News: CJ Exclusives

Court Limits Federal Challenge to Rules

Plaintiff must exhaust state appeals before suing in federal court over regulations

The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has clarified under what circumstances someone may challenge the constitutionality of a state or local regulation. In a case involving an Asheville street preacher, the appeals court held that those who have not exhausted their appeals under state law may not sue in federal court to recover potentially unconstitutional fines they have already paid.

Carroll Moore, a carpenter from Tuckasegee, spends his weekends preaching the Gospel on the streets of Asheville. Twice in 2003 he was cited for violating the city’s noise ordinances. In the first case, he paid the $50 fine. The fine for the second violation was $100, which he unsuccessfully appealed to the city’s Noise Ordinance Appeals Board. Asheville allows for a further appeal to the city manager with judicial review possible in North Carolina Superior Court through a writ of certiorari. Moore did not, however, avail himself of these options; instead he later filed suit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance and sought to recover the money he had paid in fines.

The appeals court, like a lower court, held that several Supreme Court rulings based upon the principle of federalism precluded this approach.

“By initiating this suit in federal court after the state administrative agency determined that he had violated the noise disturbance ordinance, Moore seeks to relitigate a dispute that has already been resolved and to receive as damages the amounts that he paid as fines,” wrote Judge Niemeyer for the court of appeals.

“Moreover, to the extent that Moore in this case seeks to annul or trample on the results of state administrative proceedings, he interferes with the State’s interest in enforcing its substantive laws as well as its interest in enforcing those laws through available administrative procedures and in its own courts. That Moore did not avail himself of state-provided avenues for review can only cast aspersion on the State’s ‘capabilities and good faith,’ and deprive the State of ‘a function which quite legitimately is left [to the state appellate bodies], that of overseeing [agency] dispositions of constitutional issues which arise in civil litigation over which they have jurisdiction.’ Federal court intervention would also disrupt the City’s efforts to enforce its substantive policy against noise disturbances.”

“Thus, regardless of whether state appellate remedies were still available at the time Moore filed suit in federal court or whether he had already defaulted on such remedies, the federal court intervention that he sought would be duplicative, would disrupt the State’s substantive policies, would offend the State’s appellate processes, and would undo what the State has done by a now-nonappealable order.”

The appeals court ordered Moore’s suit be dismissed in its present form. It did note that Moore was free to challenge the constitutionality of Asheville’s noise ordinance in a new lawsuit that only sought protection against future enforcement.

The case (PDF) is Moore v. City of Asheville NC (041003.P).

Michael Lowrey is associate editor of Carolina Journal.