Moore v. City of East Cleveland/Dissent Burger

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Mr. Chief Justice Burger, dissenting.

It is unnecessary for me to reach the difficult constitutional issue this case presents. Appellant's deliberate refusal to use a plainly adequate administrative remedy provided by the city should foreclose her from pressing in this Court any constitutional objections to the city's zoning ordinance. Considerations of federalism and comity, as well as the finite capacity of federal courts, support this position. In courts, as in hospitals, two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time; when any case comes here which could have been disposed of long ago at the local level, it takes the place that might well have been given to some other case in which there was no alternative remedy.


The single-family zoning ordinances of the city of East Cleveland define the term "family" to include only the head of the household and his or her most intimate relatives, principally the spouse and unmarried and dependent children. Excluded from the definition of "family," and hence from cohabitation, are various persons related by blood or adoption to the head of the household. The obvious purpose of the city is the traditional one of preserving certain areas as family residential communities.

The city has established a Board of Building Code Appeals to consider variances from this facially stringent single-family limit when necessary to alleviate "practical difficulties and unnecessary hardships" and "to secure the general welfare and [do] substantial justice...." East Cleveland Codified Ordinances § 1311.02 (1965). The Board has power to grant variances to "[a]ny person adversely affected by a decision of any City official made in the enforcement of any [zoning] ordinance," so long as appeal is made to the Board within 10 days of notice of the decision appealed from. § 1311.03.

After appellant's receipt of the notice of violation, her lawyers made no effort to apply to the Board for a variance to exempt her from the restrictions of the ordinance, even though her situation appears on its face to present precisely the kind of "practical difficulties and unnecessary hardships" the variance procedure was intended to accommodate. Appellant's counsel does not claim appellant was unaware of the right to go to the Board and seek a variance, or that any attempt was made to secure relief by an application to the Board.[1] Indeed, appellant's counsel makes no claim that the failure to seek a variance was due to anything other than a deliberate decision to forgo the administrative process in favor of a judicial forum.


In view of appellant's deliberate bypass of the variance procedure, the question arises whether she should now be permitted to complain of the unconstitutionality of the single-family ordinance as it applies to her. This Court has not yet required one in appellant's position to utilize available state administrative remedies as a prerequisite to obtaining federal relief; but experience has demonstrated that such a requirement is imperative if the critical overburdening of federal courts at all levels is to be alleviated. That burden has now become "a crisis of overload, a crisis so serious that it threatens the capacity of the federal system to function as it should." Department of Justice Committee on Revision of the Federal Judicial System, Report on the Needs of the Federal Courts 1 (1977). The same committee went on to describe the disastrous effects an exploding caseload has had on the administration of justice:

"Overloaded courts...mean long delays in obtaining a final decision and additional expense as court procedures become more complex in the effort to handle the rush of business.... [T]he quality of justice must necessarily suffer. Overloaded courts, seeking to deliver justice on time insofar as they can, necessarily begin to adjust their processes, sometimes in ways that threaten the integrity of the law and of the decisional process.

"District courts have delegated more and more of their tasks to magistrates.... Time for oral argument is steadily cut back.... [T]he practice of delivering written opinions is declining.


"...Courts are forced to add more clerks, more administrative personnel, to move cases faster and faster. They are losing...time for reflection, time for the deliberate maturation of principles." Id., at 3-4.

The devastating impact overcrowded dockets have on the quality of justice received by all litigants makes it essential that courts be reserved for the resolution of disputes for which no other adequate forum is available.


The basis of the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies was simply put in Myers v. Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., 303 U.S. 41, 50-51 (1938), as

"the long settled rule of judicial administration that no one is entitled to judicial relief for a supposed or threatened injury until the prescribed administrative remedy has been exhausted."

