Supreme Court rules.

Held: The federal courts should abstain from interfering with the ongoing disciplinary proceedings within the jurisdiction of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Pp. 457 U. S. 431-437.

(a) The policies underlying Younger are fully applicable to noncriminal judicial proceedings when important state interests are involved.

Page 457 U. S. 424

Where such interests are involved, a federal court should abstain unless state law clearly bars the interposition of the constitutional claims. The pertinent inquiry is whether the state proceedings afford an adequate opportunity to raise the constitutional claims. Pp. 457 U. S. 431-432.

(b) The New Jersey Supreme Court considers its disciplinary proceedings, beginning with the filing of a complaint with the local Ethics Committee, as "judicial in nature." As such, the proceedings are of a character to warrant federal court deference. Pp. 457 U. S. 432-434.

(c) The State has an extremely important interest in maintaining and assuring the professional conduct of the attorneys it licenses. The State's interest in the present litigation is demonstrated by the fact that petitioner, an agency of the New Jersey Supreme Court, is the named defendant in the present suit and was the body which initiated the state proceedings against Hinds. The importance of the state interest in the pending state judicial proceedings and in the federal case calls Younger abstention into play. Pp. 457 U. S. 434-435.

(d) In light of the unique relationship between the New Jersey Supreme Court and the local Ethics Committee, and in view of the nature of the proceedings, it cannot be concluded that there was no "adequate opportunity" for Hinds to raise his constitutional claims. Any doubt as to this matter was laid to rest by the New Jersey Supreme Court's subsequent actions when, prior to the filing of the petition for certiorari in this Court, it sua sponte entertained the constitutional issues raised by Hinds. And there is no reason to disturb the District Court's unchallenged findings that there was no bad faith or harassment on petitioner's part and that the state disciplinary rules were not "flagrantly and patently" unconstitutional. Nor have any other extraordinary circumstances been presented to indicate that abstention would not be appropriate. Pp. 457 U. S. 435-437.

643 F.2d 119 and 651 F.2d 154, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 457 U. S. 438. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 457 U. S. 438.

Page 457 U. S. 425

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