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Sygenta, Stephenson and the Federal Judicial Injunctive Power

48 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2006  

Lonny Hoffman

University of Houston Law Center


This paper takes up the question of the limits of a federal court's authority following the Supreme Court's decisions in two unconnected cases that nonetheless are related doctrinally to this fundamental question: when does a federal court possess authority to enjoin litigants from prosecuting state suits brought concurrently with an ongoing federal case or after a federal judgment has been handed down. In the first case, Syngenta Crop Protection, Inc. v. Henson 537 U.S. 28 (2002), the Court resoundingly rejected use of the All Writs Act to enjoin an infringing state case by removing it to federal court. In so ruling, the Court reaffirmed that, in appropriate cases, an injunction may issue to enjoin prosecution of state suits after federal judgment. In Part I of this paper, I examine the case's background and procedural history to highlight the strategic decision-making and forum shopping decisions made by all of the parties and their lawyers in the contest. Also, by revisiting the Supreme Court's decision in the case, I hope to offer a better perspective on what the justices did decide and, correspondingly, also reflect on what they did not decide. Even as Syngenta nodded in recognition that some power exists to enjoin state proceedings, its ambit was left undefined. Recognizing the scope of the Court's decision is critical if any insight is to be gained into the import the decision bears on the limits of the federal judicial injunctive power.

Part II addresses Dow Chemical Co. v. Stephenson, 539 U.S. 111 (2003). By sharp contrast to Syngenta, Stephenson, which involved a collateral attack on a prior federal class action certification ruling, left the justices evenly divided (with Justice Stevens having recused himself) and the scope of federal injunctive power in this class action context undefined. It would be a mistake, however, to treat the case lightly: though technically a non-decision, Stephenson unmistakenly signals a willingness by four justices to proscribe collateral attacks on a federal court's prior judgment in a case even when the attack is brought by persons who did not participate in the case and who argued that they were not adequately represented by those who did. The implications of this signal are profound: if the position of this plurality commands only one more member of the Court, it would mean for the class action context a vastly greater federal judicial authority to enjoin collateral attacks brought in the state forum. Because there ultimately was no decision by a majority of the Court in the case, in Part II of this paper I carefully parse the intermediate appellate court's opinion, along with the positions advanced by the parties and their amici before the United States Supreme Court. Examining the arguments in this manner helps to frame the parameters of the debate over federal injunctive power as it arose in the Stephenson context.

Finally, Part III I consider in the aftermath of Syngenta and Stephenson the future battles we should expect over the use of the civil injunctive power by federal judges to restrain state litigants. In considering the legal questions we are likely see on the near horizon, we will also discover the most important and revealing connection between the ostensibly unrelated cases. Read together, Syngenta and Stephenson suggest that what is at stake in articulating the limits of the federal judicial injunctive authority is not only the accommodation of competing sovereign interests through articulation of formal doctrinal rules but also the evaluation of strategic decision-making by litigants and their lawyers and the influence of this behavior on judicial decision-making. If Syngenta reminds us that litigants may sometimes invoke the state courts to try to game the system in inappropriate ways, Stephenson reflects that without proper safeguards and review federal judgments also may be called into doubt. Put another way, the cases indicate that the problem of legitimacy can be bilateral. This insight suggests that the judicial responsibility for evaluating litigant conduct is tremendously important to the articulation of fair and wise limits on the scope of the federal judicial injunctive authority.

Keywords: Anti Suit Injunctions, Injunctions, Parallel Litigation, Federal and State Concurrent Litigation, Anti Injunction Act, 28 USC 2283

JEL Classification: K00, K40, K41

Suggested Citation

Hoffman, Lonny, Sygenta, Stephenson and the Federal Judicial Injunctive Power. Akron Law Review, Vol. 37, pp. 605-651, 2004 ; U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 90; U of Houston Law Center No. 2006-A-02. Available at SSRN:

Lonny Hoffman (Contact Author)

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

4604 Calhoun Road
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United States
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