Exhaustion is simply one aspect of allocation of overtaxed judicial resources. Appellant wishes to use a residential property in a manner at variance with a municipal housing code. That claim could have been swiftly and inexpensively adjudicated in a municipal administrative tribunal, without engaging cumbersome federal judicial machinery at the highest level. Of course, had appellant utilized the local administrative remedies and state judicial remedies to no avail, resort to this Court would have been available.[2]

The exhaustion principle asks simply that absent compelling circumstances--and none are claimed here--the avenues of relief nearest and simplest should be pursued first. This Court should now make unmistakably clear that when state or local governments provide administrative remedial procedures, no federal forum will be open unless the claimant can show either that the remedy is inadequate or that resort to those remedies is futile.

Utilization of available administrative processes is mandated for a complex of reasons. Statutes sometimes provide administrative procedures as the exclusive remedy. Even apart from a statutory command, it is common sense to permit the simple, speedy, and inexpensive processes of the administrative machinery to sift the facts and compile a complete record for the benefit of any reviewing courts. Exhaustion avoids interruption of the administrative process and allows application of an agency's specialized experience and the broad discretion granted to local entities, such as zoning boards. Indeed, judicial review may be seriously hampered if the appropriate agency has no chance to apply its experience, exercise its discretion, or make a factual record reflecting all aspects of the problem.

Most important, if administrative remedies are pursued, the citizen may win complete relief without needlessly invoking judicial process. This permits the parties to resolve their disputes by relatively informal means far less costly and time consuming than litigation. By requiring exhaustion of administrative processes the courts are assured of reviewing only final agency decisions arrived at after considered judgment. It also permits agencies an opportunity to correct their own mistakes or give discretionary relief short of judicial review. Consistent failure by courts to mandate utilization of administrative remedies--under the growing insistence of lawyers demanding broad judicial remedies--inevitably undermines administrative effectiveness and defeats fundamental public policy by encouraging "end runs" around the administrative process.

It is apparent without discussion that resort to the local appeals board in this case would have furthered these policies, particularly since the exercise of informed discretion and experience by the proper agency is the essence of any housing code variance procedure. We ought not to encourage litigants to bypass simple, inexpensive, and expeditious remedies available at their doorstep in order to invoke expensive judicial machinery on matters capable of being resolved at local levels.


The suggestion is made that exhaustion of administrative remedies is not required on issues of constitutional law. In one sense this argument is correct, since administrative agencies have no power to decide questions of federal constitutional law. But no one has a right to a federal constitutional adjudication on an issue capable of being resolved on a less elevated plane. Indeed, few concepts have had more faithful adherence in this Court than the imperative of avoiding constitutional resolution of issues capable of being disposed of otherwise. Mr. Justice Brandeis put it well in a related context, arguing for judicial restraint in Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 347 (1936) (concurring opinion):

"[This] Court will not pass upon a constitutional question although properly presented by the record, if there is also present some other ground upon which the case may be disposed of.... Thus, if a case can be decided on either of two grounds, one involving a constitutional question, the other a question of statutory construction or general law, the Court will decide only the latter."

This Court has frequently remanded cases for exhaustion "before a challenge can be made in a reviewing court of the constitutionality of the basic statute, on which the agency may not pass...." K. Davis, Administrative Law Text 394 (3d ed. 1972). Indeed, exhaustion is often required precisely because there are constitutional issues present in a case, in order to avoid unnecessary adjudication of these delicate questions by giving the affected administrative agency an opportunity to resolve the matter on nonconstitutional grounds. See Christian v. New York Dept. of Labor, 414 U.S. 614 (1974); Public Utilities Comm'n of California v. United States, 355 U.S. 534, 539-540 (1958); Allen v. Grand Central Aircraft Co., 347 U.S. 535, 553 (1954); Aircraft & Diesel Equipment Corp. v. Hirsch, 331 U.S. 752, 766-767 (1947); Natural Gas Co. v. Slattery, 302 U.S. 300, 309-311 (1937); Fuchs, Prerequisites to Judicial Review of Administrative Agency Action, 51 Ind. L. J. 817, 883 (1976).

