MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case presents for decision important questions regarding the applicability to the United States of the restrictions against stay of state court proceedings contained in 28 U. S. C. § 2283 and the propriety of the injunction decreed by the District Court and sustained by the Court of Appeals. Petitioner in 1953 had filed a petitory action in a Louisiana state court against respondent-mineral-lessees of the United States. In that action, a suit by one out of possession claiming title to, and possession of, immovables, petitioner sought to have itself declared owner of the mineral rights under land owned by the United States, and it also sought an accounting for oil and other minerals removed by respondent-lessees under their lease from the United States. Petitioner founded its claim on Louisiana Act No. 315 of 1940, La. Rev. Stat., 1950, § 9:5806, which, it alleged, made "imprescriptible" a reservation of mineral rights in a deed of December 21, 1938, to the United States by its predecessor in title.
At this point the United States, joining petitioner and other interested parties as defendants, brought the present
The District Court held that, since the United States was not a party to the state court suit, the title of the United States could be tried only in the federal court action and that an injunction against prosecution of the state proceedings should issue to protect its jurisdiction pending determination of the ownership of the property. 127 F.Supp. 439. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the preliminary injunction was proper because "the district court under the clear provisions of the statute. 28 U. S. C. § 1345, became vested with exclusive jurisdiction to determine the title of the United States to the mineral rights claimed by appellant." 224 F.2d 381, 383-384. Because of the presence of important and difficult questions of federal-state relations, questions
28 U. S. C. § 2283 provides:
It must first be decided whether this section applies to stays sought by the United States because different answers to this question will put different aspects on other issues in the case. An analogous problem was presented in United States v. United Mine Workers, 330 U.S. 258, where the Court held that the provisions of the Norris-LaGuardia Act, 47 Stat. 70, 29 U. S. C. § 101, that no federal court had jurisdiction, subject to qualifications, to issue an injunction in labor disputes to prohibit certain acts, did not apply to the United States. The Norris-LaGuardia Act, like 28 U. S. C. § 2283, effected, in general language, a limitation on the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Furthermore, since it was largely the diversity jurisdiction which spawned the substantive problems that the Norris-LaGuardia Act removed from the federal courts, the limitations on the federal courts imposed by the Norris-LaGuardia Act, like those of 28 U. S. C. § 2283, were in an area of federal-state relations calling for particular circumspection in adjudication.
In interpreting the general language of the Norris-LaGuardia Act, the Court relied heavily on "an old and well-known rule," albeit a rule of construction, "that statutes which in general terms divest pre-existing rights or privileges will not be applied to the sovereign without express words to that effect." 330 U. S., at 272.
In United Mine Workers, the Court did not rely entirely on the rule of construction because its reading of the Act as a whole and the legislative history supported the conclusion that the United States was not to be included. In this case, there is no legislative material to support or to gainsay the applicability of the rule of construction. There is, however, a persuasive reason why the federal court's power to stay state court proceedings might have been restricted when a private party was seeking the stay but not when the United States was seeking similar relief. The statute is designed to prevent conflict between federal and state courts. This policy is much more compelling when it is the litigation of private parties which threatens to draw the two judicial systems into conflict than when it is the United States which seeks a stay to prevent threatened irreparable injury to a
The question still remains whether the granting of an injunction was proper in the circumstances of this case. We start with one certainty. The suit in the federal court was the only one that could finally determine the basic issue in the litigation—whether the title of the United States to the mineral rights was affected by Louisiana Act No. 315 of 1940. The United States was not a party to the state suit and, under settled principles, title to land in possession of the United States under a claim of interest cannot be tried as against the United States by a suit against persons holding under the authority of the United States. See United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196. Although the state court might mould petitioner's
Petitioner relies heavily on United States v. Bank of New York & Trust Co., 296 U.S. 463. There, in a federal district court proceeding, the United States was claiming by assignment certain funds of three Russian insurance companies that were being held in the custody of a state court, in connection with the liquidation of the companies, subject to court orders concerning distribution to claimants under the state insurance laws. On the basis of this claim, the United States sought to enjoin distribution of the funds and to require payment of them to it. This Court, affirming dismissal of the complaints and denial of the injunction, held that the state court had obtained jurisdiction over the funds first and that the litigation should be resolved in that court. The Court also noted that there were numerous other claimants, indispensable parties, who had not been made parties to the federal court suit. In remitting the United States to the state court, the Court saw no "impairment of any rights" of the United States or "any sacrifice of its proper dignity as a sovereign." Id., at 480-481.
