Ever since Congress decided in 1789 to confer jurisdiction on lower federal courts over matters that the state courts could also hear, the nation has faced the problem of how to allocate decision-making authority between the two court systems. Central to this body of concurrency law, the federal Anti-Injunction Act of 1793 (AIA) was enacted to limit the power of the federal courts to enjoin state court proceedings. Justice Felix Frankfurter decisively shaped our understanding of those limits, concluding in Toucey v. New York Life Insurance Co. that the statute absolutely barred any such injunction. Much of the law of federal–state concurrency has been predicated on Toucey’s account.
In this Article, Professor James E. Pfander and Ms. Nassim Nazemi offer a new account of the AIA that challenges prior interpretations. Rather than a flat ban on injunctive relief, they show that the AIA was drafted against the backdrop of eighteenth century practice to restrict “original” federal equitable interference in ongoing state court proceedings but to leave the federal courts free to grant “ancillary” relief in the nature of an injunction to protect federal jurisdiction and to effectuate federal decrees. It was this ancillary power that gave rise to the exceptions that Toucey decried and Congress restored in its 1948 codification.
Professor Pfander and Ms. Nazemi draw on their new account of the 1793 and 1948 versions of the Act to address current problems of jurisdictional overlap. Among other things, they raise new questions about the much maligned Rooker–Feldman doctrine; offer a new statutory substitute for the judge-made doctrine of equitable restraint; and suggest new ways to harmonize such abstention doctrines as Burford and Colorado River. Curiously, answers to these (and other) puzzles were hiding in the careful decision of the 1793 drafters to restrict only the issuance of “writs of injunction” and otherwise to leave federal equitable power intact.