Of course, if administrative authority fails to afford relief, further exhaustion is pointless and judicial relief may be available. See Weinberger v. Salfi, 422 U.S. 749 (1975). But so long as favorable administrative action is still possible, the policies favoring exhaustion are not mitigated in the slightest by the presence of a constitutional issue. See Christian, supra. To the extent that a nonconstitutional decision is possible only at the administrative level, those policies are reinforced. Plainly we have here precisely such a case. Appearance before the local city Board would have provided an opportunity for complete relief without forcing a constitutional ruling. The posture of the constitutional issues in this case thus provides an additional reason supporting the exhaustion requirement.


It is also said that exhaustion is not required when to do so would inflict irreparable injury on the litigant. In the present case, as in others in which a constitutional claim is asserted, injury is likely to include the "loss or destruction of substantive rights." In such a case, "the presence of constitutional questions, coupled with a sufficient showing of inadequacy of prescribed administrative relief and of threatened or impending irreparable injury flowing from delay..., has been held sufficient to dispense with exhausting the administrative process before instituting judicial intervention." Aircraft & Diesel Equipment Corp., supra, at 773.

But there is every reason to require resort to administrative remedies "where the individual charged is to be deprived of nothing until the completion of [the administrative] proceeding." Gibson v. Berryhill, 411 U.S. 564, 574-575 (1973); see Natural Gas Co., supra, at 309-311; Schlesinger v. Councilman, 420 U.S. 738 (1975); Aircraft & Diesel Equipment Corp., supra, at 773-774. The focus must be on the adequacy of the administrative remedy. If the desired relief may be obtained without undue burdens, and if substantial rights are protected as the process moves forward, no harm is done by requiring the litigant to pursue and exhaust those remedies before calling on the Constitution of the United States. To do otherwise trivializes constitutional adjudication.[3]

In this case appellant need have surrendered no asserted constitutional rights in order to pursue the local administrative remedy. No reason appears why appellant could not have sought a variance as soon as notice of a claimed violation was received, without altering the living arrangements in question. The notice of violation gave appellant 10 days within which to seek a variance; no criminal or civil sanctions could possibly have attached pending the outcome of that proceeding.

Though timely invocation of the administrative remedy would have had no effect on appellant's asserted rights, and would have inflicted no irreparable injury, the present availability of such relief under the city ordinance is less clear. But it is unrealistic to expect a municipality to hold open its administrative process for years after legal enforcement action has begun. Appellant cannot rely on the current absence of administrative relief either as justification for the original failure to seek it, or as a reason why accountability for that failure is unreasonable. See Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 611 n. 22 (1975). Any other rule would make a mockery of the exhaustion doctrine by placing no penalty on its violation.


This is not a case where inadequate or unclear or costly remedies make exhaustion inappropriate, or where the Board's position relating to appellant's claims is so fixed that further administrative review would be fruitless. There is not the slightest indication of any fixed Board policy against variances, or that a prompt application for a variance would not have been granted.[4] Nor is it dispositive that the case involves criminal rather than civil penalties. The applicability of the exhaustion principle to bar challenges to the legality of prosecutions is established, even where, unlike the present case, substantial felony penalties are at stake. McGee v. United States, 402 U.S. 479 (1971); Yakus v. United States, 321 U.S. 414 (1944); Falbo v. United States, 320 U.S. 549 (1944); see McKart v. United States, 395 U.S. 185 (1969). There is far less reason to take into account the criminal nature of the proceedings when only misdemeanor penalties are involved.


Thus, the traditional justifications offered in support of the exhaustion principle point toward application of the doctrine. But there is a powerful additional reason why exhaustion should be enforced in this case. We deal here with federal judicial review of an administrative determination by a subdivision of the State of Ohio. When the question before a federal court is whether to enforce exhaustion of state administrative remedies, interests of federalism and comity make the analysis strikingly similar to that appropriate when the question is whether federal courts should abstain from interference with ongoing state judicial proceedings.[5] In both situations federal courts are being requested to act in ways lacking deference to, and perhaps harmful to, important state interests in order to vindicate rights which can be protected in the state system as well as in the federal. Cf. Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U.S. 433, 439 (1971) (Burger, C. J., dissenting). The policies underlying this Court's refusals to jeopardize important state objectives needlessly in Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., supra; Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327 (1977); and Trainor v. Hernandez, ante, p. 434, argue strongly against action which encourages evasion and undermining of other important state interests embodied in regulatory procedures.