The situation in the present case is different. All the parties in the state court proceeding have been joined in the federal proceeding. Moreover, the Bank of New York case presented the more unusual situation where the United States, like any private claimant, made a claim against funds that it never possessed and that were in the hands of depositaries appointed by the state court. In this case, a private party is seeking by a state proceeding to obtain property currently in the hands of
One further aspect of the case remains to be considered. The District Court advanced this additional ground for its decision:
But the fact that the United States is not a party to the state court litigation does not mean that the federal court should initiate interpretation of a state statute. In fact, where questions of constitutionality are involved—and the Government contends that an application of the state statute adverse to its interests would be unconstitutional— our rule has been precisely the opposite: "as questions of federal constitutional power have become more
The Government contends that Act No. 315 of 1940 does not apply when the parties themselves have contracted for a reservation of specific duration and that if the statute is construed to apply to this situation, it would impair the obligation of the Government's contract. Petitioner disagrees. The Supreme Court of Louisiana has never considered the specific issue or even discussed generally the rationale of the statute, especially with reference to problems of constitutionality. The District Court recognized the importance of the statute in deciding this case; it also recognized that a problem of interpretation was involved, that the statute cannot be read by him who runs. What are the situations to which the statute is applicable? Is the statute merely declaratory of prior Louisiana law? What are the problems that it was designed to meet? The answers to these questions are, or may be, relevant. Before attempting to answer them and to decide their relation to the issues in the case, we think it advisable to have an interpretation, if possible, of the state statute by the only court that can interpret the statute with finality, the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Louisiana declaratory judgment procedure appears available to secure such an interpretation, La. Rev. Stat., 1950, 13:4231 et seq., and the United States of course may appear to urge its interpretation of the statute. See Stanley v. Schwalby, 147 U.S. 508, 512-513. It need hardly be added that the state courts in such a proceeding can decide definitively only
We therefore modify the judgment of the Court of Appeals to permit an interpretation of the state statute to be sought with every expedition in the state court in conformity with this opinion.
Modified and affirmed.
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, dissenting in part.
I agree that the state action was properly enjoined; and so I concur in the opinion of the Court to that extent. But I dissent from the direction to the District Court to hold the case while the parties repair to the state court to get an interpretation of the Louisiana statute around which this litigation turns.
That procedure is an advisable one where private parties question the constitutionality of a state statute. An authoritative construction of the state law may avoid the constitutional issue or put it in new perspective. See Spector Motor Co. v. McLaughlin, 323 U.S. 101, 104-105. In the Spector case, the plaintiff's claim was within the jurisdiction of the federal court solely because of the attack on the constitutionality of a state statute. Under 28 U. S. C. § 1331, the federal district court has jurisdiction where the matter in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional amount "and arises under the Constitution, laws or treaties of the United States." In litigation in the federal courts under that statute, the necessity of construing state law arises because of the federal court's duty to avoid if possible a federal constitutional question. Siler v. Louisville & Nashville R. Co., 213 U.S. 175. In the Spector case, then, matters of state law were only ancillary to the primary responsibility of the federal court to resolve the constitutional issues.
"Provided that at the termination of the ten (10) year period of reservation, if not extended, or at the termination of any extended period in case the operation has not been carried on for the number of days stated, the right to mine shall terminate, and complete fee in the land become vested in the United States.
"The reservation of the oil and mineral rights herein made for the original period of ten (10) years and for any extended period or periods in accordance with the above provisions shall not be affected by any subsequent conveyance of all or any of the aforementioned properties by the United States of America, but said mineral rights shall, subject to the conditions above . . . set forth, remain vested in the vendors."
Act No. 315 provides:". . . when land is acquired by conventional deed or contract, condemnation or expropriation proceedings by the United States of America, or any of its subdivisions or agencies, from any person, firm or corporation, and by the act of acquisition, verdict or judgment, oil, gas, and/or other minerals or royalties are reserved, or the land so acquired is by the act of acquisition conveyed subject to a prior sale or reservation of oil, gas and/or other minerals or royalties, still in force and effect, said rights so reserved or previously sold shall be imprescriptible." See also the prior Act No. 151 of 1938 providing that prescription should not run against a reservation of mineral rights in real estate acquired by the United States or the State of Louisiana.