of the Hughes' marriage. In the letter, Judge Russello questioned the application of the Bulletin Letter to the Hughes' circumstances and described a recusal arrangement to be implemented in the Hughes' situation. Judge Ciolino's Trial Court Administrator, Dr. Conrad Roncati, responded that the Bulletin Letter was applicable to the Hughes' situation and that "pending resolution of this matter the Clerk is to be recused from any matter involving the spouse in Municipal Court." The Hughes did not pursue any administrative appeal of this determination but instead filed the instant action in Federal Court. Following commencement of this suit, defendants agreed to withhold any procedural or administrative action against plaintiff Marie Williams Hughes pending a final decision by this Court. Upon agreement of all parties involved in this litigation, therefore, this Court's Opinion and Order is a final judgment on the merits of plaintiffs' application for injunctive and declaratory relief.
In their Complaint, plaintiffs allege that Bulletin Letter #5/6-77 directly and significantly interferes and infringes upon their constitutionally protected rights of privacy, family association and marriage in a manner that fails to advance a compelling state interest by narrowly tailored means. In addition, plaintiffs maintain that Bulletin Letter #5/6-77 violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by creating a classification that prohibits certain family relationships between Municipal Court Clerks and police officers, while allowing other family relationships of a similar nature in the same job categories. Plaintiffs also state a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for a deprivation of federal rights under color of state law.
Finally, plaintiffs allege that the terms of Bulletin Letter #5/6-77 violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1, et seq., which specifically prohibits discrimination based on "marital status", and their state constitutional rights under Article I, para. 1 of the New Jersey Constitution.
At the outset, defendants argue that this Court should abstain from hearing plaintiffs' claims based on the doctrine of abstention as set forth in Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman, 312 U.S. 496, 85 L. Ed. 971, 61 S. Ct. 643 (1941), and Burford v. Sun Oil Company, 319 U.S. 315, 87 L. Ed. 1424, 63 S. Ct. 1098 (1943).
In their view, plaintiffs must bring a state court action and ultimately seek the opinion of the state Supreme Court sitting in its adjudicative rather than its rule making capacity before filing for relief in this Court.
Abstention from the exercise of federal jurisdiction is the exception, not the rule. See Colorado River Water Cons. Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 813, 47 L. Ed. 2d 483, 96 S. Ct. 1236 (1976). Generally, federal courts should fully adjudicate claims that are properly presented and that are within the court's jurisdiction. Abstention can be justified only in exceptional circumstances presented "in a narrow range of special cases." United States v. Pittsburgh, 757 F.2d 43, 45 (3d Cir. 1985).
In general, Burford abstention is appropriate when a federal court is presented with highly complex and technical state regulatory schemes usually administered by specialized state regulatory agencies. See United Services Auto. Ass'n v. Muir, 792 F.2d 356, 364 (3d Cir. 1986), cert. denied sub nom Grode v. United Services Auto. Ass'n., 479 U.S. 1031, 93 L. Ed. 2d 832, 107 S. Ct. 877 (1987). In Burford itself, the federal court was required to interpret state regulations governing oil and gas conservation and the drilling of wells. See 319 U.S. at 318. Because federal intervention would likely have disrupted the specialized system for the formation of policy and the determination of cases developed by the state, the Supreme Court agreed that abstention was appropriate. See 319 U.S. at 334.
Burford abstention is clearly unwarranted on the facts before the Court. This case involves neither a complex scheme of state regulations nor a state body specially created to interpret complex regulations. In fact, the defendants note in their papers that there is no doubt concerning the application of the Bulletin Letter to the facts of this case, or that it requires Marie Hughes' disqualification from continued employment as Municipal Court Clerk. Because the facts presented in this case are clearly distinguishable from Burford and its progeny, this Court concludes that abstention under the Burford doctrine is inappropriate.
The Pullman abstention doctrine requires that a federal court abstain from exercising its jurisdiction "when difficult and unsettled questions of state law must be resolved before a substantial federal question can be decided." See Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229, 236, 81 L. Ed. 2d 186, 104 S. Ct. 2321 (1984). For Pullman to apply, the state statute must be "obviously susceptible of a limiting construction" and "a bare, though unlikely, possibility that state courts might render adjudication of the federal question unnecessary" is insufficient. Id. at 237 (emphasis in original).
In the instant case, defendants can point to no uncertain or novel issue of state law that would moot plaintiffs' constitutional claim or narrow the scope of the issues presented. To the contrary, the provisions of the Bulletin Letter are clear and straightforward: service as a municipal court clerk or deputy court clerk is precluded for anyone with a specific close family relative serving on the police force of the same municipality.
This Court need not look to the state courts for an authoritative construction of the regulation. See National City Lines, Inc. v. LLC Corp., 687 F.2d 1122, 1126 (8th Cir. 1982); Schwartz v. Judicial Retirement System of New Jersey, 584 F. Supp. 711, 717-18 (D.N.J. 1984). As a result, abstention under the Pullman doctrine is similarly inappropriate in the instant case. Therefore, this Court will consider the merits of plaintiffs' claims for injunctive and declaratory relief.
Plaintiffs claim that the Bulletin Letter violates their rights under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The equal protection clause was intended as a restriction on state action inconsistent with basic constitutional principals. See Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 206, 72 L. Ed. 2d 786, 102 S. Ct. 2382 (1982). Thus, a regulation is presumptively invalid if it infringes on a fundamental right or disadvantages a suspect class. See id. In such cases, the regulation is subject to strict scrutiny and the state must show that a compelling interest supports the classification and that no less restrictive alternative is available. See id. at 217. In cases involving neither a fundamental right nor a suspect class, the classification need only be rationally related to a legitimate state interest. See id. at 217-18.
Plaintiffs also allege that the Bulletin Letter violates their right of substantive due process implicit in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The standards employed for substantive due process analysis are similar to those employed under equal protection. In general, a state statute does not violate substantive due process if that statute reasonably relates to a legitimate legislative purpose and is not arbitrary or discriminatory. See Nebbia v. New York, 291 U.S. 502, 537, 78 L. Ed. 940, 54 S. Ct. 505 (1934). However, in cases involving a "fundamental right" the Court applies a stricter standard of scrutiny requiring that the fundamental right not be abridged absent a compelling state interest. See Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 154, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, 93 S. Ct. 705 (1973).
The basis for plaintiffs' arguments is that the Bulletin Letter interferes with their fundamental right to marry. The text of the United States Constitution does not specifically mention the right to marry. However, the United States Supreme Court has recognized that this right is incorporated in the fundamental right of privacy protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. See Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 399, 67 L. Ed. 1042, 43 S. Ct. 625 (1923). In Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 18 L. Ed. 2d 1010, 87 S. Ct. 1817 (1967), the Supreme Court concluded that "the freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to an orderly pursuit of happiness by free men." 388 U.S. at 12; see also Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur, 414 U.S. 632, 639, 39 L. Ed. 2d 52, 94 S. Ct. 791 (1974) ("this Court has long recognized that freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life is one of the liberties protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment"); Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 486, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510, 85 S. Ct. 1678 (1965) (marriage is a "right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights"). Recently, the Supreme Court in Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 374, 54 L. Ed. 2d 618, 98 S. Ct. 673 (1978), reaffirmed the fundamental nature of the right to marry in our society, stating
it is not surprising that the decision to marry has been placed on the same level of importance as decisions relating to procreation, child birth, child rearing, and family relationship. . . . It would make little sense to recognize a right of privacy with respect to other matters of family life and not with respect to the decision to enter the relationship that is the foundation of the family in our society.