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The relationship between the themes of federalism and individual rights is one that runs deep in American intellectual and social history. And it is one that has changed drastically with changes in the conditions and temperament of our society.

In the early days of the Republic, federalism was viewed as. a means of protecting individual rights from the tyranny of a unified central government. The Civil War brought with it a rejection of this guiding principle. State autonomy came to be seen not as a means to protect the individual from government abuse but rather as the primary source of that abuse. Unpopular or disadvantaged minorities, unable to protect themselves when isolated within the processes of states and localities, turned to the federal government and the federal courts with increasing frequency – and increasing success. The trend culminated in the r96o's: where individual civil rights were implicated, concern for the interests of states as such was sharply reduced.

In recent years, the pendulum seems to have swung in the opposite direction. The national mood has displayed increasing disenchantment with centralized power; the decisions of the Supreme Court have evidenced increasing solicitude for the interests and prerogatives of states. And inevitably, a sense of conflict has emerged between the developing recognition that states do mean something in a federal system and the belief that a primary role of the federal government – through its Constitution, laws, and courts – is to provide protection for civil rights against state abuse.

This contemporary conflict between federalism and civil rights is posed perhaps most sharply in lawsuits brought against state and local officials in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § I983. Section 1983, enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 to enforce the guarantees of the fourteenth amendment by providing a cause of action in federal court, lay dormant as a result of restrictive judicial construction until the Supreme Court's 1961 decision in Monroe v. Pape. In the succeeding decade and a half, litigation under the statute has burgeoned, but as the volume of 1983 litigation has expanded, so too have the calls for its restriction.

This Note will examine the enforcement of constitutional rights under section 1983 in light of the enhanced contemporary concern with state autonomy and integrity. In doing so, the goal is not only to suggest the ramifications of the concern with state interests on the 1983 action, but also to give some content to the vague contours of "Our Federalism."

Part II examines the history of section 1983 against the background of events and evolving theories of federalism that have shaped its development. The succeeding Parts deal with the product of that development. Part III focuses on the standards governing liability under section 1983 and the availability of damages and injunctive relief. Parts IV, V, and VI examine the judicially created doctrines which may restrict or foreclose the 1983 plaintiff's access to a federal forum: the abstention, exhaustion, and Younger doctrines. Even if it were no longer true – as it was when the Civil Rights Act of 1871 was passed and a choice of a federal forum for 1983 actions guaranteed – that state forums are generally less able or willing to enforce constitutional rights than their federal counterparts, forced resort to state remedies under one of these doctrines would burden or deprive the constitutional plaintiff of an opportunity to decide whether a particular state or federal forum is likely to prove more sympathetic to his claim. Finally, Part VII examines the application of res judicata principles to civil rights decisions in both state and federal courts.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Constitutional Law | Law