The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ralph R. Erickson, Chief Judge United States District Court
ORDER ON MOTION TO DISMISS
Before the Court is Defendant's motion to dismiss under the abstention doctrine announced in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971) (Doc. #5). Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition (Doc. #7). The Court, having carefully considered the arguments of the parties, now issues this memorandum opinion and order.
Defendant brought an action in state court to divest Plaintiff of land under N.D. Cent. Code. Ch. 10-06.1, sometimes referred to as North Dakota's "Anti-Corporate Farming Act" ("the Act"). Plaintiff has challenged the constitutionality of the Act in the ongoing state proceedings. Plaintiff now brings this federal action challenging the constitutionality of the Act.
The Court finds abstention is appropriate under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). The Court further finds a stay is warranted, rather than dismissal, as there is concurrent jurisdiction over the issues and a possibility exists that the parties may return to federal court. Fuller v. Ulland, 76 F.3d 957, 960-61 (8th Cir. 1996) (quoting Int'l Ass'n of Entrepreneurs of America v. Angoff, 58 F.3d 1266, 1271 (8th Cir. 1995)).
Plaintiff National Audubon Society, Inc. ("Audubon") is a nonprofit corporation organized under New York law (Doc. #1, Complaint). In 1988, Audubon acquired 263 acres of land in Stutsman County, North Dakota. Id. The State of North Dakota contends Audubon is subject to the state's general prohibition on corporate ownership of farmland, which is set forth in N.D. Cent. Code § 10-06.1-02.
On July 21, 2009, the State of North Dakota, through Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, filed a lawsuit in the Southeast Judicial District, alleging Audubon's ownership of the 263-acre tract of land in Stutsman County, North Dakota is in violation of North Dakota law (Doc. #6-1, state court Complaint). The State seeks to divest Audubon of its title and interest in the land and for Audubon to pay a $25,000 civil penalty. Id.
On August 21, 2009, Audubon removed the state court action to this Court (Case # 3:09-cv-78). Audubon later consented to remand the federal action to state court (Doc. #8, Case #3:09-cv-78), and this Court ordered the case remanded to the Southeast Judicial District (Doc. #9, Case #3:09-cv-78). Audubon then filed an Amended Answer in state court, asserting as affirmative defenses, in part, that N.D. Cent. Code Ch. 10-06.1 is unconstitutional, as it violates the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution and N.D. Cent. Code § 10-06.1-10(1) violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (Doc. #6-3). The state court action remains pending in the Southeast Judicial District.
On December 14, 2009, Audubon filed the instant action against Wayne Stenehjem, in his official capacity as Attorney General of North Dakota (Doc. #1). Audubon challenges the constitutionality of N.D. Cent. Code Ch. 10-06.1. Specifically, Audubon alleges that Ch. 10-06.1 violates the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution and that § 10-06.1-10(1) violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The State moves to dismiss this federal action under the abstention doctrine articulated by the United States Supreme Court in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). Audubon opposes the motion, contending the issues in this case involve the interpretation of the United States Constitution, which is a task specially suited for federal courts, and the State has failed to establish two of the necessary Younger requirements. Audubon also cites two Eighth Circuit opinions wherein the Circuit Court concluded Nebraska and South Dakota's Anti-Corporate Farming statutes violated the dormant Commerce Clause. See Jones v. Gale, 470 F.3d 1261 (8th Cir. 2006); South Dakota Farm Bureau, Inc. v. Hazeltine, 340 F.3d 583 (8th Cir. 2003). Audubon contends North Dakota's statute is similar to Nebraska and South Dakota's statutes and thus this Court should retain jurisdiction over the instant action because North Dakota's statute is "flagrantly and patently unconstitutional."
Generally, "[f]ederal courts have a 'virtually unflagging obligation . . . to exercise the jurisdiction given them.'" Barzilay v. Barzilay, 536 F.3d 844, 849 (8th Cir. 2008) (citations omitted). As exceptions to the rule, the United States Supreme Court has created several abstention doctrines, one of which is commonly referred to as the Younger doctrine. Id. "Under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1991), federal courts should abstain from exercising jurisdiction in cases where equitable relief would interfere with pending state proceedings in a way that offends principles of comity and federalism." Aaron v. Target Corp., 357 ...