485 U.S. 271
March 22, 1988
Another day, another court case about court cases (this is why I go for months between updates so often). Two companies enter into a contract for manufacturing airplanes, and then they get mad at each other. One company files a suit in state court, and the other files a suit in federal court. The former company (Gulfstream) then tries to get the federal case dismissed on the grounds that the state case can handle the additional legal issues. But the federal District Court refuses to dismiss the case. Then Gulfstream tries to immediately appeal this refusal to dismiss, before the District Court can make a decision on the actual case. And the question before the Supreme Court is whether or not you’re allowed to immediately appeal in these circumstances.
The Supreme Court said no in a mercifully unanimous ruling (Kennedy did not participate). Marshall said that usually you can only appeal when the District Court is done with a case, but that a 1949 ruling makes an exception when the District Court makes a very important final determination on an ancillary issue. Because the District Court could change its mind later and dismiss the case, the refusal to dismiss was not ‘final’ enough to fall within this exception.
Then Marshall turned to a statutory exception which allowed for immediate appeal of District Court orders which denied requests for injunctions. Under a horrifically complicated rule known as the Enelow-Ettelson doctrine, a request for case dismissal could be deemed a request for an injunction if: 1) the underlying case was ‘legal’ in nature, and 2) the dismissal was sought as an ‘equitable’ measure. This doctrine dated back to the 1930s, before Law and Equity had been merged in federal courts. Because the doctrine was so impossibly convoluted, outdated, and hard to apply, Marshall just said that the doctrine was hereby overruled.
Finally, there was an argument that the Court of Appeals should have issued a writ of mandamus demanding that the District Court dismiss the case because the need for dismissal was so obvious. Marshall casually responded that the need to dismiss was not at all legally obvious. In a brief concurrence, Scalia said that denial of immediate appeal was in some ways a ‘final’ decision, but that the relatively small hardship to the thwarted would-be-appellant did not justify allowing an appeal to go forward. I have no real comment on this ruling other than that there’s a special place in Hell for lawyers like those from Gulfstream who fight to the death over every stupid little thing.