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KEY ET AL. v. WISE ET AL.

December 7, 1981

KEY ET AL
v.
WISE ET AL.



C.A. 5th Cir. Reported below: 629 F.2d 1049.

[ 454 U.S. Page 1103]

Certiorari denied.

JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL and JUSTICE BLACKMUN join, dissenting.

Petitioners, the Keys, brought this action in the District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi against respondents, the Wises and the United States. They sought to quiet title to 451 acres of land in Humphreys County, Miss., over which the United States had acquired two easements from the Wises. The Federal Quiet Title Act*fn1 vests exclusive original jurisdiction of such suits in the federal district courts and waives the sovereign immunity of the United States only in respect to such suits. The District Court first denied motions of the Wises and the United States to dismiss the suit. This was correct in light of the Act. But the court

[ 454 U.S. Page 1104]

     then, sua sponte, entered an order of abstention remitting the parties to initiation of an action in the state courts of Mississippi.*fn2 That order was a patent flouting of the congressional mandate pre-empting state court jurisdiction and requiring the District Court to exercise its original and exclusive jurisdiction. Nonetheless, petitioners' motion for reconsideration was denied. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, without filing an opinion, dismissed the appeal and denied petitioners' motion to stay state court proceedings pending appeal.

 The Wises brought suit meanwhile against petitioners in Mississippi Chancery Court, which declared title in the Wises. While the case was pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court, petitioners sought a writ of mandamus from the Court of Appeals to order the District Court to rescind the abstention order. The application was denied by the Court of Appeals, again without opinion. We denied certiorari sub nom. Key v. Keady, 429 U.S. 1023 (1976). Having failed on their motion to reconsider, on their appeal from the abstention order, and on an extraordinary writ of mandamus, petitioners took the only recourse open to them: They objected to the Chancery Court's exercise of jurisdiction in the Mississippi Supreme Court on the ground that under the Federal Quiet Title Act the United States District Court had exclusive jurisdiction. The Mississippi Supreme Court rejected petitioners' pre-emption objection based on the Quiet Title Act on the ground that since the Wises, as plaintiffs in the suit, did not controvert any interest claimed by the United States, the Quiet Title Act was irrelevant to the state court suit.Key v. Wise, 341 So. 2d 1326 (1977).

[ 454 U.S. Page 1105]

     The District Court's abstention order directed the parties to return to federal court following final judgment in the state court suit.*fn3 Accordingly, the parties returned to the District Court. Thereupon the Wises moved to dismiss petitioners' suit on the ground that the state court judgment was res judicata. Inexplicably, the District Court granted the motion and, even more inexplicably, a divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 629 F.2d 1049 (1980). And today this Court, incomprehensibly, denies the Keys' petition for certiorari. I respectfully dissent.

The significance of a state court acting in an area of exclusive federal jurisdiction is such that we have held that even a contempt conviction for violation of a state court order in a matter pre-empted by federal law may be void and of no effect. See In re Green, 369 U.S. 689, 692 (1962). Thus, this case is a most obvious candidate for summary reversal, or at the very least for the grant of plenary argument and decision. Even the Government, a prevailing party under the Court of Appeals' judgment, regards the federal jurisdictional issue of such moment, and the error below so egregious, that the Solicitor General has submitted a memorandum in support of the petition, which states that this is a case in which a federal appellate decision "has so far departed from the accepted and usual course of judicial proceedings... as to call for an exercise of the Court's power of supervision," quoting Rule 17.1(a) of this Court's Rules, and suggests that "the Court may wish to consider summary reversal." Memorandum for United States 13.

[ 454 U.S. Page 1106]

     What renders the Court's denial of the petition particularly inexplicable, indeed incredible, is that the Court of Appeals held that the order of abstention was clearly improper because it patently flouted the mandate of the Quiet Title Act and the District Court's original and exclusive jurisdiction of the case. Indeed, the Court of Appeals also held that the abstention order was improper because Mississippi property law, although perhaps difficult to ascertain, "was in no sense unsettled." 629 F.2d, at 1059. See Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 813-817 (1976). Finally, the Court of Appeals strongly suggested that the Mississippi Supreme Court had misinterpreted the Quiet Title Act in asserting that the Mississippi courts could exercise jurisdiction of cases within that Act. 629 F.2d, at 1057-1058.*fn4 Yet the Court of Appeals' extraordinary conclusion was that the Mississippi Supreme Court's decision in favor of its jurisdiction collaterally estopped further consideration of that question upon the parties' return to the District Court pursuant to the express provision of the abstention order. Id., at 1061-1068.

The Keys were not voluntarily before the Mississippi courts on the question of jurisdiction. The federal courts had denied a motion to ...


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