When the State asserts its sovereignty through the administrative process, no less than when it proceeds judicially, "federal courts...should abide by standards of restraint that go well beyond those of private equity jurisprudence." Huffman, supra, at 603; cf. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 41 (1971). A proper respect for state integrity is manifested by and, in part, dependent on, our reluctance to disrupt state proceedings even when important federal rights are asserted as a reason for doing so. Where, as here, state law affords an appropriate "doorstep" vehicle for vindication of the claims underlying those rights, federal courts should not be called upon unless those remedies have been utilized. No litigant has a right to force a constitutional adjudication by eschewing the only forum in which adequate nonconstitutional relief is possible. Appellant seeks to invoke federal judicial relief. We should now make clear that the finite resources of this Court are not available unless the litigant has first pursued all adequate and available administrative remedies.

The doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies has a long history. Though its salutary effects are undisputed, they have often been casually neglected, due to the judicial penchant of honoring the doctrine more in the breach than in the observance. For my part, the time has come to insist on enforcement of the doctrine whenever the local or state remedy is adequate and where asserted rights can be protected and irreparable injury avoided within the administrative process. Only by so doing will this Court and other federal courts be available to deal with the myriad new problems clamoring for resolution.


  1. . Counsel for appellant candidly admitted at oral argument that "Mrs. Moore did not seek a variance in this case" but argued that her failure to do so is constitutionally irrelevant. Tr. of Oral Arg. 20. Thus, this was not an unpublicized administrative remedy of which appellant remained unaware until after it became unavailable. Such a case would, of course, present materially different considerations. Cf. Lambert v. California, 355 U.S. 225 (1957).
  2. . Exhaustion does not deny or limit litigants' rights to a federal forum "because state administrative agency determinations do not create res judicata or collateral estoppel effects. The exhaustion of state administrative remedies postpones rather than precludes the assertion of federal jurisdiction." Comment, Exhaustion of State Administrative Remedies in Section 1983 Cases, 41 U. Chi. L. Rev. 537, 551 (1974).
  3. . This analysis explains those cases in which this Court has allowed persons subject to claimed unconstitutional restrictions on their freedom of expression to challenge that restriction without first applying for a permit which, if granted, would moot their claim. E. g., Hynes v. Mayor of Oradell, 425 U.S. 610 (1976); Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham, 394 U.S. 147 (1969); Staub v. City of Baxley, 355 U.S. 313 (1958). In each instance the permit procedure was itself an unconstitutional infringement on First Amendment rights. Thus, in those cases irreparable injury—the loss or postponement of precious First Amendment rights—was a concomitant of the available administrative procedure.
  4. . To be adequate for exhaustion purposes, an administrative remedy need not guarantee the litigant success on the merits in advance. What is required is a forum with the power to grant relief, capable of hearing the case with objectivity and dispatch. There is no reason to doubt that appellant would have received a fair hearing before the Board.
  5. . See Parisi v. Davidson, 405 U.S. 34, 37, 40 n. 6 (1972); Public Utilities Comm'n v. United Fuel Co., 317 U.S. 456 (1943); Natural Gas Co. v. Slattery, 302 U.S. 300, 311 (1937); Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line, 211 U.S. 210, 229 (1908); First Nat. Bank v. Board of County Comm'rs, 264 U.S. 450 (1924); cf. Schlesinger v. Councilman, 420 U.S. 738, 756-757 (1975). See generally L. Jaffe, Judicial Control of Administrative Action 437-438 (1965); Fuchs, Prerequisites to Judicial Review of Administrative Agency Action, 51 Ind. L. J. 817, 861-862 (1976); Comment, Exhaustion of State Administrative Remedies Under the Civil Rights Act, 8 Ind. L. Rev. 565 (